One of the best gifts a person can give you as a writer is constructive, thoughtful feedback on your work. None of my books would be what they are without the insightful comments of a few trusted readers and editors, and my writing would not be what it is today without having grappled with the feedback I received in the workshops I participated in both before and during my MFA at Bennington. So here are some tips for getting the most out of getting feedback.
1. You need feedback.
No matter how much you love your story/novel/brain-baby and think it is perfection on paper, you must send it out into the world to be picked apart by kind, thoughtful friends and strangers. Trust me, your work can only be made better by letting someone else read and give you comments on it. Readers not only bring fresh eyes to your writing, but even better, fresh brains! (Cue zombies…)
I always need to get away from my work so that I can think critically about it, but one thing I can never do is get entirely away from myself. This is where my readers come in. When my readers read my novel draft, they have no idea what I was trying to say, and so, if I’m not saying it, they will be completely confused and can let me know that I’ve lost them. I can’t read my book with that perspective—I always have some idea of what I was trying to say, at least at the point where I’m looking to share it with others. I need their fresh brains to help me get what I intended down on the page.
2. Choose your readers wisely.
You don’t want just anyone giving you feedback. Be sure that you respect the opinion of the person you’re getting feedback from. If it’s a teacher or fellow writer, read her work and get to know her style. Be sure you are on the same page as to what constitutes “good writing.” If it’s a friend, make sure you actually want them to give you feedback. Sometimes, you don’t want to hear criticism from a friend, and in that case, maybe you want to find a writer’s group or join a class where comments won’t feel so personal or where the stakes won’t be quite so high.
3. Not all feedback is good feedback.
Someone telling you that he didn’t like your story or your writing is perhaps the least helpful kind of feedback, even if he’s being truthful. Not only do you feel like crap, you have no idea what to do to improve your story so that the person or others might eventually like the story. If the giver of this kind of feedback can’t back up his comment with specifics, find a better reader for your work.
I don’t think the converse is true, though. Sometimes, I really need to hear that someone liked my story, and that’s it. No other comment, just, This is great. I liked reading it. Thanks for sharing it. And that’s cool too, so long as I tell the reader up front that I’m just looking for a “smell test” read: Does this stink?
4. You need different feedback at different times.
The type of feedback you’re looking for is going to be different at different stages of your writing process. Line edits on a first draft—probably not that helpful. So help your readers help you. Let them know that what they’re reading is a first draft and that you’re looking for big picture comments—is this story working? Are these characters compelling? Is this scene too short? Is this the wrong ending? If it’s a later draft, push for line edits and really get into it with the prose—is this line of dialogue falling flat? Is this the best way to end the last paragraph in the chapter? Is this metaphor lame?
5. Sometimes you’re going to have to ignore some of the feedback.
Once the feedback starts rolling in, sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed. Some comments don’t jive with my vision for my work; some comments don’t jive with others on the same passage. At that point, I have to think critically about the feedback—is everyone having a problem, albeit a different problem, with the same scene? If so, I had better take a long, hard look at it and figure out why people are getting stuck there. Are some people just wishing I was writing a different story? If so, those comments are less helpful because those readers aren’t engaging with my story, they’re trying to make it into something else.
When I get to this point of critical cacophony, I turn to what I’ve learned from critically reading other writers’ works. Having read and thought about a bunch of other people’s writing, I have a good idea of what I consider to be good writing. (I talked about this in detail in my guest blog on Writer’s Digest.) This understanding helps me to weigh the feedback that I get from my readers, select what is most helpful from it, and to make good edits on my draft as a result.
Of course the corollary to this rule is that you can ignore what feedback you feel is unhelpful…unless that feedback is coming from your editor. I feel very lucky that I have had wonderful editorial experiences. Both of my editors were/are great about asking questions and pushing me to explore my first drafts, pointing me to places where things could be better and challenging me to write the best possible book. With No Easy Way Out, this meant rewriting the whole draft from a blank page, but even then, my editor’s comments on the original draft helped me to make the next one so much better.
So, go out and get feedback! And thank you to everyone who has been so kind as to share their thoughts on my work with me. I so needed your insights, and I am grateful to have been given the gift of your feedback.
There’s still time to enter the GIVEAWAY! Leave a comment on my April 2nd blog post for a chance to win copes of all my books and a galley of No Easy Way Out! The giveaway closes on Friday! Winners will be announced on Monday, April 22nd!
What a great post… it’s all so true. #3 is a killer. For the RWA contest I entered recently, I got back comments from each of the three judges who’d read my entry. One was complimentary but incredibly helpful–she pointed out a significant weakness that I think I always knew in the back of my mind was a problem, and her comments really helped me improve the book. The second judge essentially said, “your writing is adept but the story doesn’t interest me and the characters are flat.” No ideas for improvement. So, not just negative feedback, but useless negative feedback. And then the third judge was like, “this is so good I literally can’t think of anything you should do to improve it.” Which, while flattering, was not especially helpful, either!