If you want people to read your writing, it is inevitable that people will actually have to read your writing … Stating the obvious, I know, and yet so often we write in isolation, perfecting every comma of a manuscript no one has seen.
And yet the process of seeking feedback, while infinitely valuable, can leave us feeling vulnerable, exposed to our creative core. And while feedback can be gold, working out what to take on board and how, and what is less important (or even misguided) is crucial to delivering a work of creative integrity, a unique expression of its creator.
While feedback can be gold, working out what to take on board and how, and what is less important (or even misguided) is crucial to delivering a work of creative integrity, a unique expression of its creator.
I have been extremely lucky while writing and editing my current WIP to have been encouraged and supported by both gifted writers and avid readers who have been so very generous with their time, kind, patient, insightful, astute, intelligent and sincere.
Keeping in mind my own positive experience, I have been reflecting on what has worked for me during the (quite frankly terrifying but also exciting) experience of opening my WIP up to input from others, and indeed, making the most of feedback offered on any venture or project.
Taking on board creative feedback:
Be open to both positive and negative feedback.
I have a habit (as many of us do) of focusing on what didn’t work so well, to the point of not hearing what people thought was good. What does work is equally valuable so that you know what the strengths are, so that you can bring them out further, and so you know what not to lose and why … especially if conflicting opinions arise. Even neutral feedback can be worth attention to improve your WIP.
Be curious (not defensive).
Even accurate and constructive comments can be crushingly disappointing. Listen carefully and ask questions so that you can better understand the feedback.
Do you know what made you feel that way?
Can you put your finger on why?
Do you have any idea what might work better?
How do you suggest I approach it differently?
Look for underlying issues.
Sometimes feedback doesn’t totally gel because the problem is a symptom of another issue. I find this particularly when I am offered solutions that don’t sit right. (see 2 – if you have fully explored the feedback you will have a better chance of working out what needs to be resolved.)
Especially listen to repeated themes.
One person might be wrong, but if you hear something similar from multiple people, that is a strong sign you need to pay close attention. Be open to the different ways this feedback may manifest in variations on the theme.
Let advice percolate.
The tendency is often to rush in excitedly to fix things. All good for a straight-forward fix.
But for more major changes, think them over, sleep on the suggestions (more than once if needed) and re-visit the feedback. Let your subconscious do some of the work. If still unsure, ask more questions to further clarify or run past other reviewers what they think.
Having the gift of another’s perspective to help guide you is incredibly precious. (For more on excitement as a strategy in writing see my post “Is excitement a new strategy for writers?”
Give it a go.
Even if you aren’t sure, test it out. For example, for writing:
- Copy and paste a chapter into a new document and have a play – liberally delete, add to or switch around.
- Print that section, mark up the problem areas and scrawl over it with your ideas.
- Pick up a pen and scribble out a new version for fun.
No harm done if it was better before, you can go back to your earlier version more confident that you have explored other options. But you may be blown away by what you discover.
Seek further feedback on changes.
The pendulum can swing too far the other way. Or maybe one change creates or exposes another problem. Or maybe you didn’t quite nail it.
Log all feedback.
As your WIP evolves, it can be useful to revisit feedback on earlier versions to see if on reconsideration and after further gestation, you come up with additional ideas.
Also keep old versions of your WIP in case you change your mind and want to reinstate something or even just revisit to remind yourself. An accomplished writer friend, Louise Allan , suggests keeping deleted scenes in case you decide to repurpose them into another body of work – what a great idea!
Identify when to dismiss feedback.
The ideas above are geared towards working with feedback from people who have valuable insights. Sometimes you will decide well-intended feedback doesn’t gel and that’s okay. It is your creative work, not theirs.
If feedback (invited or otherwise) is destructive, it can be excruciating, especially if from someone you care(d) about or trust(ed).
DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT DESTROY YOUR WORK. And DO NOT let negative feedback destroy you.
You will still need to deal with your own reaction to the feedback and may still find some of these tips helpful in gleaning something useful from what they have said, or in evaluating their feedback to determine that it is not helpful.
And it is all the more important to be open to the feedback of those who can offer valuable input, as this will give you perspective when faced with those who shoot down your creative development.
Without exploring the logistics of who to ask for feedback, when or how, these are some of my reflections on strategies that have helped me to handle feedback.
Do you think any of these tips are (or might be) helpful?
Do you have any other useful tips that you’d like to share?
Please feel free to comment below.
With best wishes for your creative health and that of our community.
P.S. If you’d like to be sure to catch my next post, please sign up to follow by email (your email address will be kept private and will not be spammed). You can also follow me on Twitter (@JacquieGS) and Facebook.
© 2016 Jacquie Garton-Smith
Fantastic post, Jac—I agree with every point you’ve made. I’m glad you brought up #10, as that’s not always mentioned and negative feedback has the potential to be crushing. I know of writers who have canned projects based on one person’s criticism of a very early draft, when the feedback might not be correct, and even if it is, it’s amazing what editing can do. Thanks for this.
Thanks Louise – so glad you agree. We are so vulnerable when we put ourselves out there, especially at the beginning.
We all know people have different tastes and preferences and that’s okay.
My experience has been so positive – even when feedback has been tough to take, it has been constructively offered and there has been lots I can learn from it. There have been components I haven’t taken on per se as they didn’t gel for me, but other aspects have and often I have found something else that I thought addressed the problem. Occasionally I have had to say “Meh, I don’t agree,” after careful thought, and push on.
It is so sad to think that someone might give up after their creative project has been shot down. We don’t start a sport expecting to play at top level immediately (or if you have my sporting ability, ever!). Why would creativity be any different? We need to practice and perfect – you are so right about editing!
Thank you much for all your wisdom and support x
Great post J. The point of taking in positive feedback particularly caught my attention. We tend to look at what needs fixing and give less attention to the bits that work.
Thanks Irene. I’m glad that stood out as like you, I think hearing the positives has huge value.
Thank you for being one of those who has been so positive in your feedback and helped me understand the strengths of my writing, as well as providing your sage input on what needs to change in the kindest possible way! x
Wise words, as always, Jacquie. I believe we’re hard-wired to focus on the negative – it’s something to do with how we survived back when we were cave-people! Our brains perhaps need to catch up with the rest of evolution 😉
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever taken is ‘don’t take things personally’; others’ criticism is often about their own insecurities so it’s worth bearing that in mind when they’re critiquing our work.
I’ve so far only ever taken two people up on their offer to read my work. That was last year and I’m still waiting for their comments! Their silence is more ominous than out and out disapproval.
Ultimately I suppose we have to ensure our egos are sufficiently healthy to take another’s opinion with a pinch of salt!
Fabulous points all, Louise.
So valuable to understand that some of the programming that drives us comes from a different time when day to day survival relied on different skills!
And you are so right that criticism can be the result of people’s own insecurities. We all have insecurities of course 🙂 Which makes me value even more those who can either separate themselves from their own biases, or acknowledge them, and give constructive feedback.
Ouch. Silence is a particularly tricky one to interpret – it can be for all kinds of reasons. It can be helpful to define some expectations before handing a project over, but won’t always avoid this. Going out more widely can also help, scary as it is, because someone will respond and often those who we have less invested relationships with come up with the best advice.
Great to hear from you – thanks Louise x
Yes, #10! I actually love feedback, good or bad. Even when my piece/chapter gets shredded, I feel like it’s only helping me to make my writing better. But I did find on my full-length manuscript that I lost some of my voice in some places, and so I adopted #10 and ignored some of the feedback so as to retain my voice. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut!
How timely, Laura! Editing one of my manuscripts now and even though I wrote that, was doubting myself for not taking a few suggestions on board because of impact on the characters’ voices and up popped your comment. Amended everything else though so hugely valuable feedback. Stellar timing to remind me – thank you!