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How to Handle Feedback on Our Writing

Any writer serious about publication NEEDS to get feedback on his or her writing in one form or another. And let’s face it, “feedback” usually translates into “painful revelations about the true reality of our writing skill.”

As much as we like accolades about how we’re on our way to becoming a NYT Best Seller, those kinds of comments won’t help us improve.

And if we happen to be getting feedback from someone that’s more positive than negative, most likely we need to find another critique partner. No matter where we’re at in our writing journeys, we’ll always have a lot of room for improvement, and if we're not getting feedback that painfully stretches us, what good is it?

Only brutal honesty can help us grow—the kind of feedback that doesn’t tip-toe around our sensitive feelings, doesn’t worry about what we think, and tells us like it is. That’s what we all need.

Published author, Cheryl Wyatt, commented on the last post and she said this: "I once polled about 100 editors and agents (CBA & ABA) about how far they read before they KNOW. Close to 97% of them said they know by page 10. Over 50% of them know by the end of page 1." We would be wise to get critical feedback (at least on the beginnings of our books) before we send them to agents and editors.

As you know, I’ve been judging contest entries this month. For $35, the entrants are getting three different judge’s feedback on one entry. That’s a LOT of feedback. Of course some judges may offer less feeback than others. Still, I think that’s a pretty good price to pay to get three critiques.

Overall, a national contest with strong judges (i.e. published authors, freelance editors, award winners), is one of the best ways to get honest feedback. Usually everything is anonymous, so the judges can tell-it-like-it-is without worrying about offending the writer.

Of course there are other ways to get feedback. And here’s how I would rank them in order of credibility, knowledge, and helpfulness to a writer’s career. (Starting with least helpful and going to most helpful):

Personal family members
Non-writing friends
Writing friends below your skill level
Writing friends at your skill level or above
Judges in a contest
Published Authors
Freelance editors
Agents
In-house editors

The list is a generalization and there will be blending of roles and unique situations for various writers. But the point is this: The more qualified the feedback, the harder it will be and the more painful to accept.

So how should we accept feedback?

1. Know the source and give weight accordingly. We would obviously need to give more weight to a contest judge over writing friends. And we would definitely need to give more consideration to the critique of freelance editor over family.

2. Develop thicker skin. If we ever hope to survive being the reciprocate of unbiased and truthful feedback, that means we have to toughen up. We have to get ourselves into the mindset that says, “It’s nothing personal. It’s just part of the job.”

3. Always take serious consideration of comments concerning writing basics. That would include comments about inconsistent POV (point of view), clichés (including overused phrases, trite characters, and familiar plots), lack of sensory details, too much narration/backstory, stilted dialogue, lack of conflict/tension, unclear motivations, telling vs. showing, etc.

4. Weigh opinions about the story itself more carefully. Sometimes voice, plot development, and genre nuances are more subjective. However, if several people tell us the same thing, then we would be wise to take their advice more seriously.

5. Realize honesty is the best policy. We need to hear the truth, and the truth isn't always easy to hear. Maybe the feedback isn't as gracious as we'd like. Maybe it's even downright hurtful. Simon Cowell isn't easy on Idol contestants. His critiques are often painfully honest. But what helps us more: fudging to spare hurt feelings or honesty that stings? Which will move a writer closer to publication?

In summary, I really liked what Penny C. Sansevieri said last week in her article Why (Some) Authors Fail: Look, I know not everyone is going to be spot-on with their feedback, but take from it what you can and move on -- better yourself, better your writing. Feedback is a crucial part to any writer's career. If someone who is more knowledgeable than you. . . is willing to give you feedback you should listen. Really. In a room of one hundred authors I can pick out the successful ones. You know who they are? They are the ones who aren't so wrapped up in their egos that they aren't willing to listen and learn.

What about you? How do you handle feedback? Are you willing to listen and learn? Are your critiques painful enough, or do you need to start looking for someone to be more honest?


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