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
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?


  1. I recently got back four judged scores from a contest I entered. 3 of the judges were published in romance, one was clearly trained and new her business. I was also a judge in that contest and knew the guidelines. I take constructive critique very well, but one of the judges was hostile, personal and cruel in her comments. She gave me the lowest score I have ever received in my writing journey. And she gave me no constructive feedback about how SHE would fix the writing (I assume she as it was a romance contest). The judge was a published romance author. Had that been my first contest, it might have stopped me (she also did NOT follow the guidelines given by the coordinator). The other three judges gave me very high scores (I missed finaling by one point--in a group of 3 Golden Heart finalists and it was my first attempt to write the genre). One of the published romance judges took the time to instill her fixes in my work and was very encouraging.

    I can accept constructive and honest critique, not harsh and mean-spirited harpy critique. Not all contest judges are created equal. I reported the judge. She should not get her paws on a newbies MS.

    Yes, we do have to develop a thick skin. But we also have to know what critique is truly valuable to us as writers. I was pleased to see that the direction my story is taking was validated by the positive AND the negative feedback/issues the three normal judges raised. They also confirmed three judges' scores in another contest I had entered.

    Thank you for judging the contest. I bet you are one of the gem judges who really makes a difference in a writer's life regardless of where she/he is on her writing journey.

  2. I usually react to constructive critisism like this.....

    1. At first, I'm reading it going, "This person just doesn't get me or my writing." And usually my hands are in my hair and I'm sort of glaring at the screen.

    2. Despair starts to set in. I think, "Oh my goodness, she's right and I don't have the skill or the energy to fix this.

    3. I go for a walk, or a run, or I just go to sleep.

    4. A slow feeling of energy starts to accumulate until I get to this point where I sit in front of my comp and fix what needs fixing.

    5. After it's fixed, I'm totally pumped b/c I know my story is better. I have confidence that I can do this again and again. Oh, and I fall back in love with my critique partners. :)

  3. Great post, Jody - thanks.

    I used to lap up all the good things people said about my writing, and even though I still like to hear it, I'm less inclined to believe every bit of it - especially when sometimes I know the writing needs work. I really want to know the truth, and I appreciate those who take the time to tell me and help me improve. It's hard to accept sometimes but once you've got over the initial pinpricks you can help make your story that much stronger.

  4. Great advice - I think it's important to schedule time for feedback, so critique groups work well for that. That way you are prepared that you'll hear all the ways your novel can be tweaked to make it perfect and it's not a constant unexpected buzz kill.

  5. I really like your question "If we're not getting feedback that painfully stretches us, what good is it?" Thank you. This sentence gives value to true critiques. I can appreciate that and want that. Like you said, it's the only way to grow in our craft. That's what I want.

    Great post.

  6. Great post, Jody!

    I think I handle feedback pretty well, although I'm a "discusser" as talking through things helps me, and some tend to think I'm arguing. ha! Me??? Argue????

    A couple things though (and I'm discussing here...) I think it's important to get feedback from more than one person. Writing is subjective, sometimes even the mechanics of it... as some, especially contest judges, critique with strict adherence to the "rules" instead of a subjective eye to whether that adverb really works there (just an example.)

    Are my critiques painful enough? I think they are. I'm sure they'll get more painful when an in-house editor picks it up (ahhh, someday!)

  7. This is a great post. When people get contracts without getting feedback first, I think they're able to do something that I can't, so I question my writing prowess.

    But most of us need to hear about our work from a variety of sources. I like your list of possible readers.

    Right now, I'm showing my manuscript to a number of readers, and I hope the draft becomes that much stronger for the feedback.

  8. I let it sting for a nanosecond (which sometimes translates as twenty-eight minutes) and then I get back to work. ;)

    Have a great weekend.
    ~ Wendy

  9. I've learned not to debate anything that someone critiques me on. I let it settle and then look at it again. They are usually right about it. It always makes my writing better. Do I love to hear it at first? No way--it's a slight stab at first but then the pain goes away and it really does help.

    My worst fear is that my critiquers will try to be too nice and not really tell me if it is awful. Cause if they don't, it will hurt me worse in the future if I think I have a great work, submit it and then find out how bad it is by an even more professional. Ouch!

  10. Great list. I have learned that if I am arguing a point with one of my beta readers over my writing then they are probably right and I just don't want to hear it :)

    I love brutal honesty. It is what makes my writing grow.

  11. I don't think my writing would be where it is with receiving feedback. It hasn't always been easy to hear - esp. at the beginning! And some of the feedback back then I couldn't grasp until later. But now, receiving feedback is a gem I look forward to finding because I hope to improve my work in ways I couldn't before.

  12. Jody,
    Good points. I've learned (the hard way--like most lessons in life) to divide critiques and suggestions into two classes, after taking careful note of the qualifications of the person making them.

    Those that deal with writing basics (POV, passive voice, clarity of expression) I try to incorporate into a revision. But suggestions that I make a major change in story arc or characters I mull over long and hard before either accepting or rejecting.

    The biggest mistake one can make, though, is never listening.

  13. I'm always so grateful for an honest read. Better now than later.

    A good critique equips me to make my work shine.

  14. Hi, I'm new here. But I wanted to say how encouraged I am by this post. The fear of feedback and the reality of my VERY thin skin has held me back from pursuing my writing further than my blog. Thanks to all of you for the great comments! It seems the only way to thicken the skin is to put yourself out there.

  15. Great thoughts this morning, everyone!! Thank you for sharing so openly about the pain critiquing can bring, but also how much you've grown from it!

    (And welcome AnnieLaurie and everyone else new!)

  16. Timely post for me as I mull over some writing advice and decide which way to go. Not a fun time, but necessary!

  17. I was just thinking of this last night, and I completely agree.

    I give honest feedback. I focus less on grammar issues than I do on overall feedback. The great thing about critiquing is that I learn in the process.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  18. Great post and oh, so true. Great advice for all writers . . . no matter the years writing, or the stage of the journey.

  19. This is such a good resource. Thanks so much. Have a good weekend:)

  20. You're always so helpful, Jody.

    I probably take sincere feedback pretty good. Fellow writers who feedback me, I don't get hostile or defensive. I know them to be intelligent, creative people, and if they're going to help me be better, then I LOVE THEM. The off remark of my writing by someone who isn't a peer, however, I don't value much, whether good or bad. Readers have loads of opinions (as I do, too) so if they don't like something, it's an opinion. If a beta doesn't like something, then I need to evaluate what I've done.

  21. I think receiving criticism is hard for all of us. For me, in depends on how it is given. It's like how tone of voice matters in a conversation. I can hear it better if I know the person is coming from a caring, helpful place. But I've learned to develop a thicker skin because not everyone has great communication skills.

  22. Great post, Jody. This is well-written and exactly what I need to keep in mind lately (since I'm waiting for my short story to come back from my fellow workshoppers). The class was perhaps a little surprised when I made the comment that they can feel free to be brutally honest, but this is a concept I completely agree with. I want my writing to be the best it can be, and I can't improve things if I don't know the mistakes are there. You're so right in that we have to have truly thick skin. It's not personal (hopefully), and if you can take at least something positive from a critique, then it's worthwhile.

  23. My CP and I have learned how important it is to be brutally honest. We've both received revision notes from publishing professionals, so we know how in-depth they can be. Because we want to help one another as much as possible before we send future work out, we're willing to say what needs to be said, even though we know it may sting at first. We'd rather hear the constructive criticism from our CP than from our agents or an editor.

    My CP and I also note what works, which I think is important. Knowing our strengths helps. It can be easy to focus on all the things we need to improve and get discouraged. Offering positives with the negatives helps us maintain a healthy perspective.

    When I judge a contest entry, I strive for this balance as well. Even a brand new writer has strengths, which I like to point out. My goal is to identify areas needing improvement, which I do, but I like to temper my feedback with a few "smilely face" comments.

  24. This is some great information, Jody. And I love what Katie said on how she handles a tough critique.

    Hearing constructive criticism is very difficult. But it comes with any job you do if you expect to improve. The problem with writing is it's so personal to the writer. Having others edit my writing has been the single most important thing I've done since I began this journey. I believe strongly that we cannot travel this journey alone. We need lots of help.

    One specific thing I've learned when reading an editor/critique partner's notes - don't ignore the positive comments. It's easy to only hear the bad stuff, b/c it feeds a writer's self-doubt, but we must also listen to the good stuff - the encouragement, because it's those comments that will give us the energy we need to fix the bad stuff.

  25. I'm LOL at Katie's comments, not only do we follow much the same pattern re our response to critiques, but I'm glad she still loves me after she gets crits from me!

  26. The nature of constructive criticism is that it is meant to be helpful. Everyone will have an opinion about how "good" a story is but opinions by themselves aren't helpful, especially if they're negative.

    However, when we ask for a critique we open ourselves to a learning experience and I believe we have to expect both positive and negative reactions.

    I think getting multiple critiques is useful because when you strip away the individual opinions you find the elements that consistently show up and those are the ones that we need to work on.

    On the other side of the coin, I like to know how experienced a writer is before I provide a critique. Being brutally honest with a thin-skinned newbie is unkind, but it may be exactly what the soon-to-be-published writer wants.

  27. This was such a great post Jody. You are on fire. I swear, every post you write is a must-read.

    I think my biggest strength might be that I know I don't know what I'm doing. When my agent gives me notes I take the VERY SERIOUSLY. When my writing group gives me notes I take them VERY SERIOUSLY. I learn more with every critique I get and hopefully someday I will figure out what I'm doing!

    I also know that I am WAY more likely to offer honest notes on things I beta read if I'm not worried about hurting the writer's feelings. It's crucial to develop a thick skin!

  28. Terrific post, Jody - I always learn so much from your wisdom and insight. I will definitely keep this advice in mind, knowing that I need to develop a thick skin!

  29. I love how your posts always add value in unexpected ways. For instance, we've all read a million articles/posts on handling critiques. But the way you come in with the feedback about contest judges & then provide the critique hierarchy makes this post totally unique & informative.

    Thanks again for the insights.

  30. Honest critiques from people in the biz (pubbed writers, writers not-yet-but-soon-to-be-pubbed) helped me tremendously.

    One thing I always suggest people do before I critique their work is to READ MY STUFF -- not to critique it for me, but just so that they have a feel for how I write.

    If they think my writing stinks, if they wonder how I ever got pubbed, then they won't respect what I have to say.

  31. If you can't take any negative criticism then you should hide yourself away from the world. If no body every pointed out a mistake it would never be fixed. Just because you don't like it doesn't mean its bad. I tried to give an author with a low writing skill some help and I was suddenly the bad guy!--actually girl. Feedback is a part of life, take the good with the bad and do the best you can.

  32. I really liked your hierarchy of helpfulness. I learned the hard way that people who don't write are not going to be able to give me the kind of constructive criticism I need. They can tell me that they are bored, or didn't like a character, but they can't break the craft apart to tell me why. Great post!

  33. Interesting post. You are right on the money when you say we need honest feedback rather than placating compliments. I like here nice things, but it frustrates the heck out of me to get something back that says it's perfect.

    I've never been in a contest before, so I don't know how valuable those critiques can be, but I feel so fortunate with my writing group. There are seven of us, a mix between published and soon-to-be-published writers, and every one of them knows their stuff. And since they see the raw work, their critiques are often more then my editors.

    I love their suggestions, though, because they have helped me transform my work from mediocre to something so much better. I'm working through some critiques and rewriting right now and it's so exciting! And since there are 6 others, if they all say something doesn't work, I have to listen! :)

  34. I love your posts. I've been here with you a long time now.. wow! A year! Anyway...

    I have a revision problem. I'm TOO thick skinned. TOO open to ideas. I've found that I'll take a hard look and often agree too soon with whatever anyone has said. This leads to mass confusion. For example, I'll have someone say, "Do you really need this character? Don't you think he/she is peripheral?" And I'll think "YES!!! Of course! That's the problem!... and write out the character. AND THEN another reader will read a newer version and say.."HEY? Where's that great character.... I miss him!"

    Sometimes I wish I wasn't so excited to change my work. But I look at all critique as an opportunity to make everything better. That's how I read for others as well. A story can ALWAYS get better. And that's what we want, right? XO S

  35. I used to be so shy and I loved writing because I could do it in isolation. I didn't want anyone reading my work. Then I decided I loved to write so much that I began to want to share it. Family and friends only ever said nice things about it. They wanted to encourage me. Then I found some people at Uni who were willing to tell me the truth and my writing improved so much because of it.

  36. Hi Jody -

    With Genesis feedback around the corner, this is a timely post. I hope the judges in my category are as wise and kind as you. :)


  37. Hi Jody, I came to your blog via your Twitter comment retweet. I belong to a critique group that falls into your category 'Writing friends at/above my skill level' in that they're all well published. What amazes me is that I can take a piece of WIP to the meeting, feeling confident that it's good. They then give me their honest opinions and I see at once where the weaknesses are. I understand why I need to make changes and what changes I need to make. Why can't I see that for myself?

  38. Great question, Rosalind! And I think most of us can relate. We just don't have the objectivity to seeing our own work. In a previous post I likened it to a theater production. We writers are on the stage, directing the characters, queing them, getting the Acts into the appropriate places, etc. Our perspective is from the stage and we just can't see everything all at the same time. We need someone sitting in the audience to give us the big picture of how the production is really working (preferably someone with knowledge and expertise). Their perspective is different from ours and so criticial.

  39. Thanks for another juicy, thought-provoking post!

    I recently judged a contest and one of the thoughts I came away with afterward was how much I liked having to think about all the different elements of the story--whether or not I noticed them while I was reading. I blogged about that afterward as a possible methodology for critiquing, but haven't implemented it so far. After reading this post, I am even more determined to do so.

    What I find is that it's always easier to "hear" feedback when there is positive mixed in with the negative, and especially if there is positive before the negative. But I also discount feedback if there is too much positive.

    I wonder if creating a form that your critique partners have to go through would help solicit deserved praise as well as suggested areas for improvment. Does anyone use one with their critique group?

  40. I actually have mixed feelings about your advice this time. For myself at this point in my writing career, I agree completely. I'm ready for clear eyes with clear understanding of my work and want to hear the cleanest truth possible - no matter how hard it may be to hear.

    I have problems with the word "brutal" or any approach that is that harsh for the simple reason that it feels, well, brutal.

    As a teacher of writing, I believe strongly that a more positive approach is essential with the tender work of tender new writers. Too much negativity too soon can shut a writer down for good. That doesn't mean no feedback is ever given for improvement, but it does mean that feedback is given respectfully and carefully and with clear examples how to improve.

    As always, a thought provoking post.

  41. Hi Deb,

    I think that you're right about newbie writers, or young writers (children & youth). My daughters are both writing mysteries and I NEVER correct their work. At this point, they need the freedom to create and enjoy just making up whatever they want. I read what they write when they ask me, but I ONLY encourage them. I would probably do the same thing for any new writer.

    However, when a writer begins to get serious about publication, then it's time for the reality check. If they think they want to put their work "out there" for agents and editors to look at, then in my opinion they need to have someone else give them that "brutal" feedback first. I'd personally much rather have someone like a crit partner or contest judge tell me what I need to work on FIRST, before I sent the manuscript to an agent.

    Hope that makes sense, Deb! Thanks for clarifying that there is indeed an early stage, where we can crush a writer's spirit. We have to know WHEN the right time is to give the challenging feedback. If someone's ready to query, then they have to be ready to get that hard critique too.

  42. I used to get so frustrated in high school and especially in college. I usually got A's on essays, research papers, etc. I never got any feedback besides "Well written!" I guess it's because, compared to some of my classmates, my writing skills were somewhat more developed and I might have had a bit of natural talent. I never got feedback on ways to improve. I WANTED criticism. Begged for it. And not getting it, I think, was as much of a setback as if I'd gotten criticism I wasn't prepared to handle.

  43. Great post, Jody! And great timing too, with contest results/feedback coming in in another 2-3 weeks. I've gotten some encouraging and not so encouraging feedback on my MS. And really, I can totally see the problems when someone else points them out! And feel so stupid for not seeing such glaring problems on my own! I hope to thicken up my "skin" and learn and grow with each critique.

  44. I don't know how you write these amazingly well-thought out posts all the time! Good stuff.
    I probably need some more brutality. I haven't had painful in a while.
    I don't care for the word brutal either, but I get what you mean. I think it's important to point out that just because a crit is painful doesn't mean it's right for the story. I guess this makes me think of my wonderful husband. He'll work out and think that since it hurts he's doing something good, but sometimes it hurts because .... he's hurting his body! LOL (don't tell him I told you, heehee) So sometimes I think writers over-edit and kill their voices because they begin to equate pain with growth. Does that make sense?
    Anyway, that's a tangent. LOL Great points, loved your list!

  45. I like your advice on getting critiques. It's always a little hard at first to hear something negative, but after I absorb it I realize it will only make my writing better. But I agree that some people are way too negative, even judges in contests, and we need to realize that some of those comments need not be taken to seriously.

  46. it depends on; I normally handle it well unless the critic is criticizing just for the sake of it. Then I get pissed off.

  47. I agree, Jody, timing is everything. And I definitely would not want an agent to see work that had not been polished to within an inch of its life - by eyes clearer and more objective than mine. Thank you so much for the conversation.

  48. As I get more critiques the thicker my skin gets, but it never takes away from the initial burn.

    I had no idea that three different judges would offer feedback for the Genesis contest! Now I'm looking forward to getting back the results. I've checked out the Genesis page and cannot find the dates on when the first round results come in. Do you know? If not, that's OK. I'm sure I'l find out eventually.

    Your blog is so informative you should consider turning this material into a book, and marketing it towards writers.

  49. I just got feedback from a contest judge today, and then read this post - perfect timing! Although there was good and bad feedback, I only focused on the bad - I felt crumpled up and argumentative. But your post is helping me not take it so personally and remember that she also gave me some good compliments on my writing. Thanks!

  50. Good post! I LOVE Self-editing for fiction writers and thanks to Natasha, am getting quite good at taking uncompromisingly honest crits. She has such a pleasant tone!!! LOL.

    Sigh. There are still Patti-isms that I look right past and need help editing!!


  51. Interesting post.
    Tomorrow my first 500 words are on show. Emily Bryan used her red pencil on them. The critique was so valuable, it stimulated me into a rewrite.


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