Three Tests That Can Help Us Handle Difficult Feedback

I had a two hour phone call with my editor from Bethany House last week about all of the changes I’ll need to make on Book 2. Fortunately, I’d already gotten an email indicating that my book would need some major rewrites. So during the phone call I could listen to the feedback without falling apart. (I saved the melt down for later when I was on the phone with my mom!)

You might be wondering like I was, what did they find wrong? They’d approved my synopsis and given me the green light on the story. So what needed changing, especially in such a significant way? And how would I decide what I was willing to change and what I’d fight to keep?

When we’re given challenging feedback, how do any of us know when to accept the feedback and when to stick with our gut? After all, so much of writing is subjective. What one person likes another may not.

Here are three tests I’m using for handling my difficult feedback.

1. Know the source of the feedback.

When I turned in my book to Bethany House, six different people read and critiqued it (including my two primary editors). Then my editors had a meeting to discuss the various concerns everyone had, bounce ideas off one another, and decide what things were most important to change.

The people who critiqued my book are not only editing experts, but they also have their pulse on the inspirational historical romance market—especially what kinds of characters and stories fans like. They want to help me shape my book into something readers will fall in love with.

How can I argue with industry experts? How can I disagree with six people?

Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves: What’s the level of expertise of the critiquer? How many people are saying the same thing? Do they have our long term best interest in mind? How well do they know our specific genre and market?

2. Look at where we’re at in our writing careers.

I consider myself a fairly young author. Even though I’ve been writing for years and growing in my skill, I still have a lot learn about writing for publication versus writing purely for personal satisfaction. There’s a huge difference (and I'll have to tackle that subject in a different post!).

I’ve learned that a traditional publishing house invests an enormous of time and money into publishing one little book like mine. Since they’re making such a big investment, they have to make decisions about each book with extreme care. I need to trust their judgment about what is going to make my book more salable.

I’m far from a brand name. I have so much yet to learn about what appeals to readers. And I have still have a long way to go before I move from an average writer to a great one. I’m not at a place in my writing career where “I know better” and therefore I don’t have the right to demand my own way. I’m not sure that I ever will.

Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves: Do I have a teachable spirit? What can I learn from the critique? Maybe I don’t agree with everything, but what's the heart of the feedback? What things are most important to me, and can I hang onto the essence of what's important but still make the changes?

3. Have a really GOOD reason before deciding not to change something.

I want to stay true to my writer's voice. I don’t want others to shape me into something I’m not. However that means I need to have some idea what my emerging voice sounds like (or “personality on the page” as Agent Chip MacGregor calls it).

If we're confident in our writing style, then hopefully we can learn to integrate the changes into our stories but still stay true to our personalities on the page. And if I’m confident, I’ll be open to each suggestion, weighing them carefully, and making sure I have a good reason before rejecting them.

Under-valuing our voice can make us wishy-washy with the changes. Overconfidence can lead us to reject help too quickly. But having the right amount of confidence in our unique voice can help us know what to keep and what to let go of.

Here are a few things we can ask ourselves: Do I recognize my voice well enough to know if the change will stifle it or make it clearer? Am I giving enough consideration to each suggestion or am I passing over them too quickly?

What about you? When you’re given challenging feedback, how do you decide which advice to take or leave? What kinds of questions do you ask yourself? Do you use any of the three tests I've listed?


  1. I love editors. In fact, I'm married to one. I have the highest respect for him. Through the years, before I started writing for others, we've talked about editing and writing. Now that I'm writing, I learning it all again from the other side of the desk.

    Here it is: my silver bullet, my big principle, the one that helps me shoot straight and clear while learning from my mistakes.

    When in doubt, get a second outside opinion. Or two. Or three.

    We all need feedback. We need new eyes. We need editing, lots of it. But editors are only human.

    You can hand a manuscript to three very different editors and get back three very different suggestions. Sometimes a particular editor wants to take the writing in a direction that isn't authentic to your writer's voice. And sometimes editors end up making manuscripts sound like their own writing. It takes a great deal of restraint and maturity for an editor to resist the urge to put a personal stamp on a project.

    What does this mean? Choose carefully. When you find a good editor you can trust, treasure the relationship. It's worth more than almost anything else in your life as a writer. But keep in mind, that an opinion is just an opinion, and you are the one writing the story.

  2. Yeah, this IS a difficult topic. I haven't had enough people "critique" my current novel yet, but the two who did disagreed on big items. So far, I didn't change anything big that they disagreed on, unless I liked a suggestion better than what I wrote. I'm in the process of getting a third opinion.

    I'll be keeping this post close for when I get this next round of edits back.

  3. Right now I'm going through the editing stage for the first time. When I see all the changes I need to make I want to cry. I thought I was good! Then my editor writes a positive remark about the writing and I cling to that. I guess this editing experience is a way to keep us from becoming prideful, which in turn would make us useless for God's work.

    Oh, and I pre-ordered The Preacher's Bride and paid in advance. They will ship it out Oct.5th. I can't wait to read it and know I'll enjoy it and this second book. Keep your chin up. You're not alone.

  4. Professional editing I think I'd take with a much heavier grain of salt. With my crit partners, I esp. look to see if it's a style issue or a story issue. We all don't write the same, so if it's style, I might leave it.

  5. I'm going through this right now Jody by sending out my manuscript to several writers and beta readers before sending it to a professional editor. Deciding what i need to cut or chage has been a real challenge. But I try to listen to that inner voice and if I have a doubt myself then I go back and take another look. My MC wasn't liked enough and that was a major concern--everyone agreed so I edited that heavily!

  6. Great post, Jody, and I love what Cassandra said. I worked w/an editor on a prior project before I had an agent, and I learned a ton. I've just hired a different editor to work w/me on polishing my current YA novel. I'm looking forward to learning a lot and to, hopefully, having my book on submission before the end of the year.

    (Too funny: my wv: blessess - close to blesses. You know I'm not religious, but I thought this was fitting, especially on your blog!)

  7. Wow, Jody, you hit this one out of the park! So, so so helpful!

    Interesting to use these questions in regards to contest feedback. So many authors enter contests because they want feedback. But the sticky part comes when you get the feedback, when the judges didn't mark if they are published or not and if so, in what genre, and you're left wondering, "Do I even listen to these critiques?"

    I had an experience like that. Where I got some feedback that directly opposed what I'd heard from my agent AND from the editors looking at my work. (judge told me to nix the prologue when other people agreed the prologue was a gem). If I hadn't had the priviledge of having an agent and feedback from editors, I might have gotten rid of one of my story's strongest attributes. Thankfully, I knew better.

  8. Wow, this is such a well thought out guideline. Really great questions to ask ourselves if we are serious about publication on a higher level. Sounds like some anquish mixed in with relief.
    You'll do great and they will love it!

  9. Yes, I use your tests (love the questions that go with) and I use something that keeps me grounded and helps me keep that teachable Spirit...prayer.

    ~ Wendy

  10. When I get feedback I don't like, I look at the story. What am I trying to do with the scene/story? Does that make the book stronger?

    Then I look at the feedback. Is it in line with what I'm trying to do with the scene/story? Does it make it stronger?

    If the feedback works, it's much easier to listen to it and do it. (I may not always be sure how I'll do it.)

    Now I think I'll write a post about some feedback I've received and how I'm responding to it.

  11. I've used a version of your tests before? And it has actually helped me swallow more painful critiques.

    I don't always change every issue that is brought up. But sometimes I have gone back later and altered things after initially keeping it the same. Guess I just have to mull over the idea for a while before I go with it.

  12. Wonderful points that I endorse.
    I just finished my "final edit" before the galley proofs with "The Rhythm of Secrets" and only really had issue with two of dozens of suggested changes. I talked to agent Natasha about one of them, and she agreed with my logic.

    Then I prepared an edit memo that outlined responses to the changes I did not want to make. This kept the reasoning logical, sound, not something spouted off in a phone call or e-mail.

    We'll see what they say!!!

    Blessings, dear one.


  13. Great post, Jody. I've never had any difficult feedback, other than a few gentle suggestions. I'll remember this 'test' for when I do send my books to my critique partners, though ;)

  14. Needing to be teachable and humble is always good. Hope you have a great weekend! :O)

  15. Wonderful post, Jody. I really like the way you've laid things out with the three tests. I've used all of these tests but have never thought about them in this organized way. This will definitely help me with future feedback. Thank you!

  16. Wonderful post Jodi! I enjoy your insight and walking through your journey with you. Hang in there and keep the faith you have in yourself. You have come far & are still teachable. Always be learning, that is a good place to be.


  17. Hi Jody! This is great advice. I think your thoughts on the fact that you're not a brand name and therefore, do not know better are right on. When I got edits back on my book, there were things I wanted to keep that my editor had asked me to change. BUT, after thinking about it, I realized that she knew the market, she knew the industry so her vote trumped mine. SO, I made every change she suggested and I'm really glad I did.

  18. We must walk a tight rope, balancing our stubbornness and teachability--because others are not going to share our artistic visions. But we will never grow as artists unless we are willing to learn. I am loosely in a local artists' community, because my dad is a painter. So many artists are narcissists, but, you know what? The most narcissistic ones are not the best artists--they are arrogant enough to let themselves get stale and repeat their poor techniques over and over again. Plus, narcissists are lazy (and maybe that's the biggest problem)!

  19. This is why it's so helpful to have more than one person critique your work. Basing all your changes off what only one person says can be risky, particularly if they're not an expert in their field.

    However, we should always go into a critique with an open mind. Be open to suggested changes and dig down deep to see if they're really going to benefit your story.

  20. I think I'm usually okay when people critique/rip apart my work. I realize that for a lot of people, to give brutally honest feedback is incredibly difficult since, hey, we are all still people. But in order for them to do it, and do it well, I must be objective and classy about hearing it. A lot of times, the things that don't work are things that I already know (waaaay, way back in my mind) don't work, so it's good to hear it out loud so that I can somehow make it better. I love editors...

    Hey, your blog looks different! Wow, I love it! That font is great!

  21. Jody, you addressed a topic I'm wrestling with today as I prepare to begin revisions following a major rewrite. I've got input from my two awesome critique partners (thanks heaps!!), the guidance of my agent, and a hint of interest from an editor. So much input can be overwhelming for one not accustomed to it, which would be me.

    My plan is to input the changes I know are necessary and save the major ones until I can get the advice of my agent, who knows her stuff and will give me the direction I need. As you said, the publishing professionals are the experts. They are the most knowledgeable guides to help us navigate the sometimes confusing waters of the publishing world.

    I wish you all the best on your revisions. I'm excited to see you take your story from great to stellar. =)

  22. Jody, I neglected to say that I LOVE your website design. It's professional, attractive, and a great reflection of you.

    Sorry I wasn't around for the unveiling. (I didn't have internet access while I was at the RWA conference.)

    Someday, when I sell, I want a site as awesome as yours. =)

  23. This is such a helpful post. It's nice to know what I'm in for if/when I'm published. The process of learning doesn't end the day you have a book on the shelf.

    I'm in a new critique group that has been stressing me. After reading this post, I understand why. I don't trust their feedback because I don't trust their expertise. One writes short picture books and the other hasn't shared her full length manuscript. I can't help but ask, what do they know?

  24. Great advice, Jody! When I first started writing, I struggled to know what to change and what not to change. I suspect it's because I was still finding my writer's voice. Now I feel much more confident in handling feedback, even if it still stings.

  25. That is such excellent advice. Thank you! My rule of thumb is that if I feel excited to make the changes (after a few days consideration), then it is probably a good change to make, but I haven't had to revise for an editor yet.

  26. I think feddback from an editor would be hands down a no brainer for me. They are working to make mu book a success~ who could argue against that:)

    I do appreciate professional feedback a great deal, and from seasoned writers!

  27. I go through pretty much the questions you posed. And I also remind myself how much I want to do it right (not just for me, but for my readers)

  28. Wonderful post, Jody. I'll keep it in mind when I go over the recent judges remarks on my latest wip.

    Good luck with your revisions!


  29. I listen to feedback. My first relese is part of a trilogy and I left the hero hanging in the balances. Too many people emailed me and said I need to bring closure to the first book, rescue the hero, yet leave enough unresolved conflict so the reader will want to buy the next installment. So I did a re-release and added the first six chapters of the second book to close out the first one.

    Stephen Tremp

  30. You make a huge point here - writing for self or writing for others. It’s just like art. Fine art is like painting for yourself where as illustration is painting for others (book covers, advertisement, etc.) It is a different mindset.

  31. These are such insightful questions. It's an excellent approach to put criticism into perspective before making a decision, or getting defensive. I think most people feel they are putting their best work forward whenever they submit something, but it almost always takes another set of eyes to help us see what the real potential of our work has.

  32. Hi Jody -

    I'll remember your tips when I get back edits from a friend, who shall remain nameless. :)


  33. I think I handle feedback well and that my teachable spirit is one of my strengths. (Given that I have two completed, but still unpublished, books, I know I still have a lot to learn.

  34. Way back when, I didn't think so kindly of critiques. In fact, I was down right insulted by them. I laugh at this now. Now I pay an editor to critique me! I want this feedback. I strongly desire to know what others think, how I can correct things etc... It's still hard sometimes, but I'm ready to take a hit and move on with edits.

  35. Great post. For a new writer like me, I treasure constructive edits, "constructive" being the key word.

    I've gotten positive feedback, which is sweet and comforting, but it doesn't make me a better writer.

    Constructive, not negative, feedback benefits everyone, including the writer.

  36. I have so much to learn about all of this process. I like the questions you included. I know I need to keep these things in mind and learn to handle feedback with a lot of prayer.

  37. Jody, excellent advice--and you are so humble and yet also professional. I hope everyone realizes how blessed they are to work with you.

    Cassandra - Right on! This past weekend, I sent my first editorial letter to two of my most trusted reader-writer-friends right away to hear what they thought. Even though feedback and opinions will always vary, just hearing what they had to say was steadying to me. I was able to calibrate my own response by theirs. It was especially helpful that they are different in their tastes, but both of them are extremely good critics and very observant.

    And Patti, your approach sounds great too! It sounds to me as if different pub houses work in their own styles, and part of the process is getting to know what dialogue method your own pub house prefers.

  38. This is a subject that a lot of writers probably don't think about until an editor suddenly confronts them, and yet how we answer the questions you've posed will say a lot about the kind of client we would be.

    Test #1 seems the most important to me. Regardless of where we are in our writing careers, I think it would be career suicide to refuse to respond to requests from those who have far more professional knowledge and experience than we do, because we're saying we're not willing to do everything possible to make our work the best it can be.

    Thanks for giving us a peek at how you're affected by the feedback you're getting and for making us think about what our responses might be in the same situation.

  39. I just posted yesterday on the same topic! How weird is that?

    Marc Vun Kannon

  40. Yes, I have to think through similar questions to the ones you have listed when I receive feedback. Of course, sometimes I have to just let the feedback sit for a moment before I can tackle it. I'm a very "young" author so I know I need to hear the feedback, but I also know that I have to be true to myself as well. It's a tough line to walk.

  41. I agree one should have respect for those in the know. I also think the writer's voice should be allowed to have its say too.
    I wish you well with your edits. Your guide is very useful, thanks.

  42. Hi, Jody.

    I can imagine how hard it must be to get feedback like that. But I am sure that you will make the right choices and your second novel is going to be amazing.

    I do have a question for you, though. You wrote a couple of weeks ago that you hired your own editor before sending the manuscript for your second novel to your publisher. After the feedback you've now received, do you still feel that you made the right decision to pay a third-party editor? Would you still recommend other writers do the same thing?

  43. Great post Jody. I'll have to remember these when I eventually get difficult feedback from an editor.


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