Receiving Feedback on Your Writing
As a writer, it can very difficult to take criticism. You put your heart and soul in a piece of work and it can be devastating to find out that it’s not perfect. Because secretly, we all want someone to say that our work is perfect just as it is, right? Well, the bad news is that no piece of writing is perfect. Worse still, the first time around no writing is ever as good as it could be. Which is why editors are so important!
But how do you actually take on someone’s critique of your work? Here’s a list of steps to work through to help you figure out how to tackle it all.
1. Write down everything! If it’s verbal feedback in a classroom, workshop or discussion, make sure you write down everything people say about your work. Even if you disagree with it, even if it makes you cringe. And don’t forget to write down the good things too. Make sure you give yourself credit where credit is due and try to notice the things that worked as well as the things that didn’t. I repeat: write down everything! The good, the bad, the ugly.
2. Give yourself time. It can be very tempting to sit down straight away with a piece of feedback and either work with it, or throw it out. Don’t. Fight that urge. Read your feedback, absorb it, take those blows to your ego, and then go do something else. Seriously. Make a cup of tea, read a book, have a bath, whatever. Resist the urge to work on that particular piece of writing for at least a week. A month if it’s a full manuscript. You need to give yourself time to get some perspective. From my experience, your ego needs a bit of time to bounce back after getting critique. If you don’t let it bounce back, you’ll either dismiss all the feedback you got, rendering it useless, or you’ll lose your confidence completely. So give yourself some time to recover.
3. Put aside your ego. Dive into your feedback with an open mind and be ready to acknowledge your weaknesses. You know when people say ‘write drunk, edit sober?’ Well... while I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, it isn’t a million miles off. Ego is great for the writing process. Humility is great for editing and redrafting.
4. Decide what parts of the feedback are dependent on taste. Depending on who is giving you feedback, they may already acknowledge when something they comment on is due to their own preferences, but not everybody will. Everyone has unique tastes. They might object to a certain word just because they don’t like it, or they might object to a word because they think it doesn’t convey the right tone or meaning. There are lots of potential reasons. Figure out which criticisms are based on preferences and then you can decide whether or not you agree and want to change it. Ask for clarification if you need to. If it’s a particular sticking point, you might want to consider asking other people to weigh in with their opinions. Remember though, nobody's opinion will ever be completely objective. Least of all your own!
5. Decide which criticisms you actually agree with. If it helps, you can make lists of the comments you agree with, the ones you’re unsure about, and the ones you definitely disagree with. The most important thing is that you give them all a chance. Consider each one. And be honest with yourself. You always know, deep down, whether you’ve given your feedback a chance.
6. Remember that you never have to accept any piece of feedback. In my first term during my Creative Writing MA, I got lots of feedback on a particular piece when I submitted it to the class. I then had to resubmit it as a piece of coursework at the end of term. I worked so hard on it. I took every piece of criticism and worked with it. And then my teacher told me that I’d changed too many things and that it was better the first time around. Experiences like that are beyond frustrating. Editing is a difficult process, there’s no denying that, but it has to be done. It’s up to you to accept feedback that will make your writing stronger, and to reject feedback that won’t. Hardest of all, it’s up to you to tell the difference. Because nobody writes a perfect draft.
7. Be ruthless. If there’s a scene or a chapter that just isn’t working, get rid of it. Even if you love it. Be creative with your editing. What is it about that section that you love so much? Can you condense it down to a moment, an interaction, an image? Can you incorporate it into your work in another way while still cutting out the parts of narrative that aren’t working? Bits of writing can always be recycled. Just because it’s gone from this draft doesn’t mean it can’t be reused somewhere else or in something else.
8. Edit! Put that feedback to work and make the changes you need to. Again, take your time with it. Particularly if there are big, structural edits to work with. Take the time to figure out how you’re going to make it work in the way you want it to.
As always, these are just things that have worked in my experience. I hope you find them helpful! Happy editing!