Once a writer has finished a story, they probably want to put it in front of other people for feedback, especially if they’re trying to polish it up for submission. Writing groups, beta readers, and critique partners are excellent for this. If you have a great friend with an MFA in writing, he may also be a wonderful resource. However, if you want to preserve your relationships, you need to know how to handle the feedback you receive.
Quick note: Not all of the following advice is applicable when dealing with feedback from a professional editor. That’s different, and deserving of its own post. As soon as I have more of that particular experience, I’ll be sure and write it up.
You are Not Your Work
The first step is to put some emotional distance between yourself and your story. Early drafts have problems. The quote is “the first draft of anything is shit,” but there’s actually quite a bit more to the quote. I’ll leave the rest of that advice to Hemingway.
When someone tells you there’s something wrong with your story, it hurts. You put a lot of time and energy into your writing. You made sacrifices. You did the research. The story represents days of your life you will not get back. What monster would not flinch when a part of their life is attacked?
First off, is it so bad if there’s something wrong with your story? There are lots of very successful novels with numerous flaws. Perhaps they are all flawed. As much as you may want your story to be perfect, it never will be.
This doesn’t mean you need to settle, and while it takes some sting off the criticism, let’s not stop with the defeatist notion of inevitable imperfection. A more positive lesson, even if the story you created is a part of you, it only represents you in the moment. If you learn from the mistakes you made writing that story, you’re less likely to make the same mistakes in your next story.
We Learn Through Our Mistakes
Think of anything you first started doing as a child that you still do today. Anything at all. When you first started, your efforts were clumsy and you probably had to work harder at it for lesser results. As you grew in skill and confidence, you grew in ability . What once was difficult is now routine.
You can always get better at writing. The greatest leaps in skill you will enjoy happen after overcoming mistakes. If someone points out one of your mistakes, it’s an opportunity to improve ALL of your stories.
Critique on an early draft is awesome because it gives you something concrete to work on in your revisions. It’s an opportunity for you to take something initially perceived as broken and turn it into something beautiful.
Processing the Feedback
Now that you’re emotionally and intellectually ready to receive your feedback, let’s talk about what you do with it. You gave your story to your buddy or your critique group, and after 1 or 6 months, they deliver the good and bad news.
First, thank your critics. They just spent a bunch of time with your story and put some effort into trying to make it better. It is unlikely they’re receiving any kind of compensation for their time, so whatever they’ve given you, they’ve done you a favor. Thank them. Maybe buy them a coffee, if you can.
Next, read straight through all the comments. Put it all in your brain without analysis. This will eliminate surprises when you begin to properly digest the feedback. It will help you gain some perspective on their perspective.
When you get deeper into the comments and criticisms, start with the assumption that the person giving you the feedback is right. This is important. If you just went through an entire chapter where they lambasted your pacing, characterization, over-use of blocking, poor dialog… whatever… you may find yourself closing off to future advice because it all stings. The counter to this is to always start with the assumption that they’re right.
They may be completely wrong, laughably so. That’s a bad starting place, though. If you begin with the assumption that they’re wrong and they JUST DON’T GET IT… you wasted your time sending them the story, and they wasted their time providing feedback. That’s a tragedy for everyone involved, so don’t do that.
Don’t get defensive or argumentative as you go through the feedback. The defense is the story itself. It’s the prose you put on the page. If it didn’t land, it didn’t land, and the best thing you can do is revise and make it work.
Also, if you get argumentative with the people that are offering feedback, they will be less inclined to offer honest feedback in the future.
Once you have given a piece of feedback due consideration, it is okay to dismiss it if it is realistic to do so. For example, if you gave someone an adult scifi story and you know they don’t like either adult or scifi, and the things they are complaining about are pillars of the genre, it’s okay to let that go. But again, don’t assume it’s wrong, and certainly don’t start with the assumption that the one providing the feedback is incorrect simply because they don’t read your genre.
That last example happened to me recently with Spin City, and I bring it up because, as difficult as it was processing feedback from someone that really didn’t like my story, I learned valuable lessons from the experience. They pointed out things I did all the time. I had no idea until she pointed it out.
Everything I’ve talked about today I learned through direct experience. I’ve burned through writing groups trying to learn these lessons, and I’m still not sure I’ve learned enough.
One of the things you can do to avoid pain, both for you and for the people critiquing your work, is to be honest with yourself and with them about what you’re looking for. If you aren’t actually trying to improve the story and you just want a pat on the back, acknowledge that. It’s okay.
Having a conversation about the kind of feedback you’re looking for will help set expectations and make the time spent valuable. Maybe you’re not interested in a particularly type of feedback, or maybe you’re looking to see if one specific aspect of your story delivers. You are more likely to get what you need if you have that conversation with your critique partners.