COPING WITH NEGATIVE FEEDBACK ON YOUR WRITING
If you want to publish your work, even self-publish, feedback is essential. It’s probably the most difficult part of the writing process—to hear criticism of our hard-earned words. But it’s ultimately helpful. We need to know where things aren’t working, where there are plot holes, where someone is acting out-of-character, and so forth.
If we don’t want readers, getting feedback’s not necessary, but if you want to be published, feedback is essential because:
- We don’t always see the forest for the trees when it comes to our own work, even after putting it aside for a time. We’re too intimately acquainted with the work—we know the background, the plot, and the characters too well. We can’t read it without bringing all that knowledge to it and we can’t see it for what it is. We need people to read it ‘cold’.
- Two heads are better than one. Other people pick up things we’ve missed. They also come up with brilliant ideas we hadn’t thought of!
- Most of us are still learning—writing a book-length project is a very long on-the-job apprenticeship, and it’s impossible to teach ourselves everything we need to know to write a novel (or biography or memoir), without having someone look over our work.
Remember, too, that it’s not just learners who seek feedback on their writing—every published author works with an editor, and even before their books reach their publishers, many authors have shown their work to readers who’ll let them know if they’re on the right track. I listened to this podcast of an interview with Graeme Simsion (the interview starts about half-way through), and he has about ten beta-readers before he sends his work to his publisher.
When we’re younger, for some reason it seems easier to accept that we don’t know everything and we’re more accepting of feedback in order to learn. But as we age, we feel embarrassed to still wear ‘L’ plates. We needn’t—for a start we’re all learning throughout our lives and we should be patting ourselves on the back for being willing to step outside of our comfort zones.
How can getting negative feedback make us feel?
We feel very discouraged.
We wonder if we’ll ever be able to write well enough to be published.
Sometimes, we feel like giving up.
All those feelings are normal, but they pass! That’s the amazing thing—after a cry and a couple of hours, we see that we’re still alive, our limbs are intact, and we can get back to work and address the issues in our manuscript!
Before I go any further, I’ll say a quick word about getting reliable feedback. We do have to be mindful of who is giving the feedback because they’ll always bring their personal biases. Generally, my beta-readers are writers whose writing style I admire and like to read. I know, then, that I’m getting reliable feedback. I wouldn’t give my work to someone who writes speculative fiction, for example, because they wouldn’t necessarily ‘get’ my style.
I don’t know of any writer who says feedback is easy to hear, so here are a few techniques I’ve found useful when dealing with feedback.
Coping with Feedback:
- Prepare yourself for hearing things that you don’t want to hear and that might even hurt.
- Brace yourself for more work. Even though you think you’ve already invested hours, weeks, months, and even years, of time and effort, more is likely to be required.
- Remember it’s not personal. This is perhaps the hardest thing of all—our creations are so deeply personal (they were aptly described as ‘our children’ during the meeting), and we’ve poured our hearts and souls into them, revealed our innermost secrets and dreams, and laid ourselves bare before another person. However, they are still not us, not in the sense that our value as a person is proportional to the quality of our manuscript. Our worth as a person does not depend on how good our manuscript is.
Nice people can write crappy books, and a*$eholes can write good books.
- Don’t react to the feedback straight away. Give your brain time to process it—it may have merit.
- You don’t have to take all feedback on board. Ignore things that don’t resonate. Sometimes, you get conflicting opinions—some readers might like something that other readers don’t.
- If you hear the same criticism from a couple of readers, it’s probably worth addressing.
- Readers can’t always put their finger on what isn’t working and it may be hard to work it out. So, even if the feedback doesn’t quite hit the mark, try to work out what the reader is trying to tell you about that passage. What is the real problem with it? Is it that it doesn’t advance the story? Is that person acting out of character?
- Think of it as a ‘collaboration’—two heads are better than one. Other people often have great ideas.
- Take the attitude that if it will make the story better, isn’t that what I want?
Feedback is a great way to learn. My first feedback was on a few pages/chapters, which helped because I took what I’d learned and edited the rest of the work. I’m now much better at spotting the flaws in my own writing.
The other thing is, after a while we get used to hearing negative feedback. Our hides thicken and we get better at separating ourselves from our writing.
So, don’t let negative feedback discourage you or cause you to trash your manuscript. I’ve seen manuscripts develop so they’re almost unrecognisable from the original. Personally, I believe there’s always a solution for every problem. Sometimes, however, it means a lot more work, but if you’re prepared to do it, it will pay off.
Feedback helps us improve as writers. It can take our stories to the next level, and even if the next level still isn’t publishable, it will be better than it was before. Each time we go through the process, we get closer to a publishable manuscript.