Receiving Feedback Well

I’ve learned something during my short exposure as a “writer”:

I don’t take feedback well.

Very few other things in my life could be critiqued quite the same as writing is.  I’m very quickly learning to discover that writing, and publishing, is a very objective thing.  We all argue about cell phone and coffee preferences with such passion but it pales in comparison when something is personal.  Imagine pouring months into something, maybe years.  You fall in love with the characters and chapters are painstakingly crafted to balance action and emotion.  To say there is a strong emotional attachment to your work is, in some cases, an understatement.  Once you’ve double proofed and revised your work in progress you, if you’re crazy enough, consider trying to get it published.

But there are steps you have to go through first.  Very scary steps.  You need to let other people read through your work.  Not only do they read through your work, you need them to provide feedback.  Perhaps you’re fortunate enough that you may have a few close friends who happen to be established authors in your genre.  Having someone whose traveled the road you’re on makes the feedback they have more valid and less…offensive.  But, since many of us aren’t on George R.R. Martin’s Christmas card list, we have to rely on our circle of friends.  Or worse: strangers.

I signed up for a website called BookCountry for two reasons.  The first being they’re associated with Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the world.  It’s no secret that there are stories of authors getting publishing deals for manuscripts posted in their community.  Part of the draw is my hopes that I will stumble into the same extremely good fortune.  Second is the community, by far and above my reason for joining.  There are thousands upon thousands of active people reading and posting works.  It’s a great way to see what others in my genre are writing and provide my own two cents on their work.  It’s also, however, a way for perfect strangers to do the same to me.

While good intentioned, you’re bound to eventually get some feedback that hurts.  Even the best of feedback is going to sting a little.  I was very stubborn in the work I had completed and posted until three people all came back with the same review: make these (big) changes.  It was a hard pill to swallow.  They were right, however, and a third round of revisions was soon underway.  Their feedback changed the lens I looked at my manuscript though and helped guide me closer to a polished document.

Getting feedback on things we hold very dear to ourselves can be a very tough thing.  It is, in the case of writing, a very necessary thing.  As I get feedback I try to remember these few things.

It’s not personal

This is the first way I take feedback.  If you suggest there is something wrong with my book then you suggest there is something wrong with me.  Something wrong with the way I do things, how I live and my very existence on planet earth.  Okay, that might be taking it a bit far – but not by much.  One thing to remember when getting feedback from friends or people on sites like BookCountry is they’re not attacking you.  For the most part they’re actually interested in seeing the book progress to the next level and reach eventual success.  We get so used to staring at the same words that another set of eyes is essential to help unbind certain clogged narratives.  Once the review comes it, take a moment to remind yourself this isn’t about you, it’s about your work.  Nothing is written to lampoon you (hopefully).  Often times I only read the first few lines of a review before I step away, breath a little, and come back with calmer, clearer eyes.

Have a teachable heart

It’s one thing to ask for help, it’s another thing entirely to accept it.  Oftentimes when a review or something said to me offends me I shut down.  I defend what I’ve done and it suddenly becomes a hill I’m willing to die on.  The person I’ve asked becomes offended I’m not willing to accept their feedback and decides themselves they won’t do it again.  If done on a public forum, people will see how badly I responded to the initial feedback and shy away from providing some of their own.  What I need is to be willing to not only listen to it but take practical steps to implement the good stuff.  This requires a bit of discernment as well.  It helps to have many voices as opposed to one.  Since writing is so objective the observations of one may not be entirely subjective.  But if the feedback of many starts to sound the same, I know there is a glaring weak spot that needs to be addressed.  Sitting down and deleting chunks of my work was a hard thing to do.  Essentially days of work gone in the blink of an eye.  Response to the results has been overwhelmingly positive, however.  Getting reviews from a large community of people helps make glaring issues obvious and makes it easier to discern between legitimate writing shortcomings and personal preference.  Taking that feedback with the value it has and doing something with it is just as important.

Writing is objective

This is something I’ve heard a lot as I query my book from agents.  More on that later.  Sadly the biggest problem with something like writing is it’s more art than science.  While there are grammatical rules our language adheres to, there is still a bit of creative freedom authors are allowed.  When someone is giving feedback it’s good to remember that it’s driven largely by personal preference.  Asking someone who really isn’t into high fantasy novels to review a high fantasy novel probably isn’t a good idea.  Getting a group of people who do, is.  Even experts in the field, agents and editors, openly admit their thoughts are objective and definitely don’t speak to the general attitude of the industry.  Again, this is where a multitude of reviewers can help differentiate between opinion and legitimate issue.  I often use the monicker “eat the meat and leave the bones”.  Essentially: take what’s good and leave the chaff.

Never, ever, discredit a review based on results

Or: just because a review is rife with personal preference and issues it doesn’t mean there isn’t a tidbit of usefulness to it.  Recently a review was left on my manuscript that was a bit devastating.  The person who reviewed it, however, also has a bit of a reputation.  It’s very tempting for me to discredit the review simply based on that information alone.  However, doing so could deny me a key piece of information.  The worst critiques may be 99% wrong but that 1% could change the whole story.  Instead I need to learn to read through the review, as many times as needed, and take away that little piece of meat.  By rejecting a review I’m in danger of becoming choosey in the reviews I heed or completely closed minded.  It’s a choice that only leads eventually to someone who is exactly opposite to everything above and no better than the negative reviewers.

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