With Pitch Wars, Pitch Slam, Nightmare on Query Street, Baker’s Dozen and more either in process or on the horizon, it’s kind of hard not to think about feedback these days. We, as writers, all say we want feedback but more than a few of us struggle to accept it and apply it once we get it. A few of us even get downright pissy about it. But that’s not you, right? Me either. (Snort)
One of the hallmarks of a professional writer is the ability to discuss their writing in an objective manner. Sounds easy right? Of course you can talk about passive voice, participles, and gerunds like a real writer. If only it were that easy. Those are the mechanics of writing. Wait until someone says, “Your character lacks depth.” Ouch. “There’s no conflict here. It’s a sequence of events.” Double ouch. That type of feedback is about more than mechanics to writers. It’s about the essence of our stories, the very parts we’ve worked so hard to breathe life into. Even when we try to remain objective it still feels personal and it can be hard to take.
Even harder is making changes to your manuscript because of feedback you’ve received, and that’s what I want to talk about. In order to do that I need to tell you a story (imagine that).
Let’s go back in time to the summer of 2008…
That summer was the first time I received real feedback from a real editor. It was on this non-fiction piece I’d written for a popular online website. To say that editor ripped me apart is an understatement. He took everything I thought I knew about writing and shredded it up into little bleeding paper pieces. I was so infuriated I didn’t look at any of it for at least a week.
Then reality set in. I didn’t get paid for that piece until I made the edits and sent it back to the editor for approval. No edits, no paycheck. And I really needed a paycheck. So I had to do that last thing I wanted to do. I went back into my office, pulled up the document and reread the editor’s comments.
What happened next was so mind-blowing I’m surprised the ground didn’t quake beneath my feet. To my absolute horror, every single change that horrible editor requested made the piece better. I wanted to stomp my feet like a petulant child, but my fingers were already at the keyboard. Even worse, a smile crept across my face despite my efforts to remain angry.
He was right on every single point.
Coming back to 2014 now. What did I do that allowed me to see how the editor’s comments would strengthen my work? I walked away. I allowed myself to feel all those feelings of frustration and hurt. But if I’d stopped there my writing would’ve stopped then too. In my meager defense, he was rude and unprofessional in many of his comments but that didn’t remove the core truth of it one bit. In fact, I remember one change he requested that I did disagree with, but he’d been so spot on with everything else that I made that change as well without questioning. He was the Gregory House of editors. Rude, blunt, and worst of all – right.
So what’s my advice for receiving and processing feedback? First and foremost, say “THANK YOU!” even if you have to do it through gritted teeth. Never read someone’s feedback without thanking them. They’ve taken their time (often their own writing time) to give you feedback and it’s downright rude to do anything less. And no, I don’t care if you agree with it or not, say it anyway. And don’t argue with them either. In the end you may or may not act on their suggestions, but arguing with them is just plain rude and highly unprofessional.
Next, allow yourself to get angry. Be offended. Go right ahead. But do it behind closed doors and for the love of fried chicken stay way from social media while you have your pity party. It’s okay to have the pity party, it is not okay to broadcast it to the world.
Finally, go back to the feedback with a clear mind. Read it again. Does it still make you angry? Go back to step two. You’re not ready yet. Then come back to it and try again. When you can read their comments without your pulse quickening, then you can proceed.
The truth is, not all feedback is great. You need to filter through it to decide what will make your writing stronger and what won’t. Some feedback is nothing more than someone’s personal opinion, but you can’t make that determination when you’re emotional about it. Suggestions that you think are merely personal preference get filed in the, “Think about later” part of your brain. That’s because if you hear it again from someone else, it has to move to the “Under serious consideration” part of your brain. Hear it a third time, and it might be time to take heed and move it to the “Edits to be made” folder.
Word of caution: be mindful of whose feedback your filtering. If Cheryl Klein (yes, I’m a fan) tells me my MC lacks something, you better believe I’m going to get right on that without a nanosecond’s hesitation. If it’s my next door neighbor (who happens to be a darn good indie author) says the same thing, I’m still going to take it into consideration – but not with the gusto Cheryl Klein gets (sorry Allen).
Has the person who’s giving you feedback already mastered the hurdles you’re still trying to clear? Full requests? An agent? A publishing contract? Publication? New York Bestseller? A banned book? (Or is that last one just me?) If so, give their feedback the serious consideration it deserves – and you can only do that with a clear head and an open mind.
And don’t forget to say “THANK YOU.” It’ll make your mom proud and give you a good reputation.