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All the Posts I Mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2017

How To Handle Feedback On Your Writing

I've blogged more than once about how to give feedback, but most writers get feedback even more than they give it, since as well as workshop friends, you'll get it from teachers, agents, editors, reviewers, friends and family. Here, I'm going to refer to them all as "the reader", because that's what we hope a feeder-back will be: a representative of the readers we're hoping for.

Obviously the setup varies. Some settings are "live": a Skype session with a mentor, round a workshop table, at a one-to-one book doctor session, in virtual workshop on your online course. Some are written - either as comments on a forum, or a marked-up manuscript or a some pages of notes, or a review on a website. But essentially, you have been given something which you have decided you want to deal with. So how do you do that?

First, I've realised that my basic suggestions for commenters have a mirror-image for the writer:

  • Have a bit of humility: Know that you are (in a sense) the worst reader of your own work, and recognise that a reader's experience is genuine for them. If they felt it, they felt it. That, in itself, doesn't mean you have to change a word, but you are trying to communicate something, so why wouldn't you listen to a report on how it's received?
  • Listen for specifics: Both about the nature of the reader's reaction, and the words, phrases, paragraphs that caused it. These are gold.
  • Keep your ears open: Many of us go involuntarily but protectively deaf at bad news (just as many patients do) and then don't hear the equally useful good news. On the other hand, a surprising number of us also don't hear bad news, when it's about what we haven't yet recognised as our darlings.
  • Think twice before wasting energy trying to explain why you were right to do it this way, and the reader is therefore wrong.
  • Know that the reader's brutality isn't necessarily right and brave: it may just be because they're thick-skinned or have unconsciously taken agin you or your writing for some reason.
  • Know that the reader's approval isn't necessarily right and truthful: it may just be because their Social Survival Mammoth doesn't let them say anything which might upset anyone.
  • If you do propose a solution, let the reader demur about whether it'll work. Your job is not to persuade them that you're right, any more than their job is to persuade you that they are (although if this is a book under contract, it's a bit more crucial that you and your editor can negotiate)

So, when you've got all the feedback, what do you do next? As always, the fundamental options are Accept, Adapt, Ignore, but before we get into that, would asking a bit more be useful, if it's possible? Not as a covert way of fending off the feedback, but to get more light on the reader's reaction. "Which bit was most like that for you?" should push them into specifics. "Do you think it would be better on a plane than a ship?" might be useful, at least if they're used to perm-ing and con-ing story possibilities.

Also, don't be afraid to take into account who your reader is: someone who reads your genre by the ton has difference desires and expecations from someone who never does - and it isn't always the former who will hit the nail on the head for you. And just because the problem your writing tutor highlights seems obscure and technical, that doesn't mean you can ignore it on the grounds that "real readers won't notice": most of our tools for working on readers work in ways that they don't notice.

Accept is easy. "Duh! Of course." Or "Ah, OK, I can see lots of readers might take it that way." And then you change it. But don't necessarily work out the change there and then, at least for anything more than a typo. On the Don't Fiddle principle, it's much safer to wait until you have a list of everything that needs doing, and a plan for how to do it. You might also want to check that it's not a criticism that chimes too neatly with the lies that your Inner Critic so often tells you. 

Ignore is fairly easy. But, before you press the Eject button, do strip down your "Ignore" to make sure it's a) not a disguise for your own reluctance to murder darlings, b) not a reaction to a reader who you have yourself unconsciously taken agin for some reason, c) not because the feedback is about something you didn't ask for - e.g. about macro issues when you were looking for micro ones, or vice versa: unsolicited feedback is not, a priori, wrong.

Adapt is trickier. First, remember that a lot of feedback will be about what the reader experienced as unsatisfactory, but they well may attribute their discomfort to the wrong cause: "it's too long", for example, can have lots of causes, and most of them are not about there being too many words. To decode reactions into causes, try my Fiction-Editor's Pharmacopoeia

Once you've decided what the real cause is, then lots of the time, if you go on chewing away at possible solutions (I do this on a walk, more often than not) what you need to do about that particular problem will gradually come clear. But I want to suggest a crucial shift in your thinking. Feedback is not about Teacher correcting your work, nor about Invader giving orders you should resist. Whatever others have written (literally or figuratively) in the margins of your work, you should give it the same status - no more but no less important - as your own comments have when you do a print-and-mark-up editing session on your own work. In other words, you need to take others' feedback as part of a larger stage of problem-finding, and then use your own sense of what this story is to integrate everything into some kind of plan for solving them: a clear to-do list, if you like.

You may be allergic to planning, but don't forget you need the problem-solving to lead to a strong, coherent piece of story-telling. Since in any piece of well-written fiction, every aspect of it depends on other aspects, if you don't think about your process, but dodge about fixing a paragraph here and a plot-line there, it's like loading the car for Christmas: if you throw in anything that your eye lands on, chances are you'll forget lots, there won't be room for everything, and half the presents will get squashed. As with everything in writing, if you get the process right, the product has a far better chance of coming out right too, so do the writerly equivalent of gathering everything that needs to go into the middle of the sitting room floor, and thinking about what order to pack things in before you start.

If there's so much writing and so much feedback that you're drowning, try my post on Taming Your Novel. And if you've sorted out a to-do list but still don't know where to start, trying the one on How To Eat An Elephant

Finally - which is really first - long before you're staring at the email or the writer across the table, it's worth thinking about when feedback would be most useful, which means thinking about how to ask for the right kind of help. I'm working on a post about that, but meanwhile I've got a good few events coming up, so it'll have to wait. Good luck!