Receiving feedback on beloved stories can be one of the most wonderful things in the world. It can also be incredibly tough, since that fresh pair of eyes will spot things we didn’t in the ONE MILLION times we scoured our words.
Below are some of my tips for taking the sting out of even the most brutal critique.
BE CAREFUL WHO YOU CHOOSE
Do you want cheerleading, some grammar and sentence structure help, in-depth character analysis, or feedback on your structure and pacing? Decide what you want BEFORE you ask someone to read your story, and make sure that person knows what you want and is willing and able to provide it.
My mum reads all my novels and she is one of the loveliest first readers in the world – providing encouragement to keep going. My beta readers will chat big picture stuff with me and lament over how much they want to smush my characters and make everything better. My critique partners provide me with detailed, often line-by-line, feedback on exactly what is and isn’t working. All these readers provide different comments and critique, and I’m careful to figure out where someone fits in this spectrum before I ask them to read anything of my stories.
It’s incredibly frustrating to seek one type of feedback and constantly receive another. And it wastes both your time and theirs. If there is someone reading your work and the comments always leave a sour note, then ask yourself if they are providing something you don’t want or need right now.
BUT don’t just blame yourself. A few years ago, I started swapping with someone and too late I realised that their comments always veered to the critical end of the spectrum. Now, that could have been because what I was sharing with them was utter shit, but they should have found at least one or two things to complement each time, even if it was just the font I chose. Their comments always made me feel low. Once I realised this, I extracted myself from the situation. (If you’ve swapped with me before and are now wondering if I’m talking about you – I’m not!)
Be careful before you share your work with someone. Begin by just sharing a little, and make sure that expectations are clear on both sides. If you’re not happy with the feedback, then you’re under no obligation to share any more of your work with that person. Go out and find someone who understands your story and will give you the level of feedback you need.
TAKE YOUR TIME
In the toxic swapping situation I mentioned, I would read the feedback and even days (weeks, MONTHS) later, it would raise my hackles. I would rarely change anything in my story based on their comments, and I always felt like they were pulling me in directions I didn’t want to go.
However, there is some feedback that initially will make us rage and cry and call down a hoard of vengeful flying monkeys, but after a few days it will sink in and begin to make sense. Perhaps it cut too close to a darling you couldn’t bear to part with, or maybe it suggested changes you couldn’t face making, but slowly those comments return to your mind more and more and, instead of feeling the rage, you feel excited about how the changes can enliven and brighten your story.
Strangely, this doesn’t always mean you’ll 100% agree with the feedback. You might decide to go in another direction totally, but something in those comments unlocked a creative bubble in your head and let you fly.
That’s why I always suggest that my editing clients take at least a day or two after receiving feedback to make any changes to their manuscript. There might be some comments they adamantly disagree with when they first read them, but then those tough words help them push through a creative block.
This can also go the other way. Sometimes, having someone interact with our work can be exciting in itself. I’ve run off after getting feedback and started making changes, only to totally run out of steam a few days later when I realised I didn’t quite want to go in that direction, and now I need to change it all back again.
Take time to sit with feedback, even the stuff that feels 100% wrong or right. You might go in the exact same direction you decided to seconds after reading it, but giving yourself a day or two to digest will give your subconscious time to play with the new ideas and produce something even bigger and better.
REMEMBER THAT IT’S YOUR STORY
That means that only you can decide what to add, change, or cut. Feedback may batter you, but even dissenting voices will help you refine and grow confidence in your vision. Cherry-pick the feedback that strengthens and develops your story, and feel free to ignore the rest.
There is one exception to this rule, and that’s when you repeatedly get the same feedback from reader after reader. I had a scene in one of my young adult novels that I thought was really clever. I believed it displayed the differences between two characters and inventively detailed the changed world they found themselves in.
I was wrong.
Reader after reader commented on this section. They either misinterpreted it and didn’t like what it said about a previously gentle character, or they didn’t understand it. I thought this was a great scene, but it just didn’t work. Ultimately, despite the pain, I cut it.
You might be able to save those scenes that people keep tripping up on. There might be something to strengthen or tone down, description could be cut or dialogue smoothed, but if there is something that keeps cropping up again and again, then it needs to be addressed in some way.
As always though, there is an exception to every rule! And maybe that scene is meant to trip readers up. Maybe it’s there for a good reason and they will figure that out later. Only you, the writer, knows this.
Use your power to ignore everyone you please wisely.
And wield this power of wilful ignorance with grace and kindness. Even someone who gives you terrible story advice again and again is investing in you as a writer. You might choose to step away from them, but you don’t have to be cruel. It takes a great deal of time and effort to give feedback on someone else’s words, so make sure to honour the commitment they made to you and your story, even if you’re going to totally ignore them and carry on your merry way.
I hope these tips are helpful. Feedback can be inspiring, and I hope you find great people to share your work with 😊