How to Handle Critical Feedback
During this edit month, I'd like to highlight the differences between positive feedback, critical feedback, and negative feedback, and how to take critical feedback and use it to improve your work.
This, of course, is mostly meant in cases of fictional writing, but most of the advice should be universally applicable. Last week we talked about beta readers, the role they play in the writing process, and the benefits they offer. None of that matters, though, if you're unable to turn that feedback into improvement.
The differences between these types of feedback are pretty basic; positive feedback generally highlights what the reader liked, while negative feedback will nitpick and find things that the reader was unhappy with, disagreed with, or didn't understand. Critical feedback is often a mix of both of these, but it takes them one step further and describes why the reader felt or thought what they did in response to your writing.
An important note is this: never ask for feedback if you struggle with negative or critical. Writing is definitely hard work, and you deserve to be recognized for the time and energy you've put into what you've created! If you are asking for feedback, however, be sure to open your mind before you read (or listen to) the responses of your editor, CP, alpha, or beta readers.
If you only feel you can handle hearing the happy feedback, make sure you ask your beta reader for a positivity pass, or search #positivitypass on the forum you're using to find betas. Try to keep in mind that, yes, positivity is nice, and it can be uplifting when you are feeling down or unsuccessful, but a pat on the back won't necessarily help you build or improve.
When asking for critical feedback, be prepared to hear some things you don't like or weren't expecting. If you are only hearing good, you may have outgrown your feedback partner, or you may have chosen feedback partner/s that aren't in a place where they can offer a helpful point of view or insight. It's important for someone to poke holes in your work before it hits publication, because this gives you a chance to fix or improve the weak points in your story!
It can definitely be hard to accept criticism. This is doubly true when you have gone through your own work with a fine-tooth comb and feel that it's perfect already. So, how can you incorporate critical feedback into your revisions in an effective way?
1. Enter the relationship with an open mind.
Understand that your beta, alpha, CP, or editor may offer a point of view that seems foreign or unreasonable to you. There will, of course, be times when your feedback partner falls into a minority. However, if you've gotten the same or similar feedback from multiple people, it's time to look within the text and see if, just maybe, the problem lies in the writing. Accept what you are being told without arguing or challenging - never assume the problem is with the reader. Even if you don't plan on making the suggested changes, log away the feedback and refer back to it if the problem becomes recurrent or prevalent.
2. Make sure you understand the reasons for each question or critique.
It's easy to say "I liked this" and "I didn't like this," but a good feedback partner should be able to pinpoint why they come to these conclusions and how to improve. If the feedback is unclear, open a channel of communication and ask questions! What about this scene didn't you like? Did you find it boring? Did it not carry the emotional weight it needed to? Did it move too fast? Too slow? Listen (or, in most cases, read) actively, with the intent to understand and to mend.
3. Realize that not every story will resonate.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work on a project, it just isn't going to take you anywhere. If you have tried beta readers, editors, critique partners, and queried until you are blue in the face, but still can't get to the next stage, it may be time to examine the book as a whole and decide it isn't going to find success right now. Look at other stories in your genre; is yours too formulaic? Not formulaic enough? Finding that balance can be tricky, especially when you are a new author. Once you have established yourself and built an audience, you will earn some more creative freedom and can challenge the status quo. When you're looking to make your debut, however, you'll have to find a good niche to wriggle into. That takes us directly into my next point...
4. Write for yourself.
This advice has been given to authors for years, but it's often misinterpreted as a call to ignore critical feedback. Writing for yourself means writing the story you want to read! Write something you are passionate about, something you understand deeply, and it will reflect in your writing. If you are disingenuous or dispassionate, your readers will feel it. This does not, however, mean that you should ignore feedback to "preserve the integrity of your work." The first draft should be something that is purely you. Be ready to make improvements to the readability and palatability of what you've created, though. This doesn't mean bending and swaying to the whims of the market (or your betas), but it does mean being open to change and recognizing that not every idea or approach is a "winner."
5. Recognize your limitations.
If you are just beginning to write, you probably shouldn't launch in with a 120k novel on a subject you only faintly understand. Start with something small and conquerable - a novella, something that's easy to see the arcing structure of, for instance. Practice telling stories in a way that flows and makes sense. As you improve, make them longer and more complicated. If you drown yourself with a difficult project on your first try, you may feel defeated after multiple revisions and months of work. Even a small victory is a victory, especially in writing!
As a subtopic to this point, recognize also your limitations as an individual, not just as a writer. No one person can know everything or experience every point of view, and there is a good chance that your ideals will be challenged in feedback. As I stated before, this doesn't mean you have to change everything in order to fit what someone else believes will make a better book, but you should always be willing to listen. Take a moment to consider where the other person is coming from, be it a personal standpoint, religious, professional, etcetera.
Above all, the key to incorporating critical feedback lies within the very first point. You must let go of your preconceived notions and ideals in order to reach your full potential. If you are ever feeling particularly stubborn, remind yourself of what Anatole France said:
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself a fool.
Stick around, and next week I'll have one more tidbit of editing advice for you all! If you enjoyed this post or found it at all helpful, consider sharing it on facebook, linkedin, or twitter!
I will be on hiatus on the 10th and 17th of March. In the meantime, I am booking editing for late April.
Beta requests will open back up tomorrow for one day!
Special thanks to the first round of beta readers!
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