Monday, September 29, 2014

Getting the Most out of Feedback

Image courtesy of Akeeris at
If you write, part of you probably wonders whether your work is any good. Unfortunately, the only way to answer that question is to ask somebody else to look at it. That's kind of scary, because then there's the chance that you'll receive some criticism. If the idea of criticism freaks you out, you can think of it as feedback. After all, that's really what it is.

If you want to improve, you need to take the plunge and ask for feedback. However, there are some things you can do before you even share your work with someone that will maximize the usefulness of the feedback you receive. Tell the reviewer what you are looking for specifically. Make a list of things they can help you with, such as grammar, writing style, or just an overall impression. This way, the person offering feedback has somewhere to begin, and you are more likely to receive a critique that will be helpful for you.

Another thing you can do to get a more useful critique is to ask your reviewer to mark up the work you are giving them. Microsoft Word has a really useful feature for tracking changes that you make, as well as a feature for inserting comments in the margins. If you submit your work to anyone for critique and both of you have Word, ask them to use the 'review' features and insert comments exactly where they noticed one of their concerns. If you're using a hard copy (what some writers now refer to as 'dead tree format'), provide a brightly colored pen and some sticky notes for the person who will be reviewing your work.

Once you have the feedback, what do you do with it?

The first thing you want to do is give yourself some space after receiving any kind of criticism. Acting on the criticism while you are still emotionally unbalanced from it is a very bad idea. If somebody said your work was very poor overall, and you were to act on that while riled up, you might do something stupid like delete the entire document in a modern-day version of dramatically throwing a manuscript onto the fire. Or, you might delete a large segment, only to wish the next day that you hadn't. Once you've hit 'save' and exited your word processor, that's that.

So, do yourself a favor and give yourself some time to wind down. Once you've cooled off, print a copy of the critique or marked-up manuscript and re-read the feedback that you were given. Hopefully, you've been able to receive a marked-up manuscript that makes it easy to find specific comments (which, if you followed the tips above, you probably have). If any of the comments are positive in nature, saying something like “I really like this,” take a big highlighter or marker in your favorite color and circle those comments. Celebrate the positive before you tackle the negative, and think of the negative as exciting opportunities to make your work even more awesome than it was before.

Next, re-read the work, keeping the feedback in mind. Do you agree with any of the criticism? Chances are that you will agree with some of it. Circle that criticism in a different color of marker—a color you like, so that you can see it as something positive. If you disagree with some of the criticism, circle that in a neutral color, like brown or gray. Think about it a little while longer before you disregard it.

And speaking of that...

Yes. You, as the writer, have to power and the right to disregard criticism. You don't have to agree with or do whatever the reviewer suggests. In the end, it's your call. Let that empower you as you sift through the feedback. You don't have to agree with it. You don't have to do everything, or even anything, that somebody else suggests.

That being said, it's still wise and in your writing's best interest to think really hard about somebody's feedback before you decide to disregard it. If you don't agree with it, ask yourself why. If, after thinking for a while, you have a solid reason for disagreeing, then you can probably safely disregard it. But if you can't come up with a reason at all, and you just don't like the feedback for whatever reason, that's a major warning sign that the criticism might actually be accurate.

There's a saying among writers: “Kill your darlings.” What this means is that if you are particularly in love with something you've written, but lots of reviewers say that you need to cut it, you are probably better off cutting it. If you don't have a really solid, compelling reason for keeping it, and you just like it because it's your “darling,” then “kill” it.

Thanks to modern technology, it's easy to save the portion you've cut or save the unchanged version, just in case you want to come back to it and reconsider it someday. I routinely make backups of my stories, labeling and dating them carefully. It's so easy and cheap to get a flash drive with lots of storage, so I don't worry about running out of space. This way, if I ever change my mind about a darling I've killed, I can go bring it back to life.

So, if you disagree with the criticism for a powerful reason, then disregard it. Circle those comments in black. If you disagree with it just because, you might want to think twice before ignoring it. If you can't decide, put it aside for now and come back to it later.

You don't have to figure out exactly what to do right away. It's okay to put somebody's criticism on the back burner and let it simmer for a while.

When you are ready to start applying changes, keep your printed, re-marked-up marked-up manuscript with you while you are making changes to the electronic document. Use it as your reference and guide. When you see your favorite color, smile and congratulate yourself. When you see the other color that you like, concentrate on what you can do to address the concern, thus making your story even better than ever. When you see black, skip it. When you see brown or gray that you're not ready to act on, remind yourself to come back to it later.

This, of course, is just one way of dealing with the feedback you've been given. I usually do this mentally because I am so used to receiving and dealing with feedback. But if you're going on your first feedback adventure, this can make the experience less scary and more positive.

As you learn to think of criticism (feedback) as something positive, you become a better writer.

What could be more positive than that?

Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

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1 comment:

  1. I actually had a couple "kill your darlings" moments earlier today, come to think of it! We're editing all the way through the 28 chapters (so far) of our fanfic, and I realized that a few of our favorite exchanges between our characters in the earliest chapters were actually pretty out of character as we've grown to know them. Anna and I will have much to discuss when we next get together.