So, you’ve joined a writing workshop (or found a critique group or swapped chapters with someone) and now comes the scary bit: their feedback. Chances are there’s something in their scribbled notes that makes you squirm(/rage/cry). But how do you tell the difference between feedback that’s squirmy because it hurts your ego versus feedback that’s squirmy because it’s simply wrong?
I’m not an expert (I looked for an article on this topic and simply couldn’t find one, so here we are). But I have been involved in a fair few writing workshops, critique groups and manuscript swaps. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far...
Know your story goals
Before you change anything, you need to know what your story is about. Articulate it to yourself. How will this scene move the story forward? What themes should it raise? What emotions do you want the reader to leave with?
It’s important to know, because it’s the yardstick by which you measure feedback. Usually, if feedback is helpful, it’s because it points your story in the direction of your story goals; if feedback is unhelpful, it’s because it misses the point altogether (although even “unhelpful” feedback can be put to good use – more on this later).
Of course, it’s never as simple as “unhelpful” or “helpful” feedback. There are so many different categories that feedback can fall into, some more challenging than others...
“I knew that!”
Sometimes you know something is wrong, but you don’t know how to fix it (or you don’t have time, or you think it’s probably wrong, but maybe your workshop group won’t notice). You’ve rushed a scene, or your jokes aren’t funny, or you haven’t found a way to avoid the dreaded infodump. Perhaps your workshop group have some good ideas about how to fix it – and perhaps they don’t. Either way, it’s something you just need to face.
“I didn’t think of that!”
My favourite type. This is feedback that simply makes your story better because a reader has noticed something you haven’t even considered. For me, it’s often that I’ve neglected to describe something in enough detail, but my reader really wants to see it. But it could be about using dialogue to tell the story, giving readers an insight into the character’s emotions, or even cutting a section because it’s more effective to leave it unsaid.
If two people have responded to the same sentence/paragraph/scene with completely different advice… what do you do?
Well, your readers agree on one thing: that there’s a problem. So, first of all, accept that something isn’t coming across.
Now go back to your story goals. What’s the story that you want to tell? Maybe it’s really clear that one person has seen your vision and their feedback builds towards it, whereas another hasn’t. Or maybe both have missed the point. How do you clarify your vision so that readers get it?
This comes in so many varieties, and it usually takes some digestion. Read it all, but give yourself time to process it before doing anything. After a few hours/days/weeks it will be easier to work out why the feedback is uncomfortable:
Perhaps it’s right, but it means sacrificing something you love.
Perhaps it’s right, but it means making big, terrifying, difficult changes.
Perhaps it’s right, but it means admitting to yourself that something you tried to do didn’t work.
Or perhaps it’s wrong. Often our gut knows that feedback is wrong before our brain can explain why, and the why can take a lot of puzzling out. For me, working out the why is important: if I can articulate why certain feedback doesn’t work for my story, then I’ve learnt something about my story and about the craft of writing. And if similar feedback comes up later, I already know the answer.
(Hint: it’s usually because the feedback doesn’t build towards my story goals.)
(This really comes under the category of “uncomfortable feedback” – but taken to an extreme.)
Feedback is rarely completely wrong (and if it is, maybe you need a new critique partner?) Even if it completely misses the point or provides suggestions that aren’t right for the story you’re trying to tell, if a reader feels moved to suggest a change it’s because something isn’t working. Gut feelings are true for readers too: even if the solution they come up with is wildly mistaken, the gut feeling that pushed them there is probably right.
Give yourself time to rage. Then when you’re calm, work out how to put your point across so that even this guy will get it.
I’ve talked mostly about feedback that challenges your story – that asks it to change in some way. But it’s important to remember that that’s not the only type of useful feedback.
Just as important, is the feedback that tells you what you’re doing right – and why. The feedback that says: “By the end of the scene, I’d gone from feeling sad to feeling angry” or “The dialogue is really effective in showing these characters’ awkward-but-affectionate friendship” or “I can picture this castle in my mind and I want to go there!”
This feedback is so useful, because it tells you what to keep and what your writing strengths are; the things that will keep people reading.
But sometimes – just sometimes – a positive comment can prompt a change. Like when a reader loves the way you’ve used humour to lighten the mood… but actually you were trying to write a sombre scene. Or when a character is so quirky and likeable… but they’re meant to be quirky and detestable.
So how do you actually – you know – edit?
There are lots more articles about actually doing the editing bit than there are about deciding which edits to take seriously in the first place, but here are the top things that help me get it done:
Start with the big stuff, finish with the small stuff (after all, by the time you’ve done the big stuff, the small stuff might have changed).
If you don’t know how to make part of your story work, find books where the author has done something similar. How did they do it? Will that work for you?
If an edit sounds big – mind-breakingly big – and you’re not sure about it, give yourself a day to play the taking-it-seriously game. That means you start thinking “I’m just pretending, but: what would it mean for my story if I did this edit? How would everything else need to change to fit around it? How do I feel about the result?” The taking-it-seriously game is just a game and you can stop playing it any time. If, after a day, the new version of your story feels riddled with holes and you feel stuffed with anxiety, that edit probably isn’t right. But if elements of your story that were troubling you have suddenly clicked into place… maybe you need to stop playing the taking-it-seriously game and start Taking It Seriously.
Lists. I love lists. When I edit, I write lists of the changes I need to make. I highlight the big, important, non-negotiable things and start with those. Then I work through my list, ticking off edits as I go. A fully ticked-off list is such a satisfying thing.
Finally, dealing with feedback from fellow writers is different from dealing with feedback from your editor: other writers don’t have a stake in the success of your writing. And what does that mean?
It means if you don’t like it, you can ignore it.