The hardest part of any creative endeavour, after finding the courage to show it to someone, is being brave enough to hear what they think of it. Not all readers are created equal, and sometimes their thoughts or “suggestions” can sting a little. With that in mind, here are my suggestions on how to take literary feedback like a champ.
NB: What follows is a mix of advice from other writers combined with what I’ve found works for me, and whilst I will be talking about the written word throughout, most of what I am about to say will apply to art, music, cooking, in fact anything where you have had to bare your soul even a little bit.
Lock Up Your Heart
If you’re anything like me you’re about to have a big emotional reaction, so prepare yourself. I find it best to detach myself from the whole process by remembering that everything that is about to happen does not require an immediate response. It’s perfectly fine to simply accept the notes as they are given and take them away for further study later on. In fact, where possible, this is the preferred choice. Every note needs time to be given its due consideration.
Don’t Take It Personally
It’s perfectly understandable, when faced with someone telling you in great detail how hideous your precious little book baby is, to want to rip their head off. Don’t. Believe it or not it’s not personal, even though it feels that way. And whilst it may seem like this “so-called friend” is taking the opportunity to give you and your work a merciless bashing, quite the opposite is true. The vast majority of notes come from a place of love. The person giving you feedback only wants what’s best for you. They want to help you improve your writing in hopes of one day getting it published. That’s worth bearing in mind.
Remember Who You’re Dealing With
Is the person giving you feedback a professional, or simply a friend or family member? Do they create, or are they a consumer? Can they tell you what doesn’t work overall, or just what doesn’t work for them? These are all important things to consider when trying to weigh up how much importance to give to someone’s feedback.
It’s also worth considering how well you know them, how well they know you, and how well they know the genre/market you are aiming for? Will they get your jokes? Will they get your references? Will they understand the memes and tropes synonymous with your specific genre? Do they know what the reader will expect, and can they convey that in a clear and concise manner? (NB: They don’t have to, it’s not their job to provide you with notes that are “correct” in some way, but it does colour how you will interpret said notes when they arrive.)
Let Us Begin
Assuming that your feedback comes in the form of physical notes that accompany your original document in some way, the first thing to do is just read them from beginning to end. Don’t attach your mind to any one note, don’t obsess over them, don’t get caught up in the emotional roller coaster that’s about to happen, simply read them from beginning to end, set them to one side, do a little dance, scream into a pillow, then go make yourself a cup of tea.
Give It Time For Things To Settle
Depending on how many and how critical your notes are, you may need to take some time for the dust to settle. That’s okay. You do what you gotta do before coming back to look at the notes a second time.
It’s important to note that in this gestation period some notes will linger in your mind. They will be either obviously brilliant or obviously awful, and both are worthy of careful attention when you come back for that all important second reading.
So What Are We Dealing With?
The notes that you receive come in many forms, but in general they will fit into one of the following six categories:
- Compliments – These are the easiest notes to deal with, for obvious reasons. They are also the ones you will see fewest of, simply because people think their job in providing feedback is to highlight what doesn’t work, not what does. A good professional reader will always remember to say nice things. Your average amateur reader won’t. They assume that not saying anything means you’ll understand that they think everything else is fine. That’s something worth bearing in mind.
- Simple Fixes – As the name suggests these will be things like a typo, a sudden name change, a switch in tense, that are easy enough to fix once someone else has pointed them out to you, but you do need someone to point them out to you. (These notes generally involve the physical text itself rather than the characters or story line.)
- Good Points – These will be logical inconsistencies regarding character and plot which, when considered, make perfect sense. They might involve someone suddenly wearing different clothes without having changed, a character travelling hundreds of miles in a few minutes, the family dog leaping about like a puppy when it is in fact over a hundred in human years, or any number of plot points that used to make sense but have since gotten lost in the murky mists of countless rewrites. Whilst these notes may be a little embarrassing they are very helpful indeed. Cherish them.
- Wrong Points – Not all notes are good. Some of them are just stupid and wrong, and that’s okay. Every note has value, and if someone has felt the need to bring up something you feel is wrong (and obviously so) you need to ask why? What did you do, or didn’t you do, to make that question come about, and do you need to do something about it? Quite often a bit of clarification elsewhere in your manuscript will make something somewhere else that much clearer. And as with all writing, clarity is key.
- Thinkers – Readers often see stuff in our work that we cannot. This leads to a certain class of note that bears some consideration. It might be regarding what someone says or does, what they could say or do, their motivations behind doing something, things not happening the way they expect them to, or it could even be the fact that two characters actually quite fancy each other and they, the reader, kinda ship that idea. Notes such as this may lead to big changes, or they may simply be amusing asides that ultimately lead nowhere, but either way they are worth giving your due consideration as they could easily lead to some properly satisfying story gold.
- The Annoying Ones – Annoying notes are Thinkers that involve a lot of work which simply won’t go away. They feel Wrong, you want them to be Wrong, but deep down in your heart of hearts you know that they’re not. You know they will take you somewhere special if you let them, elevating your story to the heights of greatness. All you’ve got to do is rewrite the entire last half of you manuscript to get there. Annoying notes are right no matter how much you wish they weren’t. They should be looked at in great detail, and they should definitely not be ignored.
You Have To Choose
You don’t have to take all, or indeed any, of the notes that are given to you. Each set of notes, no matter where they’re coming from, represents one person’s opinion. Whether you listen to that person or not is up to you. As a rule though you’re likely to accept some, discard others, and struggle with the rest. That’s just the way it goes.
You can also play about with an idea before getting rid of it. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that. The important thing is to give each note its due consideration before letting it go. Sift that sand with a fine-toothed comb. You don’t want to miss out on any gold nuggets lurking at the bottom of the pan.
Say Thank You
No matter who is giving you notes, no matter how numerous or detailed they are, always, always, ALWAYS smile and say thank you afterwards. This person has taken time out of their busy schedule to trawl through what may very well be a dumpster fire of a manuscript in order to to provide you with their thoughts and opinions, all so that you can make your story that little bit better. It’s a very kind and generous thing that they have done, and they deserve our admiration and respect. Say thank you, buy them dinner, and for God’s sake remember to put their name in the acknowledgements when its publication time. It’s the least you can do.
Final Thoughts On The Whole Process
There are a few things to bear in mind when going through this whole process.
First, you need feedback from multiple sources. You need to compare and contrast different notes so that you can look for the consistent inconsistencies. If one person loves something and another hates it that’s a wash, and you can probably leave it be. But if everyone tells you there’s a problem then there probably is.
Second, if someone tells you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, they’re probably wrong. If they have a vague idea that something isn’t right but they don’t know what to do about it, they’re probably right. It’s the difference between someone helping you write your story and someone trying to get you to write their story for them. One is good for you and one isn’t. I received so many notes on a short story once I ended up disregarding them all, because it was obvious they weren’t commenting on the story I had written but the story they thought I should have written, and that wasn’t a story I was interested in telling.
And third, writers, perversely enough, do not always give the best feedback. They quite often slip into “this is how I would have done it” mode (I myself am guilty of this). The best notes, the notes that are most helpful, the notes you get from professional readers, ask questions. Why did so-and-so do that? Where did he get that from? Are these two in love? These are the notes that can take your story from good to great, and from great to special. They are the gold among the sand, and they should be treated as such. A handful of good questions from the right person at the right time and your story will really start going places.
Don’t fear the feedback process. It may involve more blood, sweat, and tears than you were expecting after writing the words, The End, but it’s all about making your manuscript the best it can be, and anything that does that can only be a good thing.