Many newer writers bristle at feedback. In creative writing workshops, they defend their work against their classmates’ observations. When beta readers offer suggestions, they explain why the readers are wrong. When asking for feedback, they are disappointed at anything but praise.
Well of course! Criticism hurts! It feels like you’re killing my little darlings!
It’s okay to feel protective of your work; that’s natural. But if you take some space and then consider the feedback objectively, you will likely find that your writing improves. And you may progress even faster when you learn to love feedback.
The benefits of getting feedback on your writing
So, you’re telling me to let people pick apart my writing?
Sort of, but it’s more than that. Feedback is not just about picking things apart and being critical. It’s about showing you your strengths and helping you grow. There are loads of benefits to feedback.
Feedback is how you learn. Almost everything we do requires learning. Babies can’t run right away; they crawl, then toddle, then walk. They fall down—oops!—and that’s a bit of feedback about what doesn’t work. A baby doesn’t get embarrassed about falling down or ask why they didn’t walk perfectly on their first try; they just get back at it.
Feedback gets you unstuck. Writing is often a solitary pursuit, and it is easy to spin, to stay in your own head, to wonder if you are doing it “right.” Feedback gets you out of your private echo chamber and back into the real world. Yes, your ideas make sense. No, that image doesn’t work.
Feedback helps solve problems. While writing is a solitary endeavor, not everything must be done alone. Check out the acknowledgment pages of a few books; you’ll see plenty of thank-yous for helping solve a plot problem or a structural issue.
Feedback results in a better product for your reader. When you get objective information about how readers perceive your writing, you can create a better book (or article or white paper) for them. An approach you think works may fall flat with readers, but one you think is too “out there” may capture their interest. I had that experience recently writing descriptions of a conference session. I would have used the “plain Jane” version, but potential audience members immediately latched on to a more whimsical option.
How to get better at loving feedback on your writing
All right, all right. You convinced me. I’ll start asking for more feedback on my writing. But it’s just so uncomfortable…
Yup. Getting feedback can be uncomfortable, partly because it is unfamiliar and feels risky. But if you practice often enough, it becomes familiar. And if you start to experience the benefits, you may find yourself warming up to feedback or even loving it. Here are some tips to get there…
Remember that feedback is about the writing, not the person. When you write something, it is coming out of your own little brain and from your own little heart, so when someone offers critical feedback, it can feel personal. It is not. Feedback on your writing is about the writing, not the author. It is “This paragraph is confusing to me” rather than “Wow, you suck at explaining things.” At least that’s the way it should be, so…
Find a trusted source. Ask for feedback in a setting where you will get legitimate critique and feel safe. That might be a regular writing group, a writing class, or an individual coach or mentor. When I started writing, I took loads of writing classes in which we had to sit silently while listening to peer feedback. Yes, it was uncomfortable, but the discussion was guided by a skilled instructor and we were all in the same boat. Now I have a poetry critique group that meets regularly, and the editors I use in my client work also help me improve as a writer.
Let yourself react. We’re all human. It’s okay to feel prickly upon initial criticism. If that’s common for you (like it is for me), just accept it as part of the process, knowing you’ll move through that stage. Sleep on the feedback and judge it fresh the next day, when you can be more objective.
Look for patterns. As you assess the feedback you receive, look for patterns—things you hear from multiple people. Anything that causes confusion or misinterpretation is worth an extra look. After all, once your writing is out in the world, you can’t sit next to the reader to explain what you really meant. But also pay attention to the strengths people point out so you can continue building on them.
Consider the source. Of course you want to get feedback from readers you trust, but weigh the feedback judiciously by the reader’s role or expertise—not all opinions are created equal. If you’re in a beginners’ creative writing class, your classmates may not have much experience to draw on; the teacher’s feedback probably warrants stronger weight. Similarly, if you are getting feedback from beta readers, someone who is part of your target audience probably deserves more weight than someone who never reads your genre. It may be smart to listen to an editor over a non-editor, especially on technical points. And be cautious when asking family and close friends for feedback—they may find it difficult to be objective or critical.
Practice giving feedback. When you critique others’ writing in a class or writers’ group, you are learning how to look at your own work more objectively. You can practice even on books you read for pleasure: what works, what doesn’t, and why?
Remember—you get to decide. You are the author. Ultimately, it’s up to you what feedback you incorporate and what you ignore.
Read Mindset by Carol Dweck. If you have trouble accepting feedback or making mistakes, read this book. (HT Alan Hoffler.) When I read Mindset, I had been writing long enough that I had already learned to love feedback on my writing. But, speaking as a perfectionist in general, this book was a gamechanger for me in how I view attempts, mistakes, and feedback on everything else. It helped relieve the self-imposed pressure to be perfect and allowed me to view feedback more objectively.
Are you convinced?
Feedback is a valuable tool for writing well. Don’t ask for feedback too early (on truly unformed work), but don’t hesitate to ask for it when you’re stuck, when you want to gauge reader response, or when you’re ready to take your work to the next level.
Yeah, yeah, all right. I’ll give it a shot.
Good. Your readers will thank you for it.
(But first give me that Mindset book…)
Need some (critical but kind) feedback? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s see if I can help.