Sharing your writing, particularly for the first time, is terrifying. What if early readers confirm your suspicions that your half-formed ideas are stupid? Yet the best way to grow as a writer is to seek outside opinions, and every work-in-progress needs another pair of eyes at some point, no matter how experienced you are. The good news is that it does get easier the more you share and learn to cope with feedback.
Yesterday I did a blog post about giving feedback on other writers’ work, something that isn’t as straightforward as you might think. The most important thing, naturally, is to take people’s feelings into consideration. But what if you’re the one at the receiving end? And it’s your delicate feelings being tested? This post has some suggestions for dealing with good – and harsh – feedback so you’ll benefit from the experience as opposed to feeling crushed. But obviously you should only take onboard whatever resonates with you and disregard the rest (this message will be reiterated further on!).
1. Listen. A good beta reader will pick up on issues you haven’t spotted because you’re too close to your own story. What might be obvious to you as the author may not be so clear to the reader. Or the opposite may be the case – you’re laying things on too thickly when the reader already has the picture. You don’t have to take all advice, but I generally find that if two or three people are picking up on the same thing, it probably needs a rethink, even if they’re pointing out something I love and hate to lose.
2. …but don’t listen to everyone, all the time. There’s feedback and feedback. Some people are excellent and have your best interests at heart, wanting only to help you knock the work into the best possible shape. Others have their own agenda, whether they’re trying to score superiority points, are a bit jealous or have some kind of inbuilt literary snobbery, and may be a bit, well, mean. You’ll soon learn to spot the difference. Trust plays a huge part in the feedback process. A good writing community is a brilliant asset in finetuning your work before it goes out into the world. A toxic one (and though I haven’t experienced it personally, I’ve heard some hair-raising tales) can be very damaging to your confidence and steer you wrong. So choose your readers wisely. It’s a trial-and-error thing, but you’ll eventually find people whose opinions you can count on.
3. Take time to absorb what’s being said. Some feedback is pretty straightforward, and as soon as you see it you’re kicking yourself for having overlooked those things but grateful that your blushes have been spared. Other points might be harder to digest, particularly if they pick holes when you thought you were done, and now realise you have to go back to the drawing board yet again. Or you might be advised to make changes you aren’t comfortable with. That’s fine. Take some time to mull them over. Put the suggestions away and come back to them after a few days, when you feel less emotional. You may be able to look at them more objectively and figure out what to follow and what to disregard.
4. Trust your gut instinct. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to accept every note. If you feel the feedback is off the mark, you can always ignore it! Or get another opinion from someone whose judgement you trust more or have more in common with. The editorial police will not come after you if you don’t take in every correction that’s suggested to you. If anything, I think it’s a good sign if there are certain things you’re willing to stand by and fight for because you feel strongly enough about them. It is ultimately your creative choice. And if you have a reader who gets narked when you don’t follow their advice to the letter, might I suggest that they’re being a tad overbearing and are possibly not the best person to work with? Also, if you get confused by a lot of conflicting advice, for example during a workshopping session where everyone piles in, maybe step back a bit and think about what drew you to that subject in the first place. What was the story you wanted to tell and do you want others to steer it in a different direction, one that isn’t your intention? Because the fact is that sometimes even trusted readers can get it wrong – they can only offer opinions, and those opinions are subjective.
5. Don’t take it to heart. Except for very rare occasions (see the agenda thing above), most feedback is given with the best of intentions. It may be harsh because the person believes you can take it and the work will be all the better for a tough approach. Or the person may be clumsy in the way they communicate. Or it may, in fact, be very mild criticism but you happen to be in a fragile place where you view all feedback as a personal hammering. Others seeing areas where your piece can be improved does NOT mean that what you’ve written is inadequate. There’s also the possibility that you’ve misunderstood what they’re trying to tell you – not everyone is skilled at making their points clearly – so it might be worth clarifying with them.
6. Return the favour. If you have volunteers who are generous enough to give you their time and opinion by critiquing, make sure you’re also there for them when they need help. Some people unfortunately see beta reading as a one-way process (ie. your sole function in life is to read and marvel at their work) – that’s not on. Again, you learn to identify and avoid these people! But equally, if you do that you’ll find people will be slow to read for you again. The best scenario is one where you and a well-suited group are able to support, encourage and be honest with each other.
I really hope some of the above is useful. Learning to get over myself and share my scribblings was the single biggest turning point in my writing life. And I can’t imagine sending anything out into the world nowadays without running it by a few of the amazing, astute readers I’m lucky enough to have around me. I hope you find such a community too.
Do let me know in the comments section below if there’s anything you’d like to add or feel I’ve missed. And happy writing!