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How to Receive Feedback on Your Writing

I’m obsessed with writing group posts this month. The good news? Many of the topics — like how to comment on someone’s writing and the reality of the green-eyed monster — also apply to the larger topic of writing in general. And so, I continue.

Today’s topic? How to receive feedback on your writing. The whole “thick skin” recommendation is a crock of you-know-what. We’re not lizards or alligators. Our skin bruises. Easily. I think what writers need to develop is Bounce Back. Feedback, even the best intentioned, will *likely* sting, bruise, hurt, and, in some cases, completely shatter your soul. (Notice I use the word “likely” a lot when I’m making these generalizations. There are always exceptions to the rule. I’m sure there’s a Teflon Writer out there who doesn’t feel a thing when receiving feedback. I haven’t met this person. But, like Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster, I’ve heard about rare sightings.)

What is “Bounce Back”? It’s not some fancy-schmancy SEO term or a warning on your checking account. Basically, it’s the term I use to describe how quickly you bounce back from receiving feedback. Bounce Back manifests itself in how you respond over time to the feedback. Forget your immediate response, which might involve expletives running through your head and thoughts of “You don’t know what you’re talking about” rants that you’d like to deliver to your fellow writing group members. Or your editor. Or that reviewer. Or that customer comment on Amazon. Bounce Back is what happens after you’ve had a chance to digest the criticism, constructive or otherwise.

At the end of the day, it’s your writing. You get to decide what feedback to reject and what to accept. You know you’ve hit your Bounce Back groove when you find yourself doing both. If all you’re doing is rejecting everything everyone says, well, you have very low Bounce Back. Same if you accept everything everyone says (thus turning the piece of writing into what I often call a platypus). Bounce Back is kinda like the Golden Mean of feedback. It balances what makes sense to you with what doesn’t feel right…and it allows you to go back and look at your piece with an objective eye.

Achieving Bounce Back takes practice. Here are some strategies:

  • Take notes. Listening to feedback can be painful (even if it’s good overall, your mind will home in on that one comment that wasn’t). Learning to really hear what people are saying is not always easy to decipher as you’re listening. That’s why it’s important to take notes, I think. Write down everything everyone says, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. Why? Two reasons. First, it gives you something to do while people are delivering their feedback. Second, it gives you something to go back to after your mind has had a chance to process.
  • Put the notes aside for awhile. How long will depend upon your personality and/or it might depend on the piece. I’ll often go through my notes and marked-up drafts within a couple of days and accept all the obvious things (e.g. typos) and whatever feels instantly “right” in my gut. Then I put it aside, knowing that my subconscious is working through the more controversial recommendations and feedback. As for how long it takes before I come back to that specific feedback? It really depends. Sometimes days, sometimes years (for novels).
  • Look at the craziest idea and try it. Is someone suggesting you ditch third person and try writing it in first? Try it. Open a fresh Word doc and try writing one scene or one chapter in first person. Is someone saying they want more description? Open a new page, and try describing a room, a character, whatever in great detail. Go with it. You may or may not end up using the text, but it will flex your brain muscle in a new way. And that’s a good thing.
  • Keep it in perspective – one person’s opinions is one person’s opinions. You will never, ever get everyone to like your piece. Don’t aim to please everyone. Aim to make the writing and the story (memoir, poem, etc.) as strong as you can make it. (How do you know when you’ve achieved this? When the thought of your own death and having people find your writing when they’re cleaning out your stuff doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you.)
  • Consider the source. Everyone’s opinion is valid; this is true. But some feedback is going to be more informed than others. In my writing group, we have some members who write sci-fi. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, so I always preface my feedback with that disclaimer. That particular genre has certain “rules,” and I always defer to the writer and the members in the group who are voracious readers of the genre. That doesn’t mean I don’t have any relevant feedback to provide; I often do. But I think it’s important for everyone to realize they have their strengths. (Agents often specialize in certain genres for this reason — same concept applies.)
  • Receive feedback graciously (even the yucky stuff). Feedback is a one-way process: from one person to you. You should not debate with someone that he or she is wrong or missed the point. Why? Because you’re not going to be sitting next to every reader who picks up your short story, novel, poem, etc. and offering explanations when he or she misinterprets something or misses a point. Your job is to ensure that you’re conveying on the page what your mind thinks it’s conveying — the two often don’t match up.
  • Don’t exact revenge on others. If you get torn apart in a workshop session, do not seek revenge by becoming a monster when it’s your turn to give feedback.
  • Don’t give up. A tough workshop session (I’m thinking MFA programs now rather than writing groups) can leave you questioning whether you should be doing this at all. It’s a normal reaction to have in certain moments, as long as you don’t let the notion consume you and cloud your judgment.

Add your ideas and experiences with feedback in the comments.

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