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How do you get the most from critical feedback and editorial notes?

You've written something and now you need a second opinion. Receiving critical feedback can be difficult and knowing how to accept and extrapolate the most value from it can be even harder. This is a skill that most people have to learn, so we asked the scribble for their best advice and top tips on how to get the most value from critical feedback and editorial notes.

If you want to get the most from critical feedback and editorial notes, then work on your objectivity. Get better at taking a step back and looking at your work with an open mind and unbiased judgement (as much as anyone is able). Turning off your ego takes practice and self-control, and you need to pair that with an understanding of what you’re trying to achieve with your work, an honest assessment of quality and confidence to either stick to your guns or make a change for the better.

Last month I attended a writing workshop and I got to see something from the outside that I’ve experienced, myself, on too many occasions to count. I read someone’s prose and pointed out a word that I didn’t think fit with the flow and style. The author then admitted he already knew that the word didn’t work but hadn’t changed it.

I was reminded of all the times I’ve been on the receiving end of this exact scenario - when I knew something didn’t work and didn’t listen to my gut, only to have it pointed out and to feel foolish or resentful because I was being told something I already understood.

So here we go, my top tips for wringing the most value out of critical feedback:

  1. Listen to your instinct and don't send something for feedback before it's ready.

  2. Be specific about what kind of feedback you’re looking for.

  3. Acquire feedback from people whom you respect. You don’t have to like them, you just have to respect that they have something of value to offer you. If you don’t have any respect for the person, their work, their skill or their experience (at least one of) then you won’t respect their feedback and you’re wasting both your time and theirs.

  4. Don’t get offended or angry about feedback, even if it’s on the rude side. Have a few deep breaths; walk away for a bit if you need to and come back later. Don’t dismiss critique or editorial notes out of hand; take a step back and try to squeeze as much value out of feedback as you can. You get the final call on what changes you actually make, so don’t get bent out of shape about suggestions.

  5. If you’re acquiring critique then it’s likely you intend your work to be read by others. Your creation is going to be used as a piece of reading by many more people than those who use it as a piece of writing (i.e. you). The perspective of a reader is important. Don’t forget that. But also remember that you can’t please everyone!

  6. And finally, if you’ve genuinely worked through all of the above and still don’t agree with a suggested or requested change, and you can’t find a compromise that works for everyone, don’t be afraid to stand your ground. You are the writer. It is yours.

Critical feedback is a tool, and like all tools, you have to learn how to use it properly before it becomes useful to you. If you can do that, it will help you craft much better things.

First of all, check your ego in at the door. It’s normal to be a bit hurt if you receive negative feedback, and you should care about your writing, but if you’ve asked for feedback, then do your best to receive it with an open mind and try not to take it personally.

One way to make sure your feedback is useful, is to be honest with yourself about your writing in the first place. I like to put it away for about a week, and then print it off and read it in hard copy. It’s amazing what a difference that makes; the mistakes just seem to jump off the page. Then try to identify two or three areas you would like specific feedback on. This will be more helpful than asking for a general opinion or a scattergun approach, and your reader will appreciate the guidance.

All that said, you don’t have to swallow any feedback you get whole - remember, it’s your writing, and if the feedback you get doesn’t sit well with you, don’t change your work without getting a second, third or fourth opinion. And even then, you don’t have to change it. You are the writer, and the buck (book?) stops with you.

Of course, if your work is at the stage where it’s being prepared for publication, then it’s a good idea to listen to your editor. They know the market after all, and if you’re new to the publishing scene, then you might have a lot to learn. Once your book is a blazing success, you might find you have a lot more clout when it comes to editing - I have my own theories about why JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books get progressively heftier as the series continues!

For us mere mortals, though, it’s a great idea to choose your feedback providers carefully. Try not to pick readers who will shower you with compliments; on the other hand, don’t pick people who don’t know you well enough to be honest. Someone who is on your wavelength; who writes themselves; who can be honest without being mean, and who will approach feedback as a conversation about your work rather than a judgement is always your best bet.

To accept and get the most out of feedback you have to want feedback - otherwise there’s no point. If you’re not ready for other people to read your work and tell you their honest opinion, don’t share it with them. I know that sounds negative but in my eyes that’s the first step. You have to be ready for other people to read your stuff and you have to accept that they will have opinions about it that will likely differ from your own.

I also believe that to get the most out of feedback it is important to view your work in a different light yourself. Like we’ve said before on this blog, it is important to learn how to step away from your work and look at it through different eyes. If you can do that, then accepting critique from people who actually have different eyes (and opinions) is a lot easier.

It is also important who those eyes belong to. Choose your critics carefully. If you want the most important and useful feedback possible then the person who is giving it to you is important. Show your work to people who are going to be honest with you, people who won’t sugar-coat it or throw compliments at you. Show it to people who you respect (be it their opinions, their character, or their own work). If you don’t respect your critics you will never take their feedback on board.

You should also avoid being too general with the feedback you’re requesting. Be it a novel or microfiction, ‘what do you think?’ is unlikely to yield the best results. Be specific. Ask for feedback on certain areas that you feel are the weakest or need changing up somehow because they just aren’t right. A great piece of advice I received once was to ask specific questions when requesting feedback, think: ‘how does this character make you feel?’ Or ‘if you could change one thing about this story, what would it be?’

Finally, the most important thing to remember when it comes to feedback is this: you are the boss. This is your work that you’ve poured so much energy and love into. You don’t have to change a thing, if you don’t want to. Feedback is a crucial and necessary tool that, if used correctly, should help you to create the best work you can. However, if you try to take a piece of criticism on board and you make the changes but it just isn’t right - forget about it. Do what you want.

Ugh, this one’s always a toughie, isn't it? No one likes to hear anything negative about something they've worked hard on, especially something as personal as writing!

Firstly, be open minded! Accept that everyone has a totally different opinion and that's okay! Also, accept that you can 100% ignore feedback, it's your choice. If it doesn't fit with your piece, or you just really don't want to take it onboard, then you absolutely do not have to. The best thing about writing is that it's yours! I often find making notes of the feedback that works and makes sense, even when it's difficult, helps. Make the most of workshop sessions, even when they get you squirming in your seat!

Secondly, let people know what you're wanting feedback on. This is so important! There's no point receiving feedback on elements that you're unwilling to edit, or even consider editing. Especially if it's at the cost of getting a critique on something you really want / need it for!

Thirdly, utilise your tribe for getting feedback! It doesn't matter how educated someone is, if you don't respect or value their opinions, then their feedback won't mean anything to you. So use the people you trust, who you know will be honest and supportive no matter what they're telling you about your work.

Accepting critical feedback is never easy, but if you place yourself in the right environment and try to go in with the right mindset, it can definitely make it much less painful!


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Cover image by Tingey Injury Law Firm via Unsplash


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