Taking Feedback

CC image by Demetri Parides

In my last blog, I nearly derailed my entire topic to talk about feedback. I started Mysterious Words with a throwaway joke that I regretted halfway through. I said, “I’ve never tossed a critique out so quickly before.”

That came out wrong.

All feedback can be learned from, and that’s what I want to talk about. No one can deny that there are different levels of quality to feedback. We know the smell of spoiled milk, and that crap needs to get dumped out real fast-like, garbage disposal roaring. But I think that level of feedback, the one that comes from a rotten core, is not as common as we assume it is. Look, if you’re workshopping with people in a class, it’s different. Those classes are called Creative Writing on paper, when really you’re taking Beginning Ego, Intermediate Self-Adoration, and Advanced Hubris.

But when you specifically ask someone for feedback, that means that you respect their opinion and that you trust them to be honest with you. Don’t punish that honesty. Stop convincing yourself that you’re going to take their word with a Titanic-obliterating sized grain of salt. You’re not going to benefit from that, and you’re doing them a disservice—disrespecting them and wasting the time and effort they put into trying to make your work better. So here is what to keep in mind when taking feedback.

Want the Bad and the Ugly
Forget about the good. Yes, it’s helpful to know what is working in your writing, but positive feedback isn’t helpful for much else than a superficial pat on the back. If you can pull a 360 on your perspective and be eager for negative criticism instead of positive criticism, then you will be primed and ready to listen, ready to change, and ready to improve. Be excited for what you can do to make your work better, not to hear about how good you already are. With that perspective at heart, you can start shaping your questions to know what you can do better instead of fishing for compliments.

Suck It Up
Be an adult and realize that you are an imperfect creature. Don’t respond to your feedback with despair and cries of, “Woe is me!” I’m being facetious, but I’ll be honest—this is my knee-jerk reaction. It’s hard not to immediately feel crushed at negative feedback, to feel like a failure. I’m an emotional creature. Feelings come like ocean waves, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it—I’m going to get drenched. What’s important is to realize when this is happening and to understand that you can’t learn from feedback through that emotional lens. So take some time. Take a walk. Dry off. Come back to the feedback when you’re ready to remember that negative critiques aren’t signs of failure, they’re challenges and opportunities.

Get Over Yourself
On the other hand, don’t pretend that you are above reproach. If feedback sparks defensiveness, denial, or excuses in you, then you may need to get your pride in check. Self-doubt and insecurity will not allow you to be a good, ever-improving writer, but pride won’t either. Madeleine’s three-part series Taming the Beast of Pride is an amazing resource for tempering that barrier to your development.

Don’t Treat Feedback like Junk Mail
It’s easy to identify junk mail and toss it in the trash. We all rue the day that we purchased that one item from that one website and are now sentenced to a lifetime of brochures and subscriptions that we never wanted and never asked for. Feedback is never junk mail. Stop yourself from ever feeling dismissive about feedback from a person you trust. I’m not putting on a retail smile and saying that the customer is always right. I once had a professor indignantly ask (yes, his handwriting looked indignant) in the margin of my nonfiction story which of the two sisters was older. I can’t tell you the size of the mysteriously forehead-shaped dent in my wall that magically appeared when I noticed that the first sentence of my story said something to the effect of, “My older sister…”

As I said before, there are different levels of quality to feedback. You’ll know the feedback that resonates with you, that you know to be true. But you should pay attention to the feedback that you initially dismiss. There may be a kernel of truth to it. It may be that your reader falsely identified why they disconnected or felt something was amiss or distracting. Carefully consider your readers’ reactions to parts of your story and try to trace that reaction back to the correct source. For example, a reader may hate a character for a decision they made and may claim the character was not well developed. Perhaps that is the case. Maybe you need to go back and be clearer about that character’s head space and why they did what they did. On the other hand, maybe it has nothing to do with that character. Maybe the person that character is opposing, the antagonist, isn’t threatening enough to justify the decision. Maybe the environmental details are left out. The reactions that your readers have to your story stem from somewhere, so take the time to search for the source.

CC image by Dennis Skley

CC image by Dennis Skley

Be Suspicious of Unicorns and Rainbows
The hard part about giving your work to people who love you is that they cannot read your work objectively. Sometimes what that means is you get only positive feedback. “It was great, wonderful, STUPENDOUS! Don’t change anything!” It’s possible they really think that. It’s also possible that they just don’t want to hurt your feelings. With these kinds of people, think about asking probing questions. Don’t ask questions like, “Was there anything you didn’t like?” because these people will say no every time. Instead, ask the question with the assumption that there will be something wrong. For example, “What part did you not like?” “What was your least favorite thing about the book?” Sometimes they will open up to you, and sometimes you have to catalogue them as someone you shouldn’t ask to read your work.

This is a start, at the very least, to make what can sometimes be a bitter pill easier to swallow. What I can say is that it gets easier. Something to be said about co-authoring a book is that you get a lot of practice with feedback. I remember back when feedback between Tracy and me was like when you try to walk past a person and you both sidestep in the same direction, then do it again, and again. “Oh, sorry. Excuse me. Sorry. Oops.” I don’t think there’s anything more awkward than that. We are now at the point where we’ve stopped wasting time sidestepping. With each other, we’re honest and blunt, humble and accepting. Sure we may still bristle now and again, but it’s good for us.

“Dude, you can do better. Stop being lazy.”
“Yeeeeaaah. You’re right.”

It took a lot of time and a lot of trust to get there, but I can tell you that if you ever build that kind of relationship with someone where you trust their feedback wholeheartedly, it is the most valuable resource to your writing you will ever have.

By: Rachelle Clifford