There comes a time in every writer’s life when they must get feedback on the work that they have poured their soul into. And while writers often ask for feedback on the tome they’ve labored over, what they’re really seeking is accolades, not genuine critiques.
However, accolades don’t make a manuscript, or its writer, better. What helps all writers — whether they’re J.K. Rowling or you — is genuine, constructive feedback. Yet, when that feedback comes, it can often feel like a rebuke of our talents, our tale, and even us in general. And while many of us know it shouldn’t feel like this, sometimes it does. So, how do you get yourself ready to take genuine feedback and do something with it? Easy peasy (in theory, at least). I’m going to offer you three quick tips.
Separate Yourself from the Work. While you created the work, it’s just that. It’s a piece of work. You’d like it to convey the story you intended, but if it didn’t, that’s okay. And more importantly, that’s key for you to know. If everyone hates your main character (MC) and they’re supposed to love them, you need to know that. That’s the only way you’ll be able to fix the manuscript so people love the MC as much as you do. The first step to fixing a problem is knowing there is one, and that’s where genuine feedback comes in.
Keep an Open Mind. When writing, you can get caught up in the story and really immerse yourself in it. You know and understand everyone’s motivation, and when others tell you something isn’t perceived as you intended, it’s time to listen with an open mind. Free yourself of that bias you have toward your own point of view. Whoever has read your book has taken the time to do so, so let them express their interpretation of it. And consider that their interpretation may be how others read it, as opposed to yours. That can help you figure out if there is something you want to change to make your book read more in the way you intended it to come across than ways it does.
Ask for Specifics. Whether the feedback is good or bad, ask for specifics. Feedback like it was great, or it was okay, is not particularly helpful when figuring out what you did right, and where you went astray. In general, sending your work out with some specific questions can help you get better feedback. For example, ask people which parts of the work most excited them, and conversely, the areas where they were bored. If someone says a particular character was their favorite, ask them why. If they’re not articulating anything you find helpful, ask them which specific scene that character was in that they enjoyed most. If they hated a character (particularly one they weren’t supposed to hate), ask them why. Ask for specific examples, if they can offer them up.
We all want our masterpieces to be just that: dazzling works in our field. But, in order to dazzle, we have to realize that rarely happens immediately. The critique is about helping us get to dazzling. To take a cliché and use it our advantage, think of your manuscript as a diamond in the rough. If you want people to see it, you’ve got to grind off the grime, cut it, and polish it to perfection. Accepting feedback as an aide to help your process — rather than an insult of your writing skills — is the best way to do that. Now, have it!
12 thoughts on “Don’t Be That Author: How to Handle Genuine Feedback on Your Manuscript”
Excellent advice. I know my work has benefited from such feedback. Even if we decide we still don’t agree just thinking about it will help us understand why we did it the way we did.
Yes, the feedback is always useful because it lets you see other people’s points of view. I probably should have added that as a tip. You don’t want to write by consensus, but if several people are saying it, it’s worth giving more weight to than if the comment is an outlier and doesn’t jibe with your internal reading of it.
Good points, Rasheeda. I am often pretty blunt in my editing work, and I had one client complain that I was being too negative. I asked her: would she rather hear this from me now via private email, or would she rather publish the book as is and have readers leave negative reviews that were going to live on the internet FOREVER? I wanted her book to be the best it could be and, eventually, she did, too.
Thanks, Melissa. And I think whenever someone gives feedback, that’s the best way to give it: remind them that you just want them to put their best foot forward. That you’re not just picking on them because you enjoy being mean, but that you are offering constructive feedback. Some people have differing opinions on offering fixes. As an editor, you would. But, in general, some people just want to know what’s wrong, so they can figure out how to fix it (they view solution suggestions as tampering with their writing process) and other people like suggestions on fixes.
A writer hired me to perform a professional critique of her manuscript. It was, in a word, dreadful. I pointed out the myriad flaws, ranging from implausibility to and unlikable heroine to consistent grammatical errors. The client was, unfortunately, angry with me for such candor: she wanted praise, not honest criticism.
I particularly like your point about asking for specifics. It really helps if the author gives specific requests to readers ahead of time. I’ve had my best responses from, “Please check my science theory for this SF story,” and “Please check my military protocol for plausability.”
Or is that “plausibility?”
Yes, if you have specific things that concern you about the story, it’s good to ask up front. Though, if something is of middling concern, it’s sometimes good to just let it go and see if someone says something about it. Sometimes, the question about a specific item can have someone look more closely at something they wouldn’t otherwise have given a second thought to. That said, it’s probably better to err on the side of over scrutiny than under.
I like feedback. Yes, it’s nice to have the praise but I respect the more critical comments, as well, because that takes a certain courage to do that.
As a boy reporter on a New Zealand provincial newspaper 50 years ago I had to learn – and learn quickly – to accept criticism, and a lot of it bluntly given.
Later as a sub-editor and then as an editor I could give criticism. I had to learn to give it as dispassionately as I could. You must give a reason.
I got an e-mail from a woman in Canberra, the capital of Australia. She was half-way through my first novel and she hated my main character – a girl, aged 17, head girl of her New Zealand Catholic girls’ school, who had entered into a relationship with a journalist six years older than her.
The girl, the woman wrote, ‘reminds me of all the snobby bitches I used to know at school who were up themselves and thought their shit didn’t stink’.
I was taken aback.
I had drawn on women whom I knew and had known to create someone who was strong, had a mind of her own, had principles – had character, in other words. She was no snob.
I thought about it for a day or so and wrote back to her.
I thanked her for taking the trouble to write to me and went on to suggest that perhaps, if she could bear it, read on to the end and then get back to me.
Four days later she wrote again. She apologised for her outburst (‘no need’, I replied), and went on to say how she came to love the girl.
The feedback I dislike most – and you often see it in movie reviews these days – is the kind that tells the author what the feeder-backer thinks the story SHOULD BE.
I have had people tell me the second of mine should have had a different ending. No particular reason except that they just thought so.
Anyway, thanks, Rasheeda. Good post.
– Paul Corrigan
Yes, Paul, you are so right. Feedback is crucial. Glad you learned that at an early age. Also, glad that your reader had a different impression after finishing the book. That’s awesome when we can change someone’s mind about a character over the course of a novel!
As a long-time member of several critique groups, I would like to add: Don’t argue with the feedback! Nothing is more likely to shut down good critique as a response that defends the writer’s choices: e.g., “Here’s what you’re not getting,” insisting that a reader’s honest response is just plain wrong and the work is perfect as is. It’s easy to wonder why we’ve taken the time to read or listen to a submission if every suggestion will get automatically shot down. I’ve disagreed with feedback, of course; not every reader does “get it,” although, as you’ve said, it’s really important to find out where the disconnect is. But, in my view, in addition to “Why do you say that specifically?”, the appropriate response at the end of the day is “Thank you for pointing that out. I’ll take a look at that.” A lot of times, when I do take a look, I see how I can make what I was trying to accomplish clearer. So I’d say crave even feedback that seems to totally miss the point.
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