I don’t know about you, but drafting can be hard for me. I struggle to turn off that inner editor and critic. Once I do have a draft in hand, I love the process of editing, revising, soliciting feedback and revising again. My approaches to copywriting and my own creative non-fiction writing are relatively similar, but for this post, I’m referring strictly to my writing, not writing for hire.
Feedback can be a writer’s best friend—and biggest obstacle. Thoughtful, detailed constructive criticism can push you to improve your writing and produce a piece that’s even stronger than you first imagined.
But not all feedback is created equal. How do you know when to take it or leave it? A workshop peer recently gave me the perfect example of criticism gone wrong. I loved how she handled it so much, I’m sharing it here. (FYI, the person who provided the off-the-mark edits was not in the workshop.) The reader didn’t give comments such as “this sentence is confusing” or “I’m not sure what you mean by this phrase.” Nope, the reader re-wrote took it upon herself to rewrite what she didn’t like.
For our workshop, my fellow writer used that “feedback” to re-write a section of her chapter. In contrast, she also gave us the original section, as she’d originally written it. The difference was incredible—so much so that most of the workshop participants were in stitches. By the end, we’d all lost our composure and were laughing uncontrollably.
We weren’t laughing at the person who had given the mis-directed feedback. We were guffawing because the re-written work sounded nothing like the author. Her voice had been obliterated.
So how can you make sure you’re getting feedback that’s going to help, not hinder you? There’s no guarantee, but these are a few tips that have worked for me over the years.
- Set ground rules. Whether you trust a single reader or a larger group of people to critique your work, set a few rules so that everyone knows what to expect. Rules can include keeping the feedback focused on structure, characters and plot or agreeing that readers can ask questions but not re-write sentences or paragraphs. The point is to make sure everyone agrees up front.
- Check your ego. This goes for writers and readers.
- Readers: when you’re critiquing a piece, make sure that you’re focused on helping the writer. If you don’t like a sentence because that’s not how you would write it, is that really going to help the author? Voice and style are part of what makes each of us distinct.
- Writers: receiving feedback can be hard. Sometimes it stings when something you poured yourself into isn’t received the way you thought it would be. If you struggle with a piece of criticism, set it aside for a few days. When you go back to it, you may find you now agree with it—or not. Either way, it’s your decision.
- Trust your gut. The example I gave you earlier of the reader re-writing instead of offering constructive criticism was easy to laugh off. It won’t always be that easy. I was very lucky to have a classmate once who gave me amazing critical input. Some days I dreaded it and others I was eager to read his comments. It was my gut that knew he was right, even if I sometimes wished he wasn’t. On the flip side, if someone always tells you that you’re great and doesn’t ask any questions or provide meaningful notes, is that person really the best reviewer to have?
To quote literary agent Betsy Lerner, “I never care if a writer takes my notes so much as uses them.”
What about you? How do you managing giving and receiving feedback? Do you have tips that work for you and your feedback groups? Please share!