Feedback on Your Writing: It’s Not All Created Equal

spices. Image courtesy of stock.xchng®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!

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11 thoughts on “Feedback on Your Writing: It’s Not All Created Equal

  1. I’ve been in more than a few writing groups where the comments were just terrible and explained more about the critic’s taste than my writing. I don’t want to know how one would do it, but where you are confused about what I am doing.

    It does help to know what the critics like before starting with them. Sometimes that will help filter out people who aren’t worth the trouble.

  2. Thank you for the great comments!

    @Cassandra Jade ~ It’s so true that when someone points out a flaw, it can become obvious. When I see these mistakes pointed out, I think “how could I have missed that?” It just shows how easy it is to stop truly “seeing” your text.

    @wordsedge ~ You’ve had some really interesting experiences! I’m so glad you shared them here. One of my workshops focused on asking the writer questions. That was really helpful because it kept the feedback along the lines of impressions and story. Also, I’m very curious about whatever happened to your piece with the heavy Texan hybrid drawl. My grandfather wrote a novel like that (and probably gave you a good run on those apostrophes). I’ve never been able to finish reading it, even though I cherish the book.

    @Tracy ~ I love your description of a “stumbly” sentence as well as how you handle it. You are so very right, too. It comes down to respect! Thank you.

    @Greg ~ Your “of course” factor is brilliant. I love it! There was a piece of advice that I mulled over and resisted, but it was right. I just didn’t want to give up a scene I’d grown too attached to. But it was for the best.

    @dirtywhitecandy~ Thanks so much for your post. That you will be honest and walk away from a paying client instead of just taking the money says a lot about your respect for writers. Wow. Your clients are very lucky to work with you.

    • I toned it down as much as conscience would allow but changing it too much would make it not that character’s story anymore. So it’s still hard to read which is probably one of the reasons it remains unpublished.

      I love it though because I think, as with any story or any other thing done, there’s an element to it that’s autobiographical; a remembrance of a time and who I was in that time. I may look at it in a few years and find it a little embarrassing but I hope I’ll still respect that aspect of it.

  3. What a good post. I’m irked by criticism if I think the critic didn’t try to understand what I was trying to do. Likewise, when I crit other people, that’s the first thing I try to establish. When I talk to prospective clients, I spend a while checking we both understand what type of novel they want to write and what kind of things I might suggest should be changed. This means that some clients go to someone else, but I would much rather connect with someone and help them than take the money and run.

  4. If a piece of feedback doesn’t have the “Of Course!” factor, I ignore it. You can feel when advice is right because it makes perfect sense straight away. If you have to mull it over. If you have to figure out what the advice means, forget it.

  5. I was just thinking about this today.

    It’s frustrating when someone doesn’t “get” it and massacres the writing with their own infusions.

    I think if a sentence is really what I call, “stumbly” or doesn’t read well, then I will say, maybe it would read better if you just rearranged the words and I might suggest an alternative wording, but I try very hard to NOT change their intent or their voice.

    Our voices as writers are so personal and unique. We need to remember that. A lot of care and thought was put into those words on the page and when we read someone else’s writing we owe it to them to be honest, yes, but above all, we need to be respectful.

  6. Great quote.

    I find the comments I’ve given, when I have (which is rarely) tend to be less technical and more impressiony. I’m happy to give technical comments but the nuts and bolts can generally be tweaked via Strunk & White so I tend to ask people to look at the Elements of Style for in-depth grammatical advice.

    On the receiving end, I’ve grown to like having my typos spotted, in so far as such a thing can be liked. Let’s say that I’m accepting of it because it really does make the story better at the price of some embarrassment. A typo can really steal so much impact from a story (mine tend to happen at the crux, when I’m most excited).

    I’ve had someone suggest that I leave a paragraph out of a story but every atom in me just wouldn’t. I’m glad it happened because it led me to realise that the reason the paragraph needed to stay: it explained the title and really finished the story. (Why did I not know that already? Because that’s just how I scribble, it seems.)

    I’m so glad you’re talking about this. There are so many comments on writer’s blogs that are incredibly emotionally supportive but ultimately unhelpful, in a way; while they might help the writer they aren’t helping the writing. (And, for me anyway, the writing is the point.)

    About ego… I was once told by a good friend that something I’d written was hard to read (I’d broken a handful of rules – written in a heavy Texan hybrid drawl with apostrophes behind every cactus). My reply was: If it’s hard to read, read harder. We still laugh about it. Me, a touch bashfully.

    To be fair, though, there are times when you have to just get over yourself and focus on the writing but sometimes you have to to stick to your guns because the writing demands it. It can be good, for reviewer and writer, to have a sense of which is at play.

  7. I take advice on sentence structure well because usually once someone points out a flaw it becomes obvious. I am less welcoming of advice on wording because I find it does start taking away your voice. I think your advice, to set rules about what you want feedback on, is a good way to ensure both the writer and reviewer know what they are getting into and the experience is helpful and rewarding for both.
    Thanks for sharing this interesting post.

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