How to Apply Feedback

So you’ve got some criticism back from your writer’s group or your beta readers, and now you don’t know what to do. How do you know what advice to take and what to leave behind? How do you know what will help and what will harm?

For starters, there are two main flubs you’ll want to consciously avoid making:

  • FLUB #1: IGNORING IMPORTANT CHANGES THAT NEED TO BE MADE
    This can happen if you consciously or subconsciously think you know more than all your reviewers (in which case, why did you choose them?), or if you are too sentimental about your work and just cannot emotionally handle making a needed change. Another possibility is that you’re looking at the changes you need to make and saying to yourself, “It’s too much work. What I have is good enough.” Do you really want it to be good enough, or do you want it to be good? Chances are, you want it to be good.
  • FLUB #2: TRYING TO SATISFY EVERY WHIM OF EVERY REVIEWER
    Giving your work completely over to your reviewers and trusting them over your own sense of the work is going to get you in trouble. Your reviewers bring their own vision to your work, and if their vision doesn’t line up with your vision, you need to recognize that and stay true to what you are trying to accomplish. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make you happy. YOU have to love your book. You are the one who is going to send it off to agents and fight for it against all the rejection slips that are bound to pile up. You have to believe in your book more than anyone else does. If the changes you are making are going to make you not love your book or not believe in your book, don’t make them.

So how do you walk the line between the two extremes? How do you know which changes will be best for your story? Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. If you never have before, pick up a book on story structure, outlining, story theory, or revisions. There are a lot of them out there. A good understanding of what makes a story appeal to your reader will help you see the ways your novel works and the ways it does not—which will help you interpret the feedback you’ve received.Here are some titles I’ve found helpful.
    Wired for Story by Lisa Crone
    Rock Your Plot or Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley
    Structuring Your Novel or Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
  2. There’s power in numbers. If multiple reviewers are all in agreement that, for example, character Z is unnecessary, then either character Z probably is unnecessary and should be removed OR you have failed to show the significance of character Z and you need to figure out how to do that. Either way something needs to change regarding character Z. The direction you take your changes is up to you, but multiple people saying the same thing is a red flag that there’s something amiss.
  3. One person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion. You should consider these singular insights carefully in case your reviewer noticed something everyone else missed, and you can always poll your other reviewers if something someone said is particularly troublesome… but don’t change everything to please just one person. If you AGREE with the reviewer, maybe she found a gaping plot hole, then you will want do something about that—but a lot of the things that these insights will bring up are just options. Seeing them helps you expand your sense of possibilities, which may help you find the right path when you’re making the truly necessary changes…. but don’t try to turn your book into something you never intended it to be just because one of your reviewers has a different vision than you do.
  4. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your plot? Does it make your protagonist more or less invested in the outcome of the plot? Does it help keep the tension growing throughout your story? Does it make your protagonist’s actions more or less important to outcome of the plot? Overall, is this a change that would benefit your story on a plot-level?
  5. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your theme? Does it provide your character with an example that might change the way she thinks about the world and more specifically about her immediate issue? How does that affect your character’s motives? Does this change affect what your story is about overall? Is that what you want? Overall, is this a change that would play into your story’s theme?
  6. A note on grammar. If you’ve got some discrepancies between you and your reviewers about how to punctuate your sentences or the meaning of a word, do yourself a favor and don’t just assume the other person is right (or vice versa). Look it up. There are lots of grammar resources available online, and a quick internet search will tell you what you need to know.
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My Bachelor’s Degree or How to Accept Criticism

When I went to college, I was thinking to myself, “I need a day job to support my writing career because real people don’t become authors.” I chose to go into Film and Animation Production because I figured film was an industry that employed a lot of people and where I would still be involved in telling stories. Somehow it didn’t occur to me that Film and Animation was actually another one of those dream careers where if you don’t LOVE it, if you’re not willing SACRIFICE for it, you won’t make it.

I learned that the hard way. Instead of reading books about lighting or drawing and making extra films outside of class, I was reading Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I was writing Harry Potter fan fiction. I was buying books about improving my use of dialogue. I was taking electives in mythology and talking to anyone who would listen about etymology and lamenting that I didn’t have time to spend more time reading books because of all my filmmaking classes. When I went into a bookstore, I B-lined to the linguistics section and poured over all the writing books. Dictionaries. Word Menus. When to Show and When to Tell. How to do better characterization. Making Plot Outlines.

It made me giddy.

You can see why that whole filmmaking thing never worked out. I was competing for jobs against people who wanted to be filmmakers as much as I wanted to be a writer. Of course they were better at filmmaking. All the time and interest I’d put into writing, they’d put into filmmaking. The only difference was that they’d chosen the career that made sense for them without worrying about what kind of jobs “real people” get.

But lest you think my film school days were a waste, let me assure you that at least one really important thing did come out of my time there: I basically have a Bachelor’s degree in Accepting Criticism Without Turning into a Defensive Jerk.

Accepting Criticism Coursework:

— Drawing I, II, & III: In this class, you slave for hours every week on a still life and then have to hang it up on the wall next to drawings made by the real art majors. Everyone looks at your work and is silent. You know this is a bad sign. Eventually, the professor says something like, “You need to work on your composition,” or “You need more contrast in your image. Darker darks, lighter lights. Smoother transitions.” After the first few weeks of feeling horribly chastised, you learn that your art is not you. It is an assignment, an exercise to help you improve your skills. No matter how much better you do, you will never compare with the real artists, and that is okay. There will also always be things to improve, so it is not horrible to have things to improve. If you can avoid the same criticism next time, you’ll be happy with yourself.

– Film Production: Like the drawing class, you are showing each of your projects to your fellow classmates, but in this class you also have to screen your final film in front of the entire Film & Animation department. This is, of course, nerve-wrecking. This is the advice your production teacher gives your class:

  • You do not have to agree with the critics, but do not under any circumstances defend your work. It just makes you look childish.
  • You may ask questions of people who criticize you to make sure you understand the criticism. But do not defend your work.
  • Thank people for all the comments you receive, good and bad. Do not defend your work.
  • Finally, don’t defend your work.

Of course there were students who did defend their work. And you know what? My teacher was absolutely right. They looked childish. And half the time the advice that they were given was completely spot-on. I learned that all advice should be taken seriously and whether or not you agree with it, you should never, ever try to tell a commenter that they are wrong and you are right. Other people’s experience of what you create belongs to them, not to you. It is important to respect that experience. If their experience was not what you intended, your work is what needs to change, not that person.

 

Those were two of the classes, but pretty much every class was like that. So here’s my advice to you if you are trying to accept criticism of your work:

  • Realize that your work is not you and once another person experiences it, it no longer belongs solely to you.
  • Realize that other people bring completely different experiences and biases to your work than you do, and that what they bring to it changes how it will be interpreted. Every interpretation is just as valid as yours. The act of receiving criticism is a form of research. You have to take it in from multiple sources before you can decide what to do with it.
  • It is more important to make sure you understand the criticism than to critique the criticism.
  • Remember that it is a huge compliment to receive detailed criticism on your work. It means the critic liked your work enough to put effort into figuring out how it could be better.
  • Do not ever defend your work against criticism. The work speaks for itself–if it doesn’t, that’s a reason to fix it not a reason to defend it.
  • Remember also: You want to improve your work. Your reviewer wants to help you. You are both on the same side… unless of course your side is that you want your work to be perfect as it is and you don’t want to make changes. If that’s the case, you will never improve and your work won’t reach its potential, and that’s sad. You need to nix that attitude.
  • Ultimately, you are the one who will make the decisions about how your work will be improved. Keep that in mind. No changes will happen without your approval, so take the energy to really listen so when it comes time, your choices will be based on what’s right for your work, not what’s easiest for you or what’s best for your pride.

 

My BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in Receiving Criticism has been serving me well as my comments are coming in from my 8 Awesome Beta Readers. Unfortunately, most of the criticism I took in school came AFTER my projects were complete and I didn’t need to mess with them anymore, so while I feel like I have a really good attitude for receiving criticism, I’m starting to get a bit overwhelmed about figuring out how to synthesize all of it to make the best changes while still staying true to my own interpretation. I’m also having some trouble deciding if certain changes I don’t want to do are of the, “that sounds like way too much work” variety or the “interesting idea, but I don’t think it will add anything” variety. But more on what to DO with the criticism another day–like, possibly, once I figure that part out.