Receiving Feedback

Feedback is a tricky thing. As writers, we request it, sometimes plead for it, even demand it! And yet…we may not be able to receive it. Oh, we don’t have any problem hearing the positive feedback, that’s cool. Who hasn’t basked in the praise given by an enthusiastic reader? But the negative feedback, that’s a little tougher to take.

When someone offers feedback on our work, we may get defensive. Who do they think they are, telling me my character is two-dimensional? I’d like to see them try to write a monk turned drag queen turned amateur sleuth mystery!

It all depends on what we make that criticism mean. If someone gives you feedback on how to make your character three-dimensional, you can make that mean I’m not perfect, which is a huge leap from your character seems two-dimensional, but we do it all the time.

When we get defensive, we miss the value of the feedback. Just because someone says it doesn’t mean it’s true—but, it could be.

Because, when we ask for feedback, we are not asking, “Is my writing perfect?” We are asking, “How can I make my writing better?”

When receiving feedback, consider the following two questions:

1. Is the feedback addressing the writing or the writer? I once read a piece about my sister and the time she hit me with a bag of frozen French fries to my memoir critique group. As feedback, one woman told me I was “giving my power away” to my sister. Since I was writing about a time when we were both children, I did not find this insight particularly helpful.

Bottom line: If the critique addresses you, the writer, rather than the writing, ignore it.

2. Is the person giving able to give you the feedback you ask for? I recently asked some friends to provide me with “big picture” feedback on a piece. I explained that I wanted to make sure there weren’t any places in the story where the reader came out of the story due to some missed detail. Even one reader’s response of “Nope, didn’t happen,” was helpful.

Bottom line: Consider carefully whom you ask to give you feedback and be specific about the feedback you are asking for.

Feedback is a wonderful tool, but it’s only a tool. It’s up to us to use all the tools available to us to make our writing the best it can be. In the end, we have to make the final decision about what works for us as writers.

How do you ask for feedback?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, is currently a full-time mother, part-time life coach. She is a Master Certified Life Coach, trained by Martha Beck, among others. She is passionate about her son, her writing and using her mind to create a wonderful present moment.  Find her life coaching blog at http://www.dianemackinnon.com/blog.

32 thoughts on “Receiving Feedback

  1. Such a pertinent post for me, as a year ago I started a writer’s group because I couldn’t find one close by. After a couple months of getting to know each other we began the process of critiquing and the first time out of the chute I got reamed a new one although I didn’t personally attack the writer. Apparently, I was only supposed to give positive feedback, and quickly realized there was a good reason this person spent four years unsuccessfully attempting to get published. The next month, another writer was schedule to be critiqued – but she bowed out of the group altogether after she emailed me and said her husband thought her piece was wonderful and she didn’t think I was qualified to review her piece and since she was already published, she was confident her work was good. I guess being upfront with the first writer made her shy away from me, and it made everyone in the group nervous. The worst part was that it really made me hypersensitive to what I say when I offer a critique despite the fact I address the work, not the person. I find I hold back.
    I’m trying to get over that experience. It was psychologically traumatic because I thought EVERYONE was open to critiquing! (My naivete!) I recently joined a new group and all they do IS critique each other. All are published writers, like myself, and intent on mastering craft. So far, it is hardcore crtiquing. No holds barred.

    It is so REFRESHING! And, it turns out, my observations are pretty spot-on, and no one is offended by my feedback.

    I’ve decided the best writers have the thickest skin. I’ve had an editor reject my work in part, in whole, and accept it as perfect the first time around. For me, this is par for the course. It ISN’T personal – it’s not about the person, it’s about the work. Some can’t accept that and as I meet and talk with other writers, I’m learning the ones with a chip on their shoulder or intense insecurities are the ones who will never get to the point of mastering technique, while others are open to and grateful for the feedback and give back freely in return.

    Long response – sorry. This is an important subject. Thank you for bringing it up. I’m looking forward to following the responses you get.

    • Hi Laura,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I agree, the wrong critique group experience can be traumatizing! I’ve also been in groups where people really didn’t want constructive criticism, they just wanted the positive. I used to go to a writer’s meeting where we would meet, chat a little, then write to a prompt for 15 or 20 minutes. Then whoever was comfortable would read their piece and, because it was first draft, we agreed to only say what we liked about the piece. That gave people a place to start when they were rewriting.

      When I bring a polished piece to a critique group I want to know the good, the bad and the ugly! And I want to work with people who feel the same way.

      I’m so glad you’ve found a critique group that you like. It’s worth it’s weight in gold.

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. Unfortunately, both the writer and the critique-giver can forget it’s not about the writer. I’ve heard a published author clobber her peers as if she had invented the written word. It was personal because her onslaught came from a “holier-than-thou” perspective. It’s always easier to hear, really hear, constructive criticism when it is delivered with tact. (And after the positive has been delivered.)

    If the motive of the reader is to help the writer improve the work, only ego will reject the advice. But when ego is on the giving end of the critique–look out!

    Diane, when you got that “power-taker” comment, that told you something. You moved your reader. I would take that as a complement!

    • Hi Deb,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree that when the ego leads, no one gets what they need. I agree with delivering constructive criticism with tact. I talked about how to critique in an earlier post which you can find about finding or creating a critique group. Here are my rules for critiquing others’ work:

      1. Critique the writing, not the writer
      2. State what you like about the piece. Give concrete examples.
      3. State what you might change about the piece if it was yours. Give concrete examples.
      4. Be respectful of word count limits and time limits.

      I never thought about the comment being a sign that I moved the reader. I just remember being annoyed because the whole group started arguing about whether or not I gave away my power and I got no useful feedback!

      Thanks for reading!
      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. Communication… it’s as simple as it is difficult. I believe there are numerous ways to say, “that sucks” without coming across as someone just said, “that sucks”. Now, it’s up to the receiver to translate the comment and improve the writing.

    The fascinating part to me is the comment can be much more than a critique if the person is open for change and reflection. Also the one giving the suggestions has an opportunity to practice how they come across to another while choosing just the right words.

    I usually don’t ask for feedback because my friends and family give it without me soliciting 😉

    • Hi Blue Aventurine,

      I agree, every time we interact it’s an opportunity to be open and consider another point of view. I do think, no matter how politely you couch your critique, some people will get upset. Those are the people who could have told you in advance that they only wanted positive feedback–but they usually don’t. You figure it out by the reaction you get and then you either don’t critique them again (especially if their critique of your work isn’t helpful).

      My question to you about the feedback from your friends and family is: Do you get the feedback you need when it is unsolicited?

      Thanks for reading!

      Warmly,
      Diane

      • Do I get feedback unsolicited? Yep, all the time from males and females, all different ages too.
        Do I need it? Nope but I get it anyways 😉

        I know them (family and friends) well enough and know what to expect when I call up or walk into a room. They are a loving bunch and are only looking to help. Sometimes it doesn’t come across as loving but what cha going to do.

        Strangers in a grocery store will come up to “you” and give their opinions and they don’t even know your first name! My favorite is the people who speak before thinking to pregnant women. Not to mention all of those strangers who think it’s OK to touch their bellies and do so!

  4. I live in the South, where people tend to be extraordinarily polite, so when I ask for feedback, I encourage people to be blunt. “Don’t hold back– tell me exactly what you think– you won’t hurt my feelings.”

    Often, I find that the most constructive opinions come from online writer friends. I value their opinions because I read and admire their work, and hopefully, they value mine for the same reasons. We’re unencumbered by the social norms or visual cues involved with local writers’ groups, and we can read and critique at our leisure, when we’re able to give the work our full attention. It’s reciprocity at its best.

    • Hi Moonbeam McQueen,
      Thanks for your comments. I, too, try to be very direct when I request feedback. I have been part of an online critique group in the past and did find it helpful, probably for the reasons that you listed, but I really like the face-to-face interaction of my current critique group. Luckily, we are both committed to giving the best feedback we can–and by best, I mean we try to tell it like it is.

      I’m glad you’ve found a critique group you like–it can take a lot of trial and error.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  5. Great post. I have the double-whammy problem of having: A., an ego; and B., insecurity (I guess the two often go together?). So when I get feedback I don’t like, it becomes this confusing, slimy mix of defensiveness and despair that my writing will never be publishable. Nice to read a post that universalizes that, to some extent!

    • Hi nicholaspbrown,
      Thanks for your comments. I, too, have an ego and insecurity, but I also want to get better as a writer. So I try to distance myself from the piece of writing so that I can be more objective about it. This is much easier now than it was 10 years ago, so I’m guessing that a) your ability to receive feedback will improve and b) your writing will be publishable. Good luck with it!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  6. Often times, i fall into the trap of asking is my writing perfect rather than how can i improve it? i dislike the people who criticize it and like the ones who praise it..I have begun to realize that that is a very wrong perspective and this post has helped me with that 🙂 thank you

    • Hi Ria,
      Yes, asking “Is it perfect?” is so not helpful. A “yes’ answer means we learn nothing about our writing, and a “no” triggers defensiveness–and we don’t learn anything about our writing. Good luck with yours and with receiving feedback!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  7. I look at it like this, I don’t like everything I read and so I know everybody isn’t going to like everything I write. It’s important to know the difference in a personal attack and a true critique of the work – however, being thick-skinned is very important for writers. We think we can hide behind our computers and avatars, but our work represents who we are, little pieces of us, being sent out into the world for acceptance or rejection. We have to be prepared for either.

    • Hi sheilapierson,
      I agree with everything you said. Years ago, I wrote a short story and when I finished it, I thought–I can’t show this to anyone! It’s me! Even though the characters were very different from me, a lot of my thoughts and opinions showed up on the page. All of our good writing will be this way. Otherwise, it’s just words with no meaning. No meaning for the author OR the reader.

      Thanks for your comments!
      Warmly,
      Diane

  8. I would love feedback on my writing. Good feedback is good indeed, but it is the criticism that I believe makes me a better writer. I will always have room for improvement, but how can I improve if I am not given the instructions, and then, of course, follow them? Feel free to comment on my blog anytime!
    -Cindy

  9. Not always easy to decide who you want to give you feedback. I once did an online degree course in Creative writing and one of the things we had to do on a weekly basis was to critique each other’s work. Somebody’s work would be selected and for two hours, through ‘chat’, would be devoted to analysing this work. The problem was, for me, it was quite hard going taking on board these critiques; you try to explain why you made the character two dimensional or why you have used a certain point of view but they won’t have it. Unless you are thick-skinned, it does serious damage to your confidence to the point you questioned whether you can write! I dropped out of the course after a completing just a year and don’t think I’m likely to do a course like this again, unless, it is a one to one mentoring system. I tried this for a while but it is expensive…

    • Hi plaintain1,
      Getting critiqued is never easy. I have found that the less I explain or argue, the easier it goes for me. I try to take in the critique (good and bad) and then I assess whether or not I agree with the critique and make changes (or not) based on that assessment.

      Good luck with your writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  10. For those who posted that critiquing gives rise to negative feelings, I would like to say one of the ways you can get around defensiveness is to consider YOU have the option of rejecting the critiquers perspective. There will be instances, as deb reilly mentioned, when the criticism is way off-based and comes from the “ego” of the critiquer. But, even in the worst instances, it’s good to ask yourself, “Is there any nugget of truth in this perspective of my work?” You don’t have to take an assessment at total face value, but if you are being critiqued by a group and there are consistent observations, I believe you can safely assume those will be the portions of your work you should absolutely take a hard look at revising. Also, when you do revise and your piece is revisited and you get a pat on the back by the same people who ripped you to shreds (lol), it will also help you to feel less insecure that you are being attacked personally. So often we forget the same people who point out our less-than-perfect mastery of craft struggle alongside us with their own weaknesses.
    If you can’t make yourself vulnerable in front of another writer who “gets it”, then you may as well write for yourself and stay in a hole. You can’t be that close to your work and see the big picture, like outsiders can. They have nothing invested, which makes them perfect for looking at your work without preconceived ideas.
    And…familly and friends do not count as un-biased critiquers – just sayin’ – with extremely rare exception!

    I sooooo love this post, Diane! Great comments from everybody – got me really thinkin’!

    • Hi Laura,
      Thanks for your excellent comments. I agree that we have to put our work out there–first to our writing colleagues and then to the public–or we might as well just keep writing only in a journal. Not that there’s anything wrong with journaling–it’s one of my favorite forms of writing. But at some point, we show our work to be in dialogue with others, not just with ourselves. We all, as writers, have that longing to share our writing with the world, so it’s not nothing to learn how to give and receive feedback. With that feedback, we can take our writing and make it better. Even realizing that the feedback given is not useful is helpful, because we go through the process of asking the questions and examining our writing from a different perspective before deciding not to change it.

      Thanks for reading!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  11. I ask for feedback every day on my own blog! That is, all of my followers (and visitors) can see from all the dozens of other blogs I follow that I attempt to provide genuine feedback on the specifics of any particular post. Therefore, they know I earnestly want feedback on my own postings–not just “lovely” or “huh?” I guess you could say I lead by example in this feedback quest.

  12. I belonged to a writer’s group that included a newspaper editor. He certainly helped me by guiding me in the right direction. At the time, it was painful because it was a very emotional piece on breast cancer. However, I knew he was trying to help and thanked him. Later when I shared another chapter he said, “It’s pretty clean.” Now I realize that was praise coming from him.

  13. I also remember another published writer from my writing group telling me a story on learning disabilities I had written, was actually two stories in one. I ended up having one of those stories published in the newspaper editor’s paper.

  14. Pingback: Assorted writing tips #4 | Emily's Tea Leaves

  15. Pingback: The Revision Process: Rewriting with “Know-How” | Mountain Top Journals

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