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Not all writing feedback is equal.

How to Apply Helpful Writing Feedback (And How to Tell What You Can Ignore)

When you’re a part of a writing community filled with great critique partners (like The Write Practice Pro!), you’ll be the happy recipient of lots of feedback on your writing. Sometimes it’s obvious how and when you should address the issues the feedback brings up.

But often it can be overwhelming to know what feedback items you should address first or last, or whether you should address certain ones at all. Should you address every nitpick and complaint? Could your readers possibly be incorrect?

And what if the writing feedback you’ve received is hurtful? After all, readers and critique partners are human beings, and all of us have delivered harmless messages at some point or another. How do you work through the trauma of hurtful words about you and your art and continue writing with confidence?

Here’s how to sort your writing feedback into “Essential” items and “Optional” items, and make sure you take none of it personally!

How to Know if Feedback Items Are Essential or Optional

Any time you learn that your story has problems, you’ll want to do one of two things:

  1. Fix all of it immediately.
  2. Light the story on fire and forget you ever wrote it.

The first rarely works, and the second is something you should never do.

So what should you do instead?

As I wrote about in my last article, you need to begin by sorting your writing feedback into three categories:

  1. Story
  2. Style
  3. Surface

It’s very possible that you’ll receive feedback in all three of these categories. So what should you address first?

That depends if the feedback is, by its nature, Essential. And that depends almost entirely on genre.

What is “Essential” Feedback?

Essential writing feedback will address issues that affect your reader’s expectations and experience in the story.

Put another way, helpful feedback on your story will help you make sure you’re writing within an established and understood genre (what the reader expects from the story’s genre), and telling a story that is clear, engaging, and enjoyable (the reader’s experience).

Anything that helps you with these things — the reader’s expectations and experience — is likely Essential.

Anything else, however, is probably Optional.

Here are issues you will receive writing feedback on that are most likely Essential in each of three feedback categories:

  • Story: Plot holes; clear and empathetic goals for your characters; conventions and scenes within genre; character choices that make sense; where the story or certain scenes take place (setting); elements of structure like a clear beginning and end.
  • Style: Whether pacing of scenes fulfills the standards of the genre; whether dialogue is in the correct style of the genre; whether descriptions are within the style of the genre (notice a pattern here?). Style feedback can be a major pain-point for writers, so it’s important to focus on genre and reader experience here!
  • Surface: Distracting errors that cause your reader to forget he/she is reading a story and start editing/judging instead.

Notice that everything has to do with how the writing affects the reader’s experience with your story?

Nothing establishes expectations like genre. When you write within a clearly defined genre, it’s much easier to know what you might be doing wrong. But if you decide to write outside of a specific genre, the rules and expectations become more fluid.

This may sound like a good thing, but it actually isn’t. Readers generally like to try new stories as long as they arrive in the context of a trusted genre. Readers rarely pick up a genre-less book by an unknown author and say, “This is worth six hours of my time!”

Genre is the true north of a writer’s compass, and this is even true during revision.

What is “Optional” Feedback?

One of the few drawbacks to getting writing feedback is that you’re probably receiving it from a fellow author. And something authors are given to doing is rewriting other people’s stories.

This is not what you want.

Of course you should humbly accept suggestions that can make you a better writer — no one likes a writing partner who insists he or she is the hottest commodity around. But don’t let a fellow writer take your work and tell you how to write it.

Here are some issues that will come up that might be “Optional” if they don’t directly affect the reader’s experience:

Word Choice

Some people simply dislike certain words (“moist” is a word I despise), and will turn you away from their hated words out of personal preference.

Ask: Is this word in-genre and effectively telling the story?

Character Changes

Readers have strong opinions about characters, since characters are the lifeblood of stories. Some critique partners will urge you to add or delete a character, or make major alterations to his/her personality, goals, or choices.

Ask: What affect will this change have on the story? Does it increase my ability to fulfill AND innovate within the genre, or am I fulfilling my critique partner’s wishes instead? 

Content Concerns

Large swaths of the population detest certain kinds of content, mainly cursing, sex, and violence/gore. Some readers aren’t quite mature enough to realize their own aversion to these things, and will tell you to “tone it down” out of revulsion on their own behalf, rather than on behalf of the reader.

Ask: Is my use of this offensive content genre-appropriate? Have I executed it in a way that is “earned” by the story and its characters?

Rewrites

Some critique partners will literally rewrite large portions of your story for you. Do not let this happen. Thank the partner for his/her enthusiasm, but then ask him/her to make suggestions rather than rewrites.

Ask: Does the suggestion make sense within the genre and the story I’m telling? How can I take the ideas of the rewrite and completely own them in my own voice and style?

Random Grammar Preferences

Generally speaking, about 99% of the grammar feedback you’ll receive is Essential. But every once in a while you’ll write for someone who learned a “rule” that isn’t really a rule.

For example, you’re not supposed to begin sentences with conjunctions, like “And” or “Because.” Is this a rule? No, it is not. It’s a preference. And you are not asking for others to share their grammatic preferences with you.

Ask: Will observing this “rule”/preference really make a difference in my reader’s life? What do I risk by making the change or leaving it alone?

How to Handle Optional Feedback

This is where prioritizing your writing feedback gets extra tricky.

The most important thing is to leave your ego out of it. 

Don’t get defensive when someone gives you Optional feedback, or feedback with a weird blend of Essential and Optional. Your partner probably doesn’t realize that the advice he/she is giving you is off-target. You can be a big help by talking through the feedback with your partner, avoiding defensive speeches, and keeping the conversation focused on genre and the reader’s experience.

As long as you focus on these two things, you’ll find it much easier to know if the advice you’re getting is something you should be paying attention to.

Your Turn: Share a Traumatic Feedback Experience

Perhaps a good first step is to think about a time you received Optional feedback, but it was given to you as if it was Essential.

This is a traumatizing experience for any artist. So much of what we do is subject to opinion, and our fragile senses of self can be rocked by just a few words.

Before you give or receive any more writing feedback, take some time to reflect on a moment in your life when you experienced the trauma of poorly delivered feedback.

And to get the ball rolling, I’ll start. 

When Feedback Doesn’t Work

Back in 2005, I wrote a play that some friends of mine produced in college. It was called Coffee Bar, and it was my attempt at bringing Samuell Beckett, perhaps the most famous aburdist playwright of all time, into my own style and vision.

The show was attended by a professor from a nearby college who, after viewing our final performance, was going to give us feedback during a “talkback” session. And going into this talkback, I was on top of the world. I had written a “deep” and “important” play that “was going to change the world.”

Sigh.

Actually, I was an insecure 21-year-old kid who didn’t know how to tell a story. And when I sat down at that talkback and heard this man point out all the issues with which my precious play was plagued, I grew furious. I refused to acknowledge any of these supposed “deficits” and insisted that I was a victim and he — the professor — was a jerk.

For the next seven years (yes, years) I fumed over this man’s words. Looking back, though, I realize two things:

  1. He was mostly right about my play’s Story.
  2. He was wrong about my Style.

A lot of what the man said to me was probably Essential. He pointed out serious flaws in my Story that needed to be addressed.

But so much of what he said was aimed at my Style, the aspect of storytelling that is the most personal! And since it was a talkback, not a talk, and I didn’t learn anything from the process. I felt judged, belittled, and ashamed. And anytime an artist feels these things, he or she will never grow.

So instead of studying the professor’s feedback on my Story (at least until I began rewriting it as a novel in 2014), I obsessed over his hurtful, presumptuous words about my Style . . . or should I say, about me. 

What Comes After Feedback?

Here’s the big takeaway: Words matter, but what you do with them matters more

When you receive hurtful writing feedback, or a laundry list of to-do’s that seems Optional, you need to know what to do with it. You need to put your ego aside like I didn’t do back in 2005 and start sorting through the pile of feedback, searching for the good stuff.

Because if you don’t, feedback will continue to be nothing more than a source of trauma for you and those around you.

But if you do process feedback in a healthy and helpful way, it has the power to transform your writing into the best it can be.

How do you determine what writing feedback you should apply to your story? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to reflect on and write about a traumatic feedback experience. Please don’t use names, but refer to others as “my critique partner,” “a fellow writer,” or “my beta reader.”

Try to identify where the process broke down. Were you given Optional feedback that didn’t address your genre or reader experience? Was the feedback too personal, perhaps fixating on your Style and nothing else?

Share your story in the comments below, and then leave an encouraging comment on someone else’s story!

David Safford
David Safford
You deserve a great book. That's why David Safford writes adventure stories that you won't be able to put down. Read his latest story at his website. David is a Language Arts teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle-doer, husband, and father of two awesome children.
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