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Writer’s Den: Using Feedback to Better Your Work

Writing a book is hard. Nobody told me this when I started writing my first novel. I went in blind thinking, “Hey, I can do this, it’s just words right?” Well, over time I’ve learned that it’s more than words. It’s prose. New writers may not have any idea what the word “prose” means, and the truth is, it means something different to everyone. The constant struggle a writer faces is how to turn “words” into “prose”. Some people are naturals at it, and write the most beautiful lines without even thinking about it. The 99.5% of us who don’t have this gift must find other ways to improve our work, and one of the best ways to do this is by getting feedback.

My previous article discussed how to write a good critique. This is a discussion of how to use critiques, and how to distinguish good feedback from bad.

Start at the Beginning

That’s right. Don’t wait until you’ve written the entire first draft before seeking feedback on your work. If you’re a new writer, chances are good that your writing is still a collection of words on a page (or screen). These words will not magically morph into prose on their own, and nobody writes perfectly the first time. My recommendation is to start getting feedback once you have around 3000-5000 words. This will help you identify the mistakes you tend to make before they get propagated throughout an 80,000 to 100,000 word novel.

You will be tempted to continue writing while getting feedback, but I discourage this. In the long run, this will only serve to frustrate you, especially if you find out you need a major re-working of your words. Be patient–writing is a marathon, not a sprint.

Sources of Feedback

Where to gather feedback is a common question, and there are many answers, some better than others. Here’s a few suggestions to get you started:

Online writing groups: The internet is rife with these types of groups, some good, some bad. The goal here is to find the ones that will give you the most effective feedback.
Local writers groups or guilds: These types of settings can be a wealth of knowledge, but can also be difficult to break into. Often these groups are tight-knit, and may not be willing to give feedback to a new member until they’ve gotten to know you.
Friends and family: It’s tempting to go down this road. But I would speak a word of warning here: friends and family will always give biased feedback. They don’t want to hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written, and so will tell you it’s perfect even if it’s not. They’re not trying to sabotage you, they just can’t help it.

There are many other places you can go. Get creative, and don’t be afraid to ask people. Make sure you go to multiple sources for feedback, and talk to multiple people.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Once you have feedback, the question that usually remains is: “What do I do with it?” To which the obvious answer is: Read it.

Then read it again. You will get some glowing reviews, some average, and probably some that will totally trash your work. Start with the glowing critiques, the ones that tell you nothing bad about your work. These critiques will use lots of adjectives and offer praise about your work, maybe even claiming it’s the best thing the person has ever read.

Toss these ones.

Delete this kind of feedback, or throw it in the garbage. The goal here is to improve your writing, to morph words into prose. And thus, if this reader has found nothing to improve, the feedback–nice though it may be–is of no further use to you.

Now we start on the balanced, average critiques. Make notes of what they point out that needs improving, then read through your work and try to understand what they mean. Keep an open mind, as we are all blind to our own mistakes. Remember, they are trying to help you. If you disagree with what they have to say, then thank them kindly for the time they spent on your work, and move on.

Finally, read the ones that trash your work. This will happen, and it will hurt. You’ve been warned. See if there are any common themes between these and the average ones.

Find Your Focus

Once you’ve analyzed all of your feedback, you need to decide which suggestions to take, and which ones to ignore. You can’t make everyone happy. It’s impossible. But if there are issues that come up over and over in your feedback, these are the things to fix. If somebody brings up an issue that makes sense to you—resonates deep in your writer’s gut—then go to it, whether the issue is small or large. But one thing to be weary of during this process. Don’t tear your work apart and rewrite large portions just to make one person happy. You’ll spin your wheels and never get anything done.

Focusing on the common issues will bring about a drastic improvement in your work in a very short time. People will notice, and you’ll find that the future feedback you get will be better, with fewer and more specific issues being noticed.

The Trust Factor

After a few rounds of feedback, you will begin to learn whom you can and can’t trust to give you useful, honest feedback. People who give you nothing but glowing reviews (maybe even give everyone glowing reviews) are probably wonderful folks, but they aren’t helpful when it comes to reading your work. Also, people who are out to cut up other people’s work should be avoided. These people often feel their own work is flawed, and tear others down to make themselves feel better. Avoid them if you can.

The people you can trust to give you frank feedback every time are worth the time to establish a good relationship with. The feedback will be subjective–reading always is. But if you have a wide enough assortment of readers, you will be able to balance the subjectivity factor by seeing where responses overlap and what may just be an outlier. These readers will drastically improve your work, and help you gain a real understanding of the written word. Pay attention, as even the most seasoned writers can learn a thing or two from fresh eyes.

Responding to Feedback

No matter how bad the feedback is, even if it gets personal, it’s in your best interest to avoid responding to feedback in a negative way. When I get feedback on my work (and I do, often) the only thing I generally say is a polite thank you for the time spent on it. No matter how good or bad it is, the person has taken the time to read your work, and that’s a big deal. Show your appreciation for that much at least, even if you don’t like what they have to say.

Garnering feedback from various sources is a sure-fire way to improve your writing and turn your words into prose. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. And with patience, you’ll end up with a final draft that is not only worth publishing, but it will be worth reading to thousands of people. Good luck!

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16 Comments

  1. Paul Wiseall says:

    Fantastic article Thomas!
    For me critical feedback is one of the hardest things to accept, especially when you have people who you know you can send it to and who will tell you it’s amazing regardless. You’re absolutely right that we writers have to be made of sterner stuff and ignore gushing praise during the writing stage and at the same time develop that thick skin to ward off ‘trolls’ are who simply want to drag down the ‘competition’.
    I definitely fall into the first trap and end up showing my stuff mainly to friends so I’ll definitely be taking your advice and checking out more writing groups either locally or online 😀

    Great stuff! Keep it up.

    • Thanks Paul. It takes time and lots of deep cleansing breaths to learn to accept that criticism. But in the long run, if you want to succeed in this industry, input from others is essential. 🙂

  2. Pithy and to the point as always, Thomas. A good article!

  3. Dean Lappi says:

    Hello Thomas. A great article on how to find and use feedback to make one’s work better. Thanks!

  4. Very useful piece! I will be sharing it with my students.

  5. Brilliant article 😀

    I’d be the kind of writer who, at the beginning, would try to please everyone, so my rewrites would take ages! Thanks for the tips.

    • It’s tough to figure out who’s input is good and whose isn’t so useful. Especially if you get the really good feedback first, and then others tell you there’s something wrong. But be patient, and don’t get discouraged. We all go through this process. 🙂

  6. Overlord says:

    Great Article Mr T! I’ve sent something for Paul to look over this week, so I’m excited to see how much of this he takes on board!!! lol

  7. I had about ten beta readers tell me my book was great and was all set. Then I managed to con a couple of fairly successful published authors into reading it and, well… There was blood. It HURT!! But I was also ecstatic to finally be getting the feedback I knew I needed. That gut feeling you mentioned? Yeah, had that, just didn’t know where to apply it. Now I know. Harsh but fair critters are worth their weight in… what’s that incredibly expensive thing with the ridiculous name in Avatar? Unobtanium or something stupid? Yes, they’re worth their weight in that.

  8. Khaldun says:

    I need people who will give me their honest opinions as they read, and also their overall thoughts on the piece with various ideas on how to improve it. I also don’t mind a good thrashing. If someone is going to be brutally honest, that’s better than something saying “oh yeah it’s all pretty much good.”

  9. James Kelly says:

    Great article, Thomas, accepting feedback and critiques isn’t the easiest thing in the world but you’re absolutely right: writers need it! But I’m surprised you advocate seeking feedback as you write; aren’t you concerned that your work could become something other than you intended? That you would change your intended story in response to the feedback you receive?

    • Hi James!

      That’s a very good question. The key is to balance your approach, right? When I seek feedback, what I’m looking for is more technical issues than plot issues.

      It’s important to be clear to your critiquers about what type of feedback you are looking for as well. This can help minimise that issue.

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