Learn to Use Feedback in Order to Revise Your Work by Brad Windhauser
We all want to make our stories as good as they can be. We take classes in order to hone our craft—and the feedback we get while there helps us grow. This input is also one reason authors join writers groups. Mature writers understand and rely on the insight other people—especially other writers—provide. However, as a writer, one of the most important skills you need to develop is learning how to use the feedback you get: not all of it will help you write the stories you want to write.
Start with plot
When I receive feedback, the first thing I look for is the reviewers’ impression of what happens in the story. This lets me know what is coming through and—most importantly—what the reviewer thinks the story is about (in terms of plot), for more times than not, their comments speak to this impression of the story. Therefore, if their impression is vastly different than what I’m trying to tell, their comments can damage my story. If I pursue their suggestions, I begin to craft their story, not mine.
Now, if you discover that you’re getting a wildly different impression of the story than you intended, don’t assume that it’s the reviewer’s fault—assume that the story is lacking on your end. Occasionally you will get a lazy reviewer. Otherwise, assume that the reviewed read carefully and now you need to go back to the basics—how can you revise in order to clarify what is happening. If you are writing about a high school athlete and how she is looking to give up competition but the reviewer thought she was in college looking to join a sorority, this contrast is a big problem. Clarify the details that help the reader see what you want them to see.
If the reader gets what happens in the story, then be open to whatever the reviewer(s) have to say about character, scenes, structure, pacing, dialogue, and setting. If they haven’t commented on these things, ask. You’re not looking for praise, you’re looking for reactions that demonstrate an element that is or is not working the way you intend.
But what if you don’t know what your story is about?
You might, however, have no idea what story you are trying to write. So you might consider how you can mine the comments for ideas about where to take your story. Give careful thought to why you are moving a story in a given direction, though. Does including a scene in a convenience store make sense for the therapist having a crisis moment or is it just “cool”? As this example shows, feedback can indicate unconsidered possibilities but they can also distract your story.
Volunteer your problem areas
You might also consider front-loading your draft with comments for your readers: what type of feedback are you looking for? Are you unclear about where to take the plot? Are you worried that the protagonist is too unlikeable? Are you concerned the setting is too inconsequential, the dialogue flat? Doing this can focus the feedback you get and also help the reviewer help you with specific areas you’re concerned about. I wouldn’t over do this, however, in part because focusing their attention on particular elements might compel them to overlook problem areas you might not even be aware of.
Lastly, be gracious. You won’t always agree with what people have to say about your work, but you should assume that they are being honest about their reaction. If you don’t agree that a character seems unlikeable, at least revisit what is on the page before discarding the point. Above all, be thankful that they have at least taken the time to engage with your story. Any time someone provides a reaction to your work is an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer.