Summer ILC, Week 7: The Skill of Receiving Feedback

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback this week. Learning how to give feedback that is stage-appropriate, respectful, and insightful is of course a really important skill to have when you’re working with fellow writers. But we don’t often talk about learning how to receive feedback, which is also a skill that must be learned and practiced.

Most of us remember at least one instance of getting harsh criticism on a piece of writing we’d felt proud of. For many people, the first time this happens is at a young age, which makes it all the more damaging. We internalize that hurt and often carry it with us through adulthood. Writing is deeply personal—so how can we not take criticism of our writing personally?

It’s not easy, but I believe it’s a skill that can and must be learned if you want to improve your writing.

Same goes for any kind of art, really. My big sister has been a dancer since she was three and a dance teacher since she was sixteen. She taught me that when your dance teacher gives you a correction, you always say “Thank you.” She once had a teacher who would stand there and wait until you said it.

Granted, the rules of ballet are much more stringent and well-defined than the rules of writing. You could even argue (and plenty of people have) that writing truly has no rules, since it’s such a subjective art form. On the last day of the PNWA conference, William Kenower talked about two book reviews of the same book. One review said it was skilled writing, the other said it was unskilled writing. And both reviews used the exact same sentence from the book as an example.

So if writing is so subjective (true), and if at the end of the day the only person whose opinion you should care about is your own (also true), why listen to anyone else at all? Why ask for feedback in the first place?

Because no writer is perfect, just as no dancer is perfect. No matter how subjective the art form, you can always learn and grow. If you never listen to the experiences of other people in your field, if you keep your head buried in your own art and insist it’s perfect, you’ll never grow.

When you’re ready and willing to learn, sharing your work for others to critique can still be scary as heck. I know—your story feels so precious and tender, because you care about it so much and there’s so much you in it. If someone tears it apart, it’s like they’re tearing you apart.

Isn’t it?

And here’s where we come to a crucial idea: not all feedback is created equal.

There are as many different styles of feedback as there are styles of writer. As a writing tutor, I’ve spent the last two years learning how to talk with people about their writing—asking open-ended questions, active listening, focusing on where the writer is at in their process and where they want to get to next.

Alas and alack, not everyone who gives feedback on writing has learned these skills.

Say you’re in a writing group with four other people. Everyone in the group shares their work with everyone else and gives feedback. You get back four copies of your piece with people’s comments, and they all say completely different things. What do you do?

1. Say, “Thank you.” If someone is going to the trouble of giving you feedback, it’s usually because they care—at some level, to some degree—about you and your work. I’ve had multiple teachers and peers who’ve told me, “I give a lot of very detailed feedback.” It comes as a warning because getting your paper back with a full page of notes when you only wrote one paragraph can be daunting. “What did I do wrong??” you wonder. “I must be horrible at this!” But that person wouldn’t have taken the time and energy to read your work deeply and give you thorough, detailed feedback unless they feel invested in you. It’s important to acknowledge that and thank the person for their effort.

Even if the person giving you feedback says something in a directive, know-it-all way, like, “This is bad because X. Do Y instead,” and in your head you’re thinking, “You’re a jerk,” or “I’m sure you mean well, but you stink at giving feedback,” or, “That’s terrible advice and doesn’t work for my piece, so I’m not going to do it,” say, “Thank you for the feedback.” (You can always turn them into an unlikable character in your next story.)

2. Listen to all of it, but don’t do all of it. It’s impossible to incorporate everyone’s feedback because the thing Person A said may completely contradict what Person B said. And even if you could, your voice would get drowned out by everyone else’s.

“You can’t make everyone happy. You’re not pizza.” (anonymous)

3. Pay attention to how you feel. (Also, this practice is just plain important in life.) You can gradually learn how to work with the feedback you get based on how it makes you feel. Sometimes you will feel confused—ask your reader for clarification. Sometimes you will feel illuminated—”This person is a genius and I’m so lucky they’re working with me!” Sometimes you will feel baffled—”How could they have so misinterpreted my intent?” Sometimes you will feel defensive, maybe even angry, like a resounding “NO” in your chest.

Learn to spot the difference between feedback that is useful to you at your current stage of the writing process, feedback that will be useful later on, and feedback that just won’t work for your piece. If you’re having trouble telling the difference, try incorporating the person’s feedback and see how that feels. Maybe take a day or two. My genius editor friend Cecilanne had a brilliant insight into how to fix the first two chapters of my novel, and at first I thought, “Nnnnnngh. I don’t know how I feel about that.” It felt scary to consider the change, but I slept on it. The next morning, I thought, “Dang it, she’s so right,” and was excited to make the change.

This week I wrote and submitted my first query to a literary agent. A got a ton of feedback on it, which at times left me feeling overwhelmed and saying, “I was having so much fun this quarter, with every aspect of this process. THIS ISN’T FUN ANYMORE. Screw it, I’m eating two fudgsicles before dinner and no one can stop me.”

I’m so glad I know where to go for support and how to utilize that support when I get it. My friends, teachers, and colleagues are amazing, and I couldn’t do any of this without their help. Well, I could, but it would be way harder and way less fun. So to all of you—Thank you.

If you want more info on how to give and receive feedback, read this awesome article by my friend and colleague Thane:
Use Your Words: Making Room for Agency in the Feedback Process.

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