Processing Feedback

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Writing is, for many people, a solitary and private enterprise. Going public is a step that requires both good fortune and courage. The moment you allow your words, your stories, your ideas, to be shared with a wider audience is the moment that you open yourself to criticism. Yes, becoming published is reason for celebration but it is also a time when you must recognize that people will have opinions about your work and will feel free to share those with you. Having an audience, however small, is a privilege indeed. Learning to be respectful of that audience is a skill to be practiced. For me, it hinges on my ability to process the feedback I am given.

Let me explain further. I have spent many weeks agonizing over a manuscript that received mixed reviews from friends and family. Four completely impartial editors have also given me feedback. The challenge is that none of the feedback aligns. One editor likes the structure, another editor thinks the plot is strong but the structure is weak. Someone else thinks the main character is not fully developed. Another reader thinks the main character is very strong. There is plenty of criticism, most of it constructive, but there is no consensus about how to “fix” the manuscript; if indeed it needs “fixing” at all. Maybe the misalignment is, in itself, evidence that the work resonates with people differently – and that that is okay.

While attempting to make sense of the muddle however, I became virtually catatonic. People I loved and respected said one thing, editors said another, and I was left feeling like the manuscript was so badly flawed that it was unfixable. Attempting to process all of the feedback I had received put me into a state of stasis. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t edit, and I didn’t want to stress-eat. So here is what I have done instead, and what I am promising myself that I will continue to do.

  1. Printed/wrote out all of the feedback and set it completely aside, along with the manuscript, until I felt that I was ready to be objective.
  2. Focussed my efforts on being open to the feedback process and grateful that people cared enough about the work, and about me, to be candid. Acknowledged that some of these individuals were taking personal risks to speak critically and were sincere in their efforts to be helpful.
  3. Scripted book club discussion questions for the manuscript as a focussing tool for myself. Answered the questions honestly while I reflected on the manuscript, without re-reading it.
  4. Asked myself if the people who provided feedback were the right people for the job. Had I been specific in asking for certain kinds of feedback from them or was I just craving a generic, glowing affirmation of my abilities? Are there individuals with specific backgrounds or expertise that I should be consulting for technical or historical research? Was I open to acknowledging that people from different cultural backgrounds might have a differing perspective from my own?
  5. After a suitable period had elapsed, and for me this was several months, set a day aside, with no one in the house, and no interruptions, to re-read the manuscript. I didn’t do anything else until I had completed reading the entire piece, without stopping. Then I re-read the comments that had been provided. I reflected again on the book club questions I had scripted.
  6. Finally, I was ready to make some revisions and do some minor editing. I went back to my research to ensure that I had correctly described an historical event. I kept one thing in mind: that this was my story told in the way that I had consciously chosen to tell it. I discarded feedback that would have changed my story into someone else’s story. When making changes, I did so in coloured ink on a hard copy. I did not touch the computer version. And finally, I tried to listen to my inner-editor-voice.   The little whispers that say things like: that’s a little awkward; not very precise; yikes – a bit over the top; and wow, who wrote this! Then I set the manuscript aside, again, and waited until I was ready to review the edits objectively and make the final changes on screen.
  7. I don’t claim to have succeeded in resolving all of the failings in my work. The manuscript may truly never be as good or as polished as I would wish it to be. And it may never be published. But I feel as though I have processed the feedback received thoughtfully and carefully while also respecting my own work and my story. And to me, that matters.

I hope this is helpful to you and your writing. Let me know!