Things I’ve learned about writing: how to receive feedback

Feedback. On your precious writing. Also known as critique, constructive criticism, edits, thoughts, comments, disemboweling, soul crushing … I’m talking here about those written reports, emails, notes, track changes etc, which might be given by relatives, friends, critique partners, tutors, mentors, competition readers, agents, and editors, to you, on your full or partial manuscript.

Never mind that you asked these lovely people to review your manuscript for free; or paid them for advice; or have a contract that shows they already love the story – giving your work to someone else to read can be heart-shakingly hard. You may have spent three years getting this story up to scratch, and then a person reads it in less than a day and tells you lots of things they think are wrong with it. HOW you respond to feedback may vary depending on the WHO, but trust me, it’s going to involve emotional turmoil of some kind.

You probably won’t like or agree with some of what they have to say when you first receive it. Any of these sound familiar?

  • The critic just doesn’t get what I’m trying to do.
  • What does she mean there’s too much description?
  • Why has he suggested cutting that entire chapter full of beautiful lyrical prose?
  • Get rid of my favourite character who may actually have no purpose?
  • What do they mean I used the word ‘just’ 70 million times? (okay, maybe that one’s valid.)

Ten Tips from someone who’s been there

Here are some tips from my own hard-earned experience of receiving (and giving) writing feedback:

1. All the feels: Accept that you might get emotional and allow yourself to feel all the feelings: anger; denial; irritation; utter, utter bleak despair, etc. But only for a bit. (It used to take me a full week, plus subsequent relapses. Now it’s down to about half a day and a large glass of wine.) I suggest giving yourself a one-week limit on the wallowing, otherwise you might talk yourself into giving up altogether, and not writing is a surefire way to never finish your manuscript, win a writing contest, get an agent, be published etc.

2. Let it out: During this period, vent if necessary to a friend, another writer, dog, cat, your pillow. I suggest doing this privately. It’s likely your critic moves in the same social media circles, and you may change your mind about their feedback after reviewing it. (see 3 and 4).

3. Share the feedback with a trusted (writer) friend who will helpfully point out all the positive things the feedback contains that you have failed to notice in your distress/panic/misery etc.

4. Re-read: When you’re feeling less fragile/ranty, go back to the feedback and re-read it. At this stage, I go through the notes and track changes replying to the critic’s comments and suggestions. I don’t share my responses, but I find it a useful way to blast away any residual indignation. And as I’m explaining my thinking, I start to see that some of the feedback I thought was ridiculous, is pretty helpful, and my responses might include: ‘hmmm’ and ‘good thought’, ‘will rethink this’ etc. For other points raised, I am very clear why they need to be there. But if the critic can’t see what I’m trying to do, maybe I need to add in a little more or make a change?

Quite often, what you think are going to be MAMMOTH plot-destroying edits, can be resolved by adding or removing a sentence or two.

5. Questions: On the next read-through, try to be objective. Ask yourself questions: What is the feedback really saying if you put your own emotions to one side? Why does the critic not get what you are trying to say? Why do they think you should cut a subplot, character or chapter? Think it through, pick it apart. Work out how it might work differently. Or if it’s better staying the same.

6. And more questions: The best feedback tends to involve the critic asking you things rather than ‘telling’ you what you should do. Some of their questions will be those you want your reader to ask – the things that will make them want to read on. (e.g., why did Jeremy hide that llama in the shed? I wonder if his mum will find out?) If the critic is picking these things up, then you’re doing well. Is the critic asking about something that will be explained later in the story? If so, do you need to seed it in earlier or does it work where it is? Is the critic’s question about clarifying some aspect of the story? If so – do you want your reader befuddled about it at this point (e.g., for a red herring or later plot twist) or does the reader need to be really clear about the issue at this point in the story?

7. Fresh eyes: However polished your manuscript is now, at some point it was a first draft; a vomit draft; a draft that had a 20,000-word subplot you’ve since dismembered; a draft with some chapters that were entirely constructed of: ‘and then this happened and then she did something really interesting and then…’  And when you’ve been working on a story for a long time, you can miss cling-ons from long-departed subplots or early unpolished writing. Think about how many times you use looking, shrugging, just. How a character who didn’t make it into draft two, randomly pops up in chapter 26. How often you spot typos in published books. Fresh eyes will pick these things up and that’s a real plus of feedback. Embrace the nit-picky editing comments.

8. Don’t bring me solutions … Feedback that points out big issues or inconsistencies is helpful, honestly. But critics sometimes offer solutions, and it can feel like they’re trying to run away with your story. I’ve been guilty of this myself when giving feedback. If you’re on the receiving end, it can make you feel defensive, but try to take it as a compliment: they’re so engaged with your characters they’re coming up with scenarios for them. Even if their suggestions don’t work for you, the process of looking at other options can sometimes lead you to a better idea than you had originally. 

9. Everyone’s a critic: Take into account WHO is giving you feedback. Of course, an industry professional’s editorial notes will be at the highest level, and they’ll be taking into consideration other issues like the gatekeepers and the market. And if they’ve bought your book, then you are most likely going to go along with their suggestions. Non-writers giving you feedback don’t necessarily understand the implications of cutting or changing something that seems relatively small to them – how snipping at a subplot or a minor character, can unravel the thousand threads you’ve painstakingly woven together to make a story. What I usually do in this situation is to get more feedback from other people and see if anyone else brings the issue up. If they do, it needs looking at. If not, keep calm and carry on. 

10. Tough love: Feedback is helpful even if it crushes your soul, sends you in a spiral, or you simply don’t agree with it. Feedback makes you think about your craft. It makes you examine your story. It helps you to be a better writer. Look on it at as necessary experience in toughening yourself up – you do need to be brave to put your words out there. Publishing is a weird and wonderful world, ruled by luck and serendipity. As you progress through the industry you will need to be open to constructive criticism and willing to make changes. Not everyone will love or like your story, but some people will. And writing a story is in itself an achievement.

Coming soon(ish): Things I’ve Learned About Writing: How to Give Feedback  

The Power of Prompts

Prickly Chairs – photograph by Royston Hunt of earthnotes

The picture above was the prompt for the 2020 Flash Fiction Festival Micro Fiction contest. I was thrilled to come first with my story Eye, Aye, I .

Prizes courtesy of Bath Flash Fiction Award and earthnotes

Entering online short story competitions is how I first dared to put my work out into the world. These past few years I’ve entered fewer, focusing instead on writing novels. But having recently parted from my agent, finished a novel, and lurking in lockdown lethargy, I’ve found myself searching out short story and flash fiction competitions once more. There’s a kind of comfort in it, a way of reminding myself that I can still write, that I will have more ideas. 

This kind of sums up writing life. However far along the publishing path you get, at some point you invariably loop back to a place you were before – older, wiser, and hopefully a better writer.

Prompts and Competitions

Having a prompt is supremely helpful when you’re feeling blocked, tired, depressed, apathetic, anxious, etc.

Entering a writing contest or challenge gives you something to aim for, a deadline, and a sense of achievement, even if you aren’t placed. The online Flash Fiction community is friendly, supportive and inclusive. Many contests are free, or low cost, and are more about the joy of writing rather than anything else.

If you’d like to give some micro, flash or short fiction a go, here are a few competitions to get you started.

Micro Fiction

Retreat West Monthly

NAWG 100×100

50 Word Stories

81 words

101 words

Christopher Fielden Writing Challenges

Flash Fiction

Flash 500 Quarterly

Retreat West Quarterly

Bath Flash Fiction Award 

Didcot Writers

London Independent Story Prize

Short Story

Flash 500

Bath Short Story Award