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  

#WriteMentor Summer 2019

It’s back! #WriteMentor – the highly successful mentoring progamme for YA and children’s writers. And I’m delighted to be a mentor again this year.

Why I Mentor

I’ll tell you the truth. This time last year I was pretty low about my own writing. My novel had been out on submission with publishers for a (long) while and things were not looking promising. I struggled to write, had repetitive strain injury from refreshing my emails, and spent far more time than was good for me on twitter.

Then I spotted a tweet by Stuart White asking for mentors for his new #WriteMentor programme. I loved his positive and inclusive approach, and his honesty. I applied to the programme because, even though I wasn’t in a great place writing-wise, I had got this far at least, and had some knowledge to share. And because, I wouldn’t have got this far without the help and support of other writers. And because, following your dream is not the whimsical prance among butterflies and unicorns it sounds. It’s a bloody hard slog up a mountain only to find another, steeper one beyond. Sometimes, it’s good to have a helping hand.

I used to write in isolation, too scared to show anyone else my stories. It took a long time but I managed to overcome my fear, and now I can’t imagine writing without the feedback and support of fellow trusted writers. I mentor because I want to help someone else take their next step.

I found my writing family while studying for an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. But I appreciate that such an opportunity is not available to everyone. So, I’d like to support a writer who may be nervous about sending their story out into the world, or who hasn’t yet found their writing community, or someone who struggles with the whole ‘putting yourself out there’ part of the journey to becoming a published author.

My mentee for #WriteMentor 2018 was @lydia_massiah. You can read an interview about our experience, and the exciting things that happened next for Lydia here. There are many other success stories from the #WriteMentor Progamme, too.

Lydia is now a mentor on this year’s programme. This is one of the many joys of the #WriteMentor experience. It is such a supportive community.

My Background

Qualifications

I have a degree in English Studies (Literature, Linguistics & Creative Writing), a Post Graduate Certificate in Marketing, and a Masters with Distinction in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University.

Experience

My short stories have been published online, in writing magazines, and anthologies, after being placed or listed in competitions. Read an example here.

The Masters in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University is a very practical qualification, which is taught by published children’s and YA authors including David Almond, Julia Green and CJ Skuse. My two years on the course gave me lots of experience of writing in different genres for a variety of age groups, as well as critical reading of published children’s fiction, editing, giving and receiving feedback/critique, and insight into the publishing industry. I was one of three co-editors of the 2016 course anthology Paper Worlds. Read the opening of my YA novel Lightning Ridge.

I regularly edit, critique and proofread for fellow YA and MG writers, several of whom are published authors. I’m also a reader for a couple of writing competitions.

What I’m Looking For

YA and MG

I am happy to mentor either YA or MG. I read, write and edit both. I’m currently reading Fleur Hitchcock‘s wonderful MG novel: The Boy who Flew and V. E. Schwab‘s YA novel: The Unbound. At the moment, I’m writing a YA speculative fiction novel, and a Middle Grade contemporary/fantasy.

I like stories that make me think and have some beauty in them. I’m drawn to dark stuff. Contemporary realism, the grittier the better; feminist anything; speculative fiction; issue books, particularly mental health; multiple narratives; historical; verse novels.

Favourite novels: Skellig; The Hate You Give; One; The Lie Tree; The Color Purple; The Knife of Never Letting Go; The Power; Born Scared; Crongton Knights; Amy Chelsea Stacy Dee; Joe All Alone; The Goldfish Boy; The Handmaid’s Tale; To Kill a Mockingbird; Wonder; Rosie Loves Jack; The Poet X; Long Way Down.

Genre

An empathetic character and a strong narrative voice are far more important to me than the book’s genre. I read and love all sorts of books (with the possible exception of Romance and Pony Stories), but I do understand that some readers and writers have a real passion for a particular genre (usually fantasy and/or sci-fi). I know that these superfans read fantasy in a different way to me – some of them are my closest friends! So if you want that kind of intense, genre-specific reader, one of the other mentors who specifically state that preference might be better for you.

BUT, whatever the genre, your story still needs a plot, characters, setting, voice, tension, pace and so on, and these are all things I am used to working with.

Mentoring process

For me, the mentoring process is not about one writer telling another what they should do. It’s a dialogue between the two of you, and you’re both on the same side, trying to make the story the best it can be. It’s important to be honest with each other, to be open to feedback and suggestions offered. But the final decision is, of course, with the mentee, as it’s their manuscript.

I’ll do a full read through and provide a detailed report on all aspects of your novel, with particular attention to anything you’ve raised as a concern in your application. Where relevant/helpful I may provide notes in track changes for parts of the MS. We will set objectives and deadlines together and I will reread sections of the MS as needed. We’ll communicate on a regular basis via email.

My aim is to provide kind, honest, constructive feedback. I know from personal experience that it can be difficult to receive criticism of your writing, but I also know how much better it’s made mine!

Any questions?

Have a look around my website and the #WriteMentor website for further information. If there’s anything not covered, you can contact me via DM on twitter. @KClarkwriter

Mentoring, Editing and Reading Services

I’m now offering mentoring, editing and reading services for writers of Middle Grade, Teen and YA fiction, and short stories of all kinds.

I believe in giving kind and constructive feedback, and my aim is to help writers on to the next step of their journey.  If you’d like to know about my qualifications and experience please take a look here.

Services include a Submission Package, Full Report, Procrastinator’s Package, Beta Reading, and the Teen Reader Report. Further details can be found here.

Please take a look and get in touch if you’d like any further information.

#WriteMentor – why I mentor

So, I’m a mentor for #WriteMentor and I wanted to explain why I signed up, my approach and the sort of ‘mentee’ I hope to support.

See that kitten? That’s me, hiding in a book. Although I’m not as furry, or as cute. But I did hide in books as a child. Painfully shy, an ‘extreme introvert’, books were a way to escape myself. And even now as an adult, when the world gets too much, or even when everything is just fine, reading is where I go. I love to read, and that is one of the reasons I like being a mentor. I want to read your words.

When I started writing seriously over a decade ago, I had this image in my head of the writer as a tortured soul alone in their garret. And I went with that for a few years, writing in isolation, afraid to show my words to anyone.

You can read about my journey out of the garret here if you like. But to cut a very long story short, which is kind of what this is all about, I discovered the wonder of working with other writers – sharing stories, giving and receiving feedback, and positive, constructive criticism.

I found my writing family while studying for an MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. But I appreciate that such an opportunity is not available to everyone. So, I would like to support a writer who may be nervous about sending their story out into the world, or who hasn’t yet found their writing community, or someone who struggles with the whole ‘putting yourself out there’ part of the journey to becoming a published author.

While I always try to offer critique in a kind, constructive manner, I will be honest with you if I think something isn’t working or needs improving. I’m also a detail person, and have a bit of a reputation for spotting typos and continuity issues.

An empathetic character and a strong narrative voice are far more important to me than genre. I like books that make me think and have some beauty in them. I read all sorts of stories but in particular I like:

In YA: Contemporary realism, the grittier the better; feminist speculative fiction; issue-led books, particularly mental health; historical. In MG: contemporary; magical; adventure; historical.

If this sounds like the kind of mentoring you’d like, please put me down as one of your choices on the mentee application. If not, take a look at all the other wonderful mentors available.