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  

Writing with mental ill health

This is a blog I wrote back in August for the #WriteMentor Spark Programme. Another of Stuart White’s wonderful inclusive and encouraging iniatives, Spark is a good affordable way to get help with your writing and engage with the children’s writing and publishing community.

How to keep writing when you have mental ill health – 6 practical tips

Alongside therapy, medication, and exercise, many people find writing can help to manage their mental health.

Confused Mental Health GIF by Lisa Vertudaches

But there’s a catch: How do you write when depression means just getting out of bed is too hard? Or OCD has you stuck in a loop of some tedious behaviour? Or anxiety tells you that you’re not good enough, you’ll never be a writer, and sends your brain spiralling?

Having lived with chronic anxiety since childhood, plus depression and OCD on the side, in my experience life is always better when I’m writing. Any kind is good – non-fiction, journaling, memoir, poetry, therapeutic – but for me, fiction works best. Here, I offer some practical tips to help you keep writing on difficult days.

How to keep writing – tips

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#1 Keep your tools handy

Sounds obvious perhaps, but have a notepad and pen with you – in your bag, in the car, by the bed. Even if you can’t get out from under the duvet, you can write something.

Write ANYTHING.

Write about last night’s dreams. Write down the brilliant comeback you thought of three hours after that irritating thing someone said to you. Write a word or a sentence that sums up how you feel right now.

Or maybe how you’d like to feel …

#2 Use a routine prompt

Many writers swear by a writing routine however, it can be counterproductive. Not meeting targets gives anxiety and OCD plenty of ammo for ‘you’re a failure’ type thoughts.

It can be helpful though, to have a routine prompt. This is a phrase to use daily, or as needed, to start off the writing. There’s a certain comfort in having it there to fall back on. Make one up, or ‘borrow’ someone else’s.

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Joanne Harris, author of the novels The Strawberry Thief and Chocolat, amongst many others, often tweets a sentence starting: ‘And this morning the Shed is … ’

‘ … a ball of red string, rolling down a corridor … ’ 14 Aug 19

‘ … a beach hammock, strung between two coconut palms, with bright birds singing overhead and the sound of the surf in the distance … ’ 11 Aug 19

My current routine prompt is: ‘This morning’s skies are … ’

Even if you only follow this with ‘blue’ or ‘grey’, you have a sentence. And one sentence is the start of something. But it’s not really about describing the colour of the sky. Use all your senses – how does the day feel? Sound? Taste? Stay real world or go fantasy.

#3 Use a random prompt

Gather random prompts: words or sentences that strike a chord, and keep a list of them in the back of your notebook to use when the thought of a bigger project is too much.

Try: 

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  • Song lyrics, even misheard ones.
  • News headlines – reimagine the story.
  • A snippet of overheard conversation – where does it take you? What comes next?
  • A line from a poem, a novel, a movie

Don’t overthink it. Set yourself a short time limit, and free write –anything that comes into your head.

There are plenty of prompts online, but procrastinating is likely! Stick with one, like Ad Hoc Fiction, which gives a weekly one word prompt for Flash Fiction. It’s a good way to get writing, with the added bonus of a free weekly competition!

#4 Restrict yourself

Although setting rules can be problematic, particularly with OCD, on bad days it’s possible to coax yourself into writing by restricting what you write. (The stubborn part of me that doesn’t like being told what to do, will often rebel, so I end up with more words in any case.)

Try writing:

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haiku – only 17 syllables – you can manage that !Try and sum up a character from your story in haiku form, or the setting. If this is too hard, try and describe a person or place you know in real life.

A 100 word story in one syllable words – not sure where this came from originally, but I first learned of it at a  Writing Events Bath Workshop  where we wrote our life stories in 100 one syllable words. Give it a go!

This type of exercise is known as constrained writing and an advantage for the depressed writer is that it requires a small amount of energy, and provides a satisfying result. For the anxious writer, with a mind spiralling out of control, it provides a focus.

#5 Redefine writing

Are you on a wordcount downer? Not enough energy or focus to write?

Writing is not all about the number of words on the page. There are other things you can do that count as writing. Give yourself permission to:

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DOODLE – particularly good for anxiety and the fidgety. Pen in hand, pen on paper, it’s almost writing. There’s no pressure for it to BE anything, but a doodle might turn into a word, a sentence, a story …

READ – ANYTHING! Picture books, happy books, simple stories, something different to what you’d usually choose. 

Put your own work onto an e-reader, and read it like it’s a published novel. You’ll be surprised at how uplifting this is.

WATCH TV – maybe put the subtitles on. Try and focus on one thing. A character’s voice, setting, dialogue.

LISTEN TO MUSIC – try a movie soundtrack with your eyes closed – how does the music make you feel? What kind of scene does it conjure up?

#6 Turn outwards

Connect with other creative people, many of whom will also have experience of mental ill health, and find your writing family. This can be difficult to do, especially if you have social anxiety, so do it with care, and protect yourself. The #WriteMentor community is a great place to start – safe, supportive and inclusive.

Resources:

Writing and Mental Health Research:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/dec/13/writers-depression-top-10-risk

Writing with mental ill-health:

Constrained Writing:

Writers who write and tweet about mental health: 

Holly Bourne

Matt Haig

Yasmin Rahman

Stuart White