Feedback: Where to Get it, How to Handle it
Feedback. It can feel like a stinging blow.
The person just doesn't get it. How did that not make sense? How is the beauty of your writing not clear to them? Well. They are obviously the wrong audience.
You might be right.
Where did you get the feedback and, very importantly, what did you expect to get? Sometimes, in other words, we just need encouragement. Or something very high level - did this basically entertain you?
Before getting feedback, it's a good idea to be clear about what it is you need. Not what your writing needs. What you need. It's nigh impossible to separate the writer from the writing.
Look, we all benefit from honesty about our writing. But sometimes we are feeling low and vulnerable about our work, maybe a bit neurotic, maybe this particular story has been really hard to tell.
So if you just need some pats on the back, some validation - make sure that you ask for encouragement only. Sometimes we just need to know that the hours we have spent are becoming something readable. Every writer, from experienced to less so, is just a human, after all. Doing something very hard, very lonely and very arduous. Just know that this kind of feedback is very limited in what it can do for you. It gives a good feeling, but it doesn't necessarily give guidance going forward. But there's nothing wrong with simply needing encouragement.
However, sometimes you really do need feedback that is more pointed. What you need is constructive criticism. Unfortunately, just about everybody thinks they are an editor, a good arbiter, in other words, of good writing. Everybody has an opinion, and shoot, you asked, right?
The truth is that getting feedback from your peers is tough. You need to be very open and honest about what you're really asking for and be specific, spell out the kind of feedback you're looking for: character, plot, dialogue, entertainment factor, etc.
Then, after being clear about what you want and need, make sure you take into account just who is giving you this feedback. Because no, actually, not everybody is an editor and just because they have an opinion doesn't mean it's one that is useful to you.
Useful. Remember that word. Not feel good or feel bad - but useful. Can this comment be translated into an action for you, the writer? Should it trigger a change? Should you ignore it?
If you are using someone in your writing group (online or IRL) you probably have some established trust. Just remember, there are definitely people out there, who for whatever reason, like being harsh in feedback, as a way of making themselves feel better. This type of feedback is terrible. It makes you feel terrible, it's not useful and it's a bad experience. Try to avoid this experience, as best you can. If it does happen to you, after you take some deep breaths, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Look at the comments, strip them of their harsh, judgmental words and see if there's anything there you can work with.
We all know the other kind of feedback as well, which is when our friends just gush and tell us it's so amazing. It feels so good - but we know the writing is not totally amazing.
Feedback is a kind of translation. If someone says "I got bored in the first chapter" you then have to interpret that. It could mean the "world" of the story isn't very evocative or sensory. It could mean your characters and their dialogue seem wooden and two-dimensional. It could mean that there was no tension or conflict in the chapter. It could mean one of those things, it could mean all of those things.
A professional editor will tell you exactly what that means and give high-level suggestions of how to do better. A non-professional might be more general and probably won't use the story terminology that you need to be using. Things like dramatic narrative, plot points, character arc, theme, character flaw, point of view, half-scene, transition, etc. This is the language of storytelling and this is the language that editors use.
A non-professional can sometimes - but not always - overstep and tell you to fix something specific, in a particular way. And that may not be your style, or how you would do it. It doesn't feel right. Nobody should ever tell you that you must do this or that to make the story better. The best feedback starts general, then zeroes in, then asks questions so that the writer can problem solve themselves.
So an example of bad feedback: I didn't like the character. (Too general.) I would make the character a bank robber. (Too specific.) I was bored. (Too general.)
Good feedback might say: I had a hard time connecting to the character. Is she upset in this scene because of what Jack said? I wonder if she might have a bigger reaction? The world is interesting, do you think you could expand more on what it looks like there?
Good feedback is kind. It respects what the writer was trying to do, and it poses questions that will tickle the writer into coming up with solutions that are from the writer - never from the feedback giver him or herself.
On the flip side, if a writer gets specific feedback and suggestions and takes them all, they can wind up with a manuscript written by committee. The story feels disjointed and like it has a split-personality.
On a very high level, feedback is simply asking: Did this work? And the reply should be, I have questions about this or that, I liked this but I wasn't sure about that. The work of interpreting that is the work of the writer. If you are asked to give feedback, try to stay high level, ask questions, always be kind, and in this way, you can expect to receive the same kind of feedback yourself. Pay it forward. Be helpful.