The right kind of writing feedback — and when to get it

Much of what’s out there in terms of writing support revolves around getting feedback, whether it’s through private coaching, mentoring, consulting, editors, agents, or writing groups.

Good feedback can be a wonderful thing (though surprisingly, sometimes it isn’t).

Not-so-good feedback, on the other hand, can be spirit-damaging and procrastination-inducing for writers — and even more so for the sensitive, thoughtful writers among us (myself included).

Some people argue that without feedback, our writing will never improve, while others say we need to focus on developing and hearing our own voices in our writing, and that critiques simply make it hard to learn our own way.

But what is good feedback, really?

Is “good” feedback an ego stroke, where your friends and family tell you how great your work is?

My answer is no.

Is “good” feedback a ruthless, gloves-off, in your face slam of your work that leaves you reeling?

Um, no again.

Good feedback — in my opinion — is the kind of feedback that helps a writer do what he or she is trying to do. Good feedback is in line with the vision of the writer’s project and helps him or her make it better. It’s delivered in a thoughtful, caring tone, without the use of pejorative, labeling terms like “cliché, melodramatic, bad, good, boring, unoriginal”, etc, while still clearly and directly pointing to issues and questions that the reader notices. The reader also provides their feedback subjectively, which means that it’s conveyed in an “in my opinion” tone with his or her notes, as opposed to an authoritative, “this is the only way it can be” perspective.

Good feedback is also extremely honest, while still being compassionate. When I read for someone, I bring up everything that concerns me that is appropriate to where the writer is on that stage of their writing process. In other words, if I read a script where I can’t see the story through the language choices, that’s where my feedback starts. If the script is polished to a high sheen, I can give deeper structural, plot, and character motivation notes. (And that’s where it really gets fun.)

Bad feedback, on the other hand, is pejorative, rude, condescending, and often just downright snarky. It challenges the writer’s very attempts at writing. It is emotionally damaging. It is not kind or thoughtful or sensitive. It creates a creative wound in the writer that takes days, months, and sometimes even years to heal from. It’s beyond me why any “consultant” would take it upon themselves to treat another human being in such an inappropriate way.

When good feedback is not such a good thing

Interestingly, sometimes “good” feedback can be just as paralyzing as bad feedback. I’ve talked to more than a few writers who have received extremely encouraging feedback from potential agents or managers — usually something along the lines of “this first chapter is terrific, when you finish the rest, I definitely want to read it.” But if the writer isn’t done with the project, it can lead to a tremendous amounts of pressure to “live up” to the quality of the first (usually highly polished) chapter.

That pressure, in turn, leads to perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis. Ack!

On choosing feedback sources

My advice when it comes to getting feedback is:

  • IF you choose to get feedback, get your earliest feedback from only your most trusted sources, preferably a fellow writer (as opposed to unqualified family and friends) who knows how to deliver compassionate, productive feedback.
  • With any further feedback you get, ask for it from professionals that you pay, know, like and trust. Then listen to them.
  • Take ALL feedback with a grain of salt. Is it in alignment with your vision? Does it resonate for you internally? If so, listen. If not, take what works and move on.
  • Pay attention to notes that have an element of truth to them, even if the specifics don’t resonate for you. It’s worth delving deeper into the notes to try to understand the why behind what a reader is suggesting. Sometimes the detailed suggestions don’t work for you, but the underlying note is accurate and highly useful. I once had a note from a reader where he clearly didn’t “get” what my story was about. But rather than tossing the note out the window, I thought, “Hmm, if he’s not getting the core of the story I’m wanting to tell, how I can rewrite it in a way that would make what I’m trying to do come through more clearly?” It was a valuable lesson for me, and I’m so glad I stayed with it because it taught me a great deal about my own writing process.
  • Avoid getting feedback until you’re really ready for it. Many writers rush to get feedback, looking for validation and encouragement, or get it from so many different gurus and sources that their heads are spinning trying to integrate all of it. While I can’t give you a specific guideline, what I’m focusing on myself is taking things farther than I think I can go on my own before reaching out for feedback, and trying minimize the number of sources so I can deal with one set of notes at a time, a trick I learned from my mentor Hal.

The power of critique-free writing support

I’ve seen so many writers struggle with pain and paralysis after receiving feedback — even good feedback — that I’ve come to believe firmly in the value of ADDITIONAL support for writers in the form of critique-free writing support. This is the kind of support that focuses on the process, habit, and motivation behind writing, rather than on critiquing the content of it. (If you’re wanting this kind of support for yourself, my online Called to Write community is a resource you might like to check out.)

In my estimation, writers need both kinds of support to see their writing through — support for their craft and support for their practice or habit of writing:

  • Without compassionate feedback, mentoring, and content support, we can flounder when it comes to solving our story or writing problems.
  • Without writing practice support, we can have trouble showing up to the page on a regular basis to write.
  • And sometimes, after receiving challenging feedback, we need help getting back to the page to write. Finding support for yourself to do that is an incredible gift.

Thanks for reading!

I always love to hear what you think in the comments.






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  1. Steve Smith says:

    Thanks for posting this, Jenna.

    I’ve been involved in critique groups, and I’ve learned a lot from the critiques and from critiquing others’ work, but I got to the point where I was getting less out of that before. I’ve taken writing classes, but what’s being taught is not always what I need to learn at any point.

    As you know, I’ve been doing the Writer’s Circle for several sessions and my productivity has improved greatly.

    What I needed to do is concentrate on my writing and figure things out for myself. I needed to develop good writing habits and become more productive. As you may recall, I’m focusing on short stories. Right now, my own critical standards are beyond my writing abilities. I expect to improve with practice.

    Maybe after another 10, 20 stories, I’ll be ready for feedback. And when that time comes, I think I will use a paid critique service.

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