Getting the Most Out of Feedback

by Brandi Reissenweber

Does this scenario sound familiar? Your story is being workshopped in class or a by a writers’ group. You listen attentively to the discussion about your piece and take notes. At home, you diligently read the scribbles in the margins and endnotes on the returned copies of your manuscript. You give it a few days to settle. You return to the most recent draft of your manuscript and find yourself stumped. Do you make every suggested change? Some of them? What about those that conflict? Or this scenario: perhaps you give your story to a trusted friend or writer colleague for feedback and in response you receive a kind but vague opinion of the story.

Seeking out feedback can be one of the most crucial steps in the revision process. Take a look at any Acknowledgements page of a book. Profuse thanks goes to editors and readers—early in the process and late—because writers understand that sensitive and relevant feedback will help them realize more fully their intentions on the page, which will help them better achieve those intentions. But what to do with all those notes? The avalanche of comments? The wish-washy paragraph from a reader? There are ways to navigate this tricky terrain and use feedback to its maximum potential. Here are some pointers you might integrate into your process.

1. Choose readers with care.

In a class or writers group, your audience is pre-selected. The benefit here is that you are often receiving guidance on the process, learning the language of writing and actively practicing and talking about the craft. Since your fellow writers are doing the same, you have a shared base of knowledge from which to work. When you are seeking out readers, you might choose a mix of writerly friends and people you know to be avid readers. Realize that friends and family members may have the added burden of being concerned about hurting your feelings, especially if they are not well versed in the art of constructive critique. Keep this in mind as you choose readers and if you do choose to ask the favor, request honesty (and make sure you’re ready for it). When working with writers as readers, your commenters are likely to focus on craft and have an understanding of the language in which to discuss those issues. With non-writing readers, you may have to do some of the translating of their concerns and feelings. If they were bored during page two through four, for example, then those are areas where you may need to build tension or pare out unnecessary details.

2. Understand your own major concerns about the work.

Take time to develop a list of your concerns about the work and its craft. Make sure these are specific: “At the end, is it clear Mary isn’t going to leave with Joe?” When questions are too General—“Is the end clear?”—the issue can be harder to explore and can even result in misunderstandings. Keep these questions to yourself to begin with. Look this list over right before you receive your feedback so you can see what’s said about those issues by readers of their own volition. Save the remaining issues for after your reader has completed his or her own thoughts on the piece.

3. Follow your reader, don’t lead.

Give any reader the opportunity to share their thoughts and work from their initial impressions without any leading on your part. Your well intentioned questions or comments might focus the reader in a way that takes them away from their own impressions, or makes them place importance on issues that might not have come up for them in their own unguided reading of the work. I’ve seen this happen time and again in workshop where a seemingly innocent comment made when passing out the story will direct a large course of the commentary. This can detract from other, perhaps more important, issues about the work.

4. Listen.

This is your number one priority when receiving feedback. It seems obvious, but we live in such a fast-paced society that people are often thinking of what they are going to say next or how they might respond before the speaker has even finished their thought. When getting feedback, take yourself out the equation entirely. Simply listen, only asking for clarification if necessary. You might find it helpful to take notes, particularly if you are getting feedback from a group. When it sounds like your reader is finished, wait just a bit longer. You might be surprised what comes up in that brief silence that might not have otherwise. (If the feedback comes to you written, like an email, make sure to keep it and reread it several times.)

5. Ask questions.

Once you have given your reader an opportunity to have his or her say (unguided), take some time to ask follow up questions to address concerns that the reader didn’t address on his or her own. This is where that list from point #2 can come in handy. This is also a good time to prompt readers who might not be familiar with the reading process with questions like these: Were there moments that you found dull? Where were they? Moments where you forgot you were reading because you were just in the story? Did you like the main character? Did you understand why she or he did [specific action]? If you get brief or vague feedback, these sorts of questions can give a reader some direction.

6. Make a master manuscript.

You will likely come out of this experience with lots of bits and pieces—your own notes, line edits, thoughts and readers’ notes. A “master manuscript” can make this whole process more manageable. Using a clean manuscript, go through everything and make notations of strong spots and suggestions in the margins as well as in a list at the end of the story. Use this process as a way to weed out comments that are way off the mark of what you are intending to do with the story. If you are unsure of a comment or not entirely convinced it is a throw away, mark it on your master manuscript. Give each suggestion due consideration, imagining what could happen if you did take it before dismissing it. In the case of conflicting commentary, mark both sides. Point out strong moments, too, so you can make sure to preserve that strength when revising. Let this master manuscript sit for a bit. Give yourself a break from the story and the process. You still have a document that encompasses all the relevant comments so you won’t forget them and you will likely gain even more perspective as time goes by. When you return to the master manuscript, you may find you can more easily eliminate or implement certain suggestions. As you revise, keep outstanding suggestions or questions and transfer them over to the new draft. As you continue revising, you will get a better sense of what belongs and that doesn’t. Sometimes you will resolve those outstanding issues simply by trying the suggestion to see how it pans out. You may make discoveries with a conditional revision that leads you in an appropriate direction.

7. Trust yourself.

Based on the feedback you receive, you should challenge your preconceived notions, take risks, try things that have promise, even if it seems like they may not pan out. In the end, however, the decisions are yours to make. Don’t keep a revision that feels wrong, no matter who the suggestion comes from. Ultimately, the story is yours and you are best situated to make decisions about it.