Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I find feedback perplexing. I can't make everyone happy and sometimes people disagree. How do I know when advice is good?

Processing feedback is certainly a skill, and it’s one that’s essential to master. Receiving feedback can be an opportunity to see how others experience the words you’ve put on the page and to assess how well you’ve achieved your intentions. But it’s not a flawless process. Your task is to consider that feedback and make choices about how to move forward in revision.

Each reader has given you his or her individual reaction to the words you set down on the page. This, of course, is informed by the reader’s understanding of the craft and of their sense of what you seem to be working toward in the fiction. It may also be informed, in more subtle ways, by personal experience and preference. Think of feedback, then, as a collection of suggestions to be vetted.

Reflect on feedback with as much information as you can about your intentions. If you understand what you hoped to accomplish, you’ll be able to look at commentary through that specific lens and make informed choices about your next revision.

To engage the process with an open mind, consider each suggestion as if it is great advice. That doesn’t mean you should take all of that advice. Instead, really look at each suggestion from all angles, even if you don’t understand or agree with it at first. If someone says the voice of the narrator should be changed because it is off-putting, but you know you intended that, consider what it means to have a narrator with an off-putting voice. Certainly there are great characters in literary works with voices that aren’t warm and fuzzy. But don’t stop there. What does this mean for your story?

Though you want to mine every bit of feedback for what you can learn and gain from it, there should be plenty that you disregard. That’s okay. If a suggestion is not working toward your intentions or it doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of what you know about the craft and good literature, then ignore it. Some comments just don’t hit the mark. Others grow out of personal reader preference, attempting to wrestle your story into something it isn’t.

It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it? As you do more of this, you’ll get a better feel for it. I urge, you, though, to stay open to the possibilities. Sometimes the comments we bristle at most strongly are the very ones that we need to heed. Be open to experimentation. If you have a strong reaction to something, try the suggestion out in revision and see what happens. Alternatively, you might journal about it or talk it over with the commenter or a writer or reader you trust to see what develops.

In the end, it’s your story and you make the choices. Use feedback wisely to accomplish the reader experience you intended.