Whether it’s from trusted readers, a workshop group, friends, an academic tutor or a professional editor, all writers have to take on feedback. Self-editing may get you halfway, but we all have blind spots. Learning to take critique is a journey – often a messy one – but even when you welcome it with open arms, there will be feedback you think is wrong and suggestions you don’t want to take on board.
So, what do you do with this feedback? Ignore it? Follow it anyway, assuming the editor knows better? At BPA, we believe you should feel in command of your own novel and make the final decision about any changes based on the story that you want to tell. But that doesn’t mean throwing feedback in the bin.
1. Consider whether the issue could be elsewhere.
Often a beta reader will sense an issue in a particular area of a manuscript but fail to identify exactly what it is. They might tell you a character should be less brash when really the issue is that you haven’t dropped enough hints as to how this character trait evolved. Whenever I have the instinct to reject a critique on my own work, I look for potential issues around the one that’s been flagged.
2. Find an alternative solution to the problem.
It may be that your reader flagged an issue correctly but suggested the wrong solution, wrong for you at least. It can be easy to focus on the suggestion and dismiss the entire comment, but it’s important to get to the root of the issue and fix it in your own way. For example, if a reader suggests you use first person to get closer to the protagonist but you’re set on third, you could instead include more interior thought or work on their characterisation.
3. Save it to a ‘feedback file’ and come back to it later.
Add all the feedback you receive to a backed-up file, whether it’s a detailed report or a passing comment. Before you consider a draft of a novel or story to be finished, read through the amassed feedback to check if anything that didn’t ring true at the time is worth considering in light of distance, further feedback or the development of the story.
There’s feedback I’ve rejected because I was holding too tight to my original idea, because I lacked self-awareness, because I didn’t trust the person giving the feedback, because it differed with what other people were saying or because it simply upset my ego! I’ve even rejected critique out of laziness, because the work required to fix the issue was too significant. Later it became clear I would have saved myself time by responding to it straight away. Often your instinct will be right, but we have to be aware of our own biases and prepared to reconsider.
4. Get a second and third opinion.
Unless it’s from a professional editor, you should always check a major critique against the opinion of others who’ve read the work-in-progress. This is why it’s a great idea to join a writer’s group or workshop. If multiple readers agree and you’re still hesitant to make the change, return to points one and two. The words you put on the page will not always communicate to the reader the way you think they will – we all come to a book with our own vocabulary, context and preconceived ideas – so it’s important to consider whether the story you think you’re telling is what’s being conveyed.
5. Don’t let it bring you down.
This is a big one. Even feedback you agree with can be disheartening, and when you’re not seeing eye to eye with your reader it can feed a fear that you’ll never connect with an audience. But feedback never means that your book isn’t good enough; it just means it’s not ready yet.
Learning to keep one’s own tastes out of feedback takes time, and less experienced readers will inevitably criticise things simply because it’s not how they would have written it. You will get to a final draft if you put the dedication in and reach out to a variety of readers. If the concept has promise, you will find your audience! We all want our workshop group and editors to love the book, but they’re not reading it to love it – they’re reading it to provide constructive feedback – so it’s important to drop your expectations of endless praise and work towards the day when someone will read your book purely for pleasure.