We writers, we’re a rare breed. We’re willing to put our stuff into the public domain, but we’re fragile eagles when reader reactions trend anything less than “pure adulation.” We’re quick to criticize others, but slow to accept that others’ criticism has merit. Like the expert artisans of old, our art isn’t just work product — it’s in some way a deep reflection of who we are as people and therefore our emotional and psychological self-worth is tied to how others perceive our stories.

In other words: We’re over-protective of our word babies because they really are a part of us.

It should therefore surprise absolutely no one that the single biggest barrier to first-time publication comes from authors who submit their first drafts to editors or publishers. Print to PDF, click the Send button, wait for the royalty check — or so the theory goes. Fiction writers who have a background in either journalism or work-for-hire writing understand that the story they develop isn’t fully theirs. Yes, they may have done 95 percent of the work, but editors intervene with changes of their own. Business judgment affects the details in ways not always consistent with the writer’s vision. Even the best, most experienced authors don’t enjoy the luxury of having a publisher print their first draft without a review process.

The hardest thing about writing for publication isn’t necessarily the writing — it’s in being edited. We slave away at stories, pouring our hearts and souls into telling the narrative, and when it’s finished, it’s our story. So when other people say stuff like, “Well, that ending didn’t quite work” or “I wish you would have done something else with Chapter 4” or “Oh my gawd, like totally, do you even know how to use commas correctly?” — it stings with the fiery intensity of a swarm of Africanized honeybees who think you beeknapped their queen.

But, writers, here’s the thing: No one’s first draft is ever as good as you think it is. No matter how proud you are of your effort, it can always stand improvement. That’s why we have editors. And beta readers. And peer-review circles. And, for the self-published, one-star ratings.

True-life drama: For the forthcoming Brewed Awakenings anthology, I wrote a novelette called “Providence.” I liked it. I thought it was a clean story with good characters and a decent plot flow. I shared it with four beta readers. Two provided feedback. One nit-picked tactical errors, including minor factual inconsistencies and some syntax stuff. The other looked at big-picture aspects, including the unintended circumstance that I only had one strong female character. Three rewrites later, I like the story even more — and it’s better because of feedback from Brittany and Lianne. But I still didn’t enjoy having the flaws in the original story pointed out to me, even though the feedback was couched in gentle language and led to a stronger final product.

I doubt anyone (except, perhaps, a masochist) really enjoys critical feedback, especially when it trends negative. But good writers know that the trial-by-fire from beta readers or professional editors is what brings our newborn manuscript through its long, painful adolescence known as “rewrites” until we finally have a mature product ready for the market.

To authors on the receiving end of feedback, be stout of heart:

  • Look for beta readers who are well read and will tell you what you don’t want to hear. Beta readers who say stuff like, “Great job! I wouldn’t change a thing” are pretty much useless; they don’t serve you well if you (inevitably) stumble across a professional editor who says, “Who wrote this crap, and how fast can I blacklist him as being a subliterate penmonkey?”
  • Can’t find a beta reader? Pay a local pro or semi-pro editor to tear your manuscript apart. Because, frankly, even for self-published writers, pushing to market a draft that’s only been reviewed by the author is tantamount to authorial malpractice.
  • Never, never, never become so enamored of a turn of phrase that you’re unwilling to be told that it doesn’t work. The more petty the stakes, the more vigorously we tend to dig in.
  • Beta readers are never wrong. They simply have an opinion. As an author, you’re free to accept or reject their opinions — but if you find you’re not taking their feedback to heart and making suggested improvements, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. You must inculcate the humility to be edited with grace.
  • If feedback stings, it’s not the fault of the editor or the writer. Rather, it’s the natural extension of your emotional bond to your story. Being told your story has weaknesses is like being told your child is below average; our instinct is to protect our own, not to explore the merits of the perceived insult. So feel free to vent — yell at a tree, jump your significant other’s bones, guzzle some bourbon, take a kickboxing class, dive into the second pint of Ben & Jerry’s, whatever. Your emotional response to feedback is always legitimate; never let anyone tell you how you ought to feel when people poke sticks at your word baby. But instead of blaming the editor or writer, work out your rage or sorrow through some cathartic release and then, with fresh eyes and serene comportment, look at the feedback as an invitation to re-think parts of the story that may (or may not) require revision.
  • If your beta readers think the whole story is off-base, don’t despair. It probably is. So rewrite it!
  • If you get feedback about your writing style, take that advice to heart no matter how deeply it cuts. Lots of aspiring writers lose the story in a fog of syntax errors. You can be an excellent storyteller but a weak craftsman of the language, or a pristine stylist who tells insipid stories. Structure and content are two separate things. If you get negative comments about word use, sentence structure, etc., use those comments as an inducement to brush up on your composition skills. Find a writing coach! Then rewrite and try again.

Too few authors realize that a story isn’t a one-sided transmission of some literary masterpiece onto a passive audience. It is, rather, a dialogue — an invitation for the reader to enter into the author’s world. That process necessarily requires a degree of co-creation; the author seeds a framework by the careful use of printed words, but the story in all its glory takes root only in the imagination of the reader. In a sense, every story belongs to the reader, not to the writer, and the tree or flower or shrub that flourishes in the reader’s imagination will vary from reader to reader, just like a seed’s fruit varies based on the unique mix of light and soil for where it germinated.

Every time an author’s ego blocks a suggested improvement, it’s like the author threw a rock into the fertile garden of the reader’s imagination that’s been reserved just for your story. If enough rocks get chucked into that garden, no seed will ever take root. The story will never flower.

What a waste. An utterly avoidable, depressing, waste.

Handling Feedback with Grace

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