Feedback: the Giving and the Receiving

It’s safe to say that no one wishing to see their writing in print can avoid feedback. You get it at every point of the journey: discussing plot points with a friend, relinquishing your tender draft to the “gentle” hands of the beta readers, developmental edits, structural edits, line edits, copy edits and finally, the reviews. As you follow your path to authordom, you’ll also find yourself in the position of being able to give feedback to others. So below are a few tips on how to give and receive feedback.

The Giving

If anyone is ever struggling with editing their own work, my first advice to them is to do some beta reading for other people. Being able to look at a text with proper objectivity and distance will allow you to see problem areas that crop up time and time again, the quirks and tendencies of specific writers and general patterns of narration, description and style. Even more importantly, it will enable to you form a view as to what works for you and what doesn’t which you can then apply to your own writing.

When I’ve volunteered to give feedback for someone who I don’t know, I always preface the work by saying that I’m Finnish and therefore have a fairly blunt and honest approach to most things in life. If I like something in the text, I will say so. Likewise, if I don’t. I rarely leave purely reaction comments (“OMG” “LOL!!” and such), though it has been known to happen. My intention is never to be mean, but at the same time, I have neither the time nor the energy to beat around the bush if I have a point to make. My first reader has a very similar approach to beta reading, which is why we’ve developed such a trusting and mutually supportive relationship.

About half the time I’m giving feedback to someone, it is for a specific purpose, such as checking an opening chapter for a competition or helping someone tighten their work to fit a set word count. Although on such occasions, my main focus is on the specific brief, I will also flag up any typos, plot holes and contradictions I find. My style is to leave lots of comments in the text itself and then give a summary at the end of what I liked, what worked and which areas need further work. If I’m doing a general critique, one of my favourite techniques is to ask lots of questions. That way, the author has to really think about their characters and the way they react to events in the text.

The Receiving

When my publisher first mentioned edits to me, she said that the editing stage was the point where we had to set aside our egos and work together to make the story and the words the very best they could. In saying that, I think she hit the nail on the head. Because that is what editing is all about you. When you ask for feedback, it is to improve. When people critique your work, it is to help you improve. They don’t point out issues to be mean, just as they don’t praise something to make you like them. It’s all about the text.

So when you next get that sinking feeling upon reading a beta’s comments, take a deep breath, set aside your ego and think about what they are saying. You don’t have to agree with them, but you should always, always listen. Perhaps you disagree because they misunderstood something. If that’s the case, ask yourself whether others might make the same mistake. There’s always a point to the feedback you receive.

Sometimes, comments are a precursor to dialogue. If an author asks if they can explain something based on my comments and ask questions, I welcome it with open arms. It means they want to engage with the feedback and that’s the best reward I could ask for. Never, ever get cross and write an angry email/tweet/Facebook message/message in a bottle to the person providing you with feedback. That’s unprofessional and unnecessary. Edits aren’t personal.

Whether you find the edits useful or not, there’s one thing you must always do: say thank you. Someone has taken the time to read your text and try to help you improve it. The least you can do is show that you appreciate the effort. It’s shocking how often people don’t do this, and it makes me more than a little angry every time. What’s more, I’m never volunteering to help those people again.

I hope the above has been helpful in giving you some pointers about how to approach feedback regardless of whether you’re giving or receiving. We can learn an awful lot from our fellow writers, and only by working together can we improve in leaps and bounds. What could be better than that?

Like this blog post? Disagreed with something I said? Feel free to leave me feedback!

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6 thoughts on “Feedback: the Giving and the Receiving

    • Agreed! I came to writing fiction via fanfiction, which helped enormously because I had an amazing beta for fanfic that didn’t pull punches. so by the time my publisher sent me the structural edits for my first novel, I was well trained!

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  1. Great article! I never thought to Beta Read for other people. Mostly because I don’t know many other writers. I beta read my father’s book, and I was a little open about my opinions. I worry about Beta Reading for people that don’t have to forgive me!

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    • If you wanted to become a beta reader, there are Facebook groups where you can connect with other writers. I’m a member of one called 10 Minute Novelist, which has a thread every Tuesday that allows people to volunteer to beta and that has writers are pitching their projects in the hopes of finding volunteers. It’s definitely worth doing, as you learn so much about writing and editing. And don’t forget that your job as a beta is not to make the writer like you, but to offer constructive feedback to help them improve their draft. If you’re unsure whether you’d be a good fit for someone, you could always offer to beta a sample and see whether your feedback style works for you both.

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