How to Make Tough Feedback Work for You

feedback - man at computer

We’ve all been there.

You’ve shared your work with someone. You wait for what seems like an eternity and then it comes: the feedback.

And it’s not good.

Your plot is contrived. Your characters are flat. Everything is wrong with your book baby.

It’s hard to share work that you care about, and when it’s feedback that feels hurtful or overly negative, it can be even more difficult to send your work out there again.

Don’t despair! Difficult feedback can be a heartbreak, but there are productive ways to make even the worst critiques work for you. Instead of having a voodoo bonfire with your reader’s likeness, consider these things first.

Take a Beat

Your delicate, writerly feelings have been hurt. You put your feelers out into the universe and it feels like they got stepped on. It hurts, man. It hurts.

Part of being a writer is getting rejected a whole lot. It’s how we learn to improve. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t entitled to eat that pint of Ben & Jerry’s you’ve got tucked away in the fridge while you cry about how unfair it is that you got smacked down.

Go ahead, give yourself some time to get over it. 

While Margaret Atwood is rumoured to give herself ten minutes before she moves on, it’s okay if you take a little longer. Just don’t stop writing altogether. Write something new that you can get excited about or return to another piece of work.

This can be a productive way of getting over a tough round of feedback. Taking a step back from your work-in-progress can help you to better consider whether some of that feedback might actually be useful.

As hard as it might be to admit, are your characters in need of some more writerly TLC? Could your plot be made more exciting by re-arranging your current narrative structure? 

Actionable Advice vs. Wayward Negativity

It’s always important to turn difficult situations into opportunities for growth. It is equally important to examine the feedback you have been given and see if you can parse out which feedback will help you the most.

Are they telling you how they would write your book and focusing only on the negative aspects? Remember that it is still your story and you can trust yourself to figure out how you want to tell it.

Try not to take this kind of advice personally. It is possible that your critique partner just isn’t the right audience for what you are writing. 

Consider also who is giving this advice. What is their experience as a writer? If your critique partner has not given a lot of feedback, they may not know how to phrase comments in constructively.

If this is true, you might consider giving them the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is one person’s opinion. One person is not the final word on writing (unless that person is Margaret Atwood, maybe), nor should you treat their opinions as a “sign” that you are a “bad writer” (you aren’t) or that you should stop writing (you shouldn’t). 

Get into the Right Mindset. 

Are you in a state where you feel anxious? Overtired? Mad that your gerbil kept you up all night? Do yourself a favour and don’t read your feedback again until you are in a good headspace.

When we look to others for accolades, it’s hard to feel good when it’s all negative. Get yourself on balance by becoming your own cheering section. When I’m feeling bad about a comment I didn’t like, I spend some time free-writing so that I can remind myself why I got into writing in the first place: the rush of excitement when a story sings for you or a character comes to life.

There will be time later to look at the feedback with a clearer head, but it is important to build yourself up again too. Whatever you do, pick an activity that puts you in a good mood so that you will be more receptive to change. Then, when do you go back to read your feedback, you’ll be better equipped to know how to respond. 

Your Frenemy, Confirmation Bias

Getting a “bad” review or unpleasant feedback can sometimes activate our own insecurities. Sometimes, we are our own worst critics. Consider that your own feelings of doubt may be clouding what is otherwise helpful feedback.

Afraid you’re an impostor? Suddenly, you think that if you were a real writer, your characters would be perfect. Worried that published authors don’t ever get rejections? Think again. That’s just your confirmation bias being a bit of a snit.

Go ahead and tell it to get lost. It’s okay, you have my permission. As long as you don’t write an email to your critique partner telling them where they can stick their feedback, you’re good to go. 

Approach your Work with Honesty

Be honest with yourself. Every work-in-progress has elements that could be strengthened. Even if you don’t end up using any of the feedback that you were given, take the time to read through your manuscript and consider how it can be made better.

Reading aloud can help to find awkward phrases or wooden dialogue, or if you have a plotting issue, consider reading the manuscript once as a whole, then charting out major plot points to check and see if they have good narrative flow.

Regardless of how you improve your work, make all the changes you are going to make before you give it to another critique partner. This way, you won’t get overwhelmed by too much feedback and you will be able to more easily process any new information for your manuscript.

Being self-reflective and knowing when to make changes to your manuscript can only help your writing grow.

Keep Writing, Keep Growing 

Sending your work out can be scary, but don’t let yourself get caught up in your own fears about who you are as a writer. Negative feedback does not define you as a person or as a writer.

If you show up to your work every day—or as much as you reasonably can—then you are a good writer. If you try your best to use feedback and think critically (in a helpful way) about your own writing, you will find that over time your writing will get better. Doubt is part of the process, but it doesn’t have to set you back or control how you feel about your writing.

Love yourself, love your writing and always, always keep the faith. Got it? Good. Now get back to work. 

About the author

Lauren Mead

Prior to teaching English, Lauren earned her MA in literary studies at Brock University, was a columnist for The Cannon and the fiction editor for Carousel Magazine. She writes book reviews (and other bookish things) over at her blog, Murmurs in the Margins.