6 Tips for Getting Better Writing Feedback
Writers write for an audience just as much as we write for ourselves. We want readers to enjoy our work, and we need to know whether they do or not long before going down the self-publishing or traditional publishing routes. This means we need feedback.
Feedback helps us learn how the story reads, whether our story point is clear, and whether our characters make sense. We need “outside eyes,” third-parties who can see our story for what it is and be honest about it. Writers need feedback in order to improve our work.
Getting good feedback is almost as difficult as writing the book itself.
We all know the struggle of asking friends and family for feedback, and getting less-than-helpful responses. When you factor in that most people don’t know how to give good feedback in the first place, it can seem pointless to share our work with others. If you’re struggling to get feedback that is meaningful and actionable, try these 6 tips for getting better feedback.
#1 — Ask the right people for feedback.
Most of us immediately turn to friends and family for feedback. We know them already and we trust them in many areas of our lives. However, we usually get feedback that is one of three things: 1) entirely positive because our family/friends want to be encouraging; 2) entirely too critical for little reason or explanation; or 3) too general and therefore un-actionable. Our family and friends — while some of our biggest cheerleaders — are probably not experts in story, let alone familiar with your genre and age group.
Instead, find beta readers, critique partners, editors, and/or book coaches that specialize in your genre and market, and have a good grasp on the craft of storytelling. These people will be able to speak to your story specifically because they are experienced.
#2 — Ask for specific feedback.
If you’re struggling to get good feedback, chances are you’re not asking for it in the right way. Many of us just send our work to a beta reader or family member/friend and ask if they have any feedback. “What did you think? Did you like it or hate it? Was it good?” Then, because we ask general questions, we get general responses that leave us directionless.
Instead, ask specific questions to get specific answers you can act on. Here are some examples:
- What would you say the point of my story is? Does it come across clearly?
- Were there places where the story felt slow or you lost interest? If so, where and why?
- How would you describe X character’s development throughout the plot?
- Did my characters have agency? Can you give me some examples of where their agency stood out?
- Was my dialogue confusing or boring in X/Y/Z scenes?
Even after you get responses to your specific questions, continue to probe for more clarity where you need it. Ask where you need examples, or where you’re unclear on the feedback’s meaning. The more specific you can get, the more you’ll be able to take that feedback and run with it.
#3 — Talk through the feedback.
One of my favorite parts of working with my book coach, Emily, is talking through her feedback. I take time to digest her comments, and then we go over them together to make sure I understood her as she intended. This process has made a huge difference in not only improving my WIP, but also in learning more about the writing craft.
Regardless of whether you have a book coach, beta reader, or critique partner, spend time talking through their feedback. You’ll hear, in their words, where they love your work and where they think you need to improve. You’ll be able to ask questions, probe for examples, and brainstorm solutions. If you contract with an editor, be sure they allow some time to discuss their feedback.
#4 — Don’t get defensive.
We all know the feeling. We share our work — which we’ve shed blood, sweat, and tears making — with another person only to hear them point out areas where it’s not perfect. Our stomachs drop, our hearts sink, and we instantly react with the fight or flight response. Maybe you vehemently disagree with their feedback, or maybe you are just hurt by it. This is okay.
It’s so easy to say “don’t get defensive,” but it’s much harder to actually stop yourself from feeling this way. The trick is to recognize when you feel it and control that feeling. The more defensive you act, the more unlikely it becomes for others to give you additional feedback because they feel your defensiveness. Chances are you’re also missing out on actual, valid feedback you need to hear in order to improve.
Take a few deep breaths, and try to listen with an open mind. However, always remember that it is your choice to make changes. If you don’t feel a piece of feedback would improve your work, ignore it and move on or revisit it in the next version of your story. You are the one in control.
#5 — Focus on your strengths.
There’s a saying that it takes ten positive comments to outweigh one negative comment. When you hear where you need to improve your writing, it can feel like you don’t do anything right. However, this is just an untrue narrative we tell ourselves. The truth is that we all have things we do well and things we need to work on.
We’ve talked about getting specific feedback, but I don’t just mean constructive criticism. Specific feedback is also extremely important for knowing what you’re doing well. Ask your readers to point out what your strengths are and focus on those things. Those are the things you need to keep doing. Ask questions about why your reader thinks you’re doing them well and how you can preserve that for the next version of your story. Ask for specific examples so that you can study them, and study those same strengths in other writers.
#6 — Assume positive intent.
The concept of “assuming positive intent” changed my life the first time I internalized it. This is a great way to avoid defensiveness (tip #4), but it also is a comprehensive attitude adjustment when dealing with other people and building relationships. Assuming positive intent means that you assume the person giving you feedback (or doing anything else) has the best intentions at heart. It means you believe they are trying to help. It means that you become more patient and try to see things from their perspective.
Assuming positive intent will help you get better feedback because it will allow you to absorb feedback with an open mind. When you truly believe another person has good intentions, it changes the way you interact with them. It changes how you trust them, and it changes your reactions to them. Plus, it will almost guarantee that you continue to get good feedback every time to work with that person.