How to Use Feedback Properly

While on a jog the other day, a biker passed me. Per the trail's rules, he called out, "On your left." But then he followed up with: "You've got a good pace." 

I'm not even sure if this second comment was directed at me, but I heard it as if it was. And instead of buoying me and making me run stronger, I spent the next five minutes of my jog mentally deconstructing my pace and trying to figure out if it was, indeed, a good pace.

This deconstruction of my pace and the ensuing distraction from my run led me to consider the following:

Feedback can be the best thing for your writing, and feedback can be the worst thing for your writing.

So in light of that epiphany, I came up with five ways to properly accept feedback.

1. Ask for feedback only when you are ready to hear it.

There have been times when a writing compliment has taken me by surprise. Sometimes, it has been exactly what I needed to drag me out of the Pit of Despair. Yet, there have also been times when a compliment has distracted me from my writing by giving me a "free pass" for ignoring a part of my writing that I have "right."

If I send a chapter I'm proud of to my critique group and it comes back with red ink all over it, I often find myself demoralized. Here's this chapter I thought was ready to go and looking good, and people tell me they can't understand the sentences I wrote? They must be wrong! No, instead I've realized that I am not ready to read feedback offered to me until I've checked my pride at the door. Sometimes it takes me awhile to look at comments after I've received them.

On the flip side, sometimes I send out a chapter which I'm insecure and uncertain about. Usually I do this when I don't know where else to go with the scene, sometimes because I've run out of time. But almost invariably, when I examine the feedback offered, I am encouraged and more accepting of the scene's faults.

2. Value good feedback.

Proper feedback requires that you check your pride and accept there may be something wrong with your work. If you think you're the sliced bread of the written word, you aren't going to listen to how you can improve the dough recipe or your slicing technique. You have to accept that something could be significantly wrong with your peice--and you have to be willing to make the changes.

If you ask for feedback with the attitude that your scene needs hardly any work, and that you know better than the other writers (or readers) examining your work, then chances are you won't be accepting the true value of the feedback offered to you.

3. Recognize poor feedback.

Undoubtedly, once you start asking for feedback, you will receive some comments that are invalid or inappropriate for your work (sometimes just plain incorrect). Because you are the author, you are the only one to know where you are going. You have the responsibility, as the author, to recognize the value or lack of value of the feedback you have received. A lot of this comes from experience, and from knowing what is true to your characters and your plot. While you must keep that in mind, you also must keep in mind that if one or two comments/questions pop up from each reader, you have an issue that probably needs to be addressed.

4. Give feedback. 

This may seem like an odd suggestion, but you learn a lot by picking apart your critique group's writing (in a constructive way, of course). Being able to recognize grammatical mistakes in another's writing is the first step in being able to see it in yours. This is true for other types of writing mistakes: plot holes, lack of characterization, overuse of certain words, etc. Some people like to dive into a new skill without a lesson, but those that study hard and build a foundation attain a higher level of skill faster. Giving feedback to other aspiring writers builds your writing foundation as you actively apply what you learn about writing.

5.  Read prolifically.

Reading has a direct effect on your writing. Next time you reread a favorite book, pay attention to more than your enjoyment of it. Why does it work so well? What are the turning points of the characters? How are the characters developed? How well does the language flow? What could that author have done better? If you were the author, how would you write the novel? 

Similar to giving feedback, it is easier to see faults in another's work, but when you read a published work, you are reading something that worked for at least one other person (if traditionally published). And if you never reread books, know that even bad books have something to teach you (usually bad books can teach you more). 

Allow yourself to be taught, and you will be surprised by how much you learn.