Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Many writers are wary of receiving feedback. I know I was, as a fourteen-year-old who had just finished my first story. It was a thinly veiled piece of fanfiction, short, and probably with many comma splices. I waited anxiously as my mother read through it, sipping her coffee and pursing her lips against the bitterness. At least, I hoped it was the coffee. It wasn’t. She put down the pages, barely glanced at me, and said, “That’s an awful lot of dialogue.” Somehow I lived to study writing in college and continue to write. For a long time, I was afraid of receiving feedback and was very conscious of the use of dialogue.
Like many writers, I often become attached to my pieces. They are “my babies” and I want to love and nurture them like any caregiver. Sharing your writing takes courage and can be a vulnerable experience for even very skilled writers. But that courage can pay off when you are trying to get published and share your work on a larger scale--not just with your mom before you finish your homework. Feedback can provide valuable information on the effectiveness of your writing. As the writer, I understand what is going on in my story and can see it play out in my own head, hear the characters voices, and visualize the settings. I want to make sure that readers (who can’t read my mind, I hope) are not lost. As I started receiving feedback from friends and co-workers, several asked me if I would return the favor with a piece of their own writing. I jumped at the chance to help other writers develop, especially since they reviewed my stories carefully and thoughtfully. Receiving and giving feedback is not as scary as it sounds. In fact, once that initial nervousness subsides, it is helpful for your own writing skills, as well as your connections within the writing community.
When you ask for feedback, consider creating a discussion and taking detailed notes. I always make notes on a Post-It of specific questions and concerns that I stick to the front of a manuscript. If you feel comfortable, you can ask for advice on making changes. Consider asking a variety of readers the same questions. If I had asked more people than just my mother, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so terrified of sharing my work until I was well into my college years. Different readers will give you a more complex set of comments to work with. Every person brings a unique background, set of experiences, and thus a distinctive interpretation of your piece. You have the power to compile these comments to help your own story. Filtering through feedback helps establish the writer from the reader. Did more than one person point out a piece of dialogue as confusing? (Or that there was an unnecessary amount? No? Just me?) Did the reader who found a plot point incredible give a solid explanation as to why it was incredible? As the writer, you have the final say and can interpret feedback at your own discretion. If someone simply doesn’t “like” a feature of the piece, think about whether you like that feature. This is your baby; no one else has the power to alter it so completely that you lose that devotion to your piece. Once someone told me that he didn’t like the character death at the end of my story because it was a cheerful piece up until that point, and the death was “shocking, uncalled for, and slightly gruesome.” I went back and added more blood; I wanted something more than “slightly gruesome.” However, I did go back and add more foreshadowing, more pieces of darkness that could be weaved into previous paragraphs and scenes. It’s not what he meant for me to do, but it was my story, and I had planned that character’s death for weeks.
Handling feedback is what will set you apart from other writers. To be published, all writers must have their work reviewed (usually by many different people) and will receive feedback in varying degrees. Sometimes it comes in the form of a rejection letter; other times it manifests as an agent who is particularly interested in reading more and gives you detailed comments. Try not to take any remarks personally. It can be hard, especially if you disagree or don’t fully understand the criticism, but even the most famous, successful writers confess that writing is a continual process of improvement. Mark Twain admitted, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” Suggestions for improvement should never discourage you from writing. Yes, the best writers receive negative feedback, too. The mark of a successful writer is not the lack of room for improvement; it comes from taking feedback at your own discretion and continuing to write. If I had given up after my mother’s feedback, I would never have considered myself a writer and that dream would have died six years ago.
As a writer, you may be asked to provide feedback for other writers. I always try to remember that the person asking for feedback is requesting help in improving his or her writing. A simple “I liked it!” doesn’t tell the writer strengths and weaknesses. When providing criticism and advice, it is much more substantial if you consider both the strong characteristics and the areas that could use purposeful revision. Comments should be supported with examples from the current manuscript. If you can’t show specifics, the writer will not know how to carry out changes if he or she chooses to do so. It’s usually helpful to show an example of a successful feature and then compare it to another area of the writing. “The exchange on page two is emotional without being too dramatic. The dialogue on page 4, however, isn’t as believable. Would someone actually say that in this situation? Would these characters?”
One way I like to think of providing feedback is by considering how I would give feedback to a film, a television episode, or a book. If I like something the creator did, I want to encourage that person to do it again; however, if there is something I didn’t like, I want to give suggestions and reasoning. But, this writer is someone who will directly receive your comments, and you want to encourage the writer to develop the piece and continue writing. It is always better to use specific examples and make suggestions rather than corrections. Instead of changing the dialogue in the scenario above, asking questions will allow the writer to recreate the scene using his or her own style rather than yours. Criticism should be honest, but it can be softened with complements. Pointing out unique or effective areas will keep the writer’s spirits up, and the writer will be more likely to listen to your suggestions. This type of feedback will provide the writer not only with your opinion, but with a deeper understanding of what readers expect.
As a writer, I always want to understand what is going through the reader’s head when they first encounter my writing. Does the description paint a clear picture? Are my characters believable? Does my piece capture your attention and hold it to the very end? These are questions that many writers have, and the only way we can answer these questions is by asking for feedback. We usually don’t want to take this piece to an agent, a publisher, an editor, submit it to a publication, or enter it in a contest without some idea of how readers will react. It’s nerve-racking enough to ask for feedback from someone you don’t know personally, but asking for a complete stranger to publish your work…My blood pressure just sky-rocketed. Feedback should always be given with the hope of improving the writer’s work and skills, but shouldn’t scare them from never writing again. Imagine if J.K. Rowling, Dr. Seuss, James Joyce, Louisa May Alcott, and Stephen King gave up after their first rejection letter. We wouldn’t have Peter Rabbit if Beatrix Potter had thrown down her pen, nor would we have The Jungle Book if Rudyard Kipling had accepted the comments he received about being “unable to write English.”
After my mother’s comment, I vowed never to write again. It lasted about a month or so, which is forever to a fourteen-year-old, until I picked up a pen again and decided that I would prove her wrong. “Hell hath no fury” and all that jazz. I would show her what proper dialogue looked like. It took me four years before I let another person read my writing. Thankfully, this person didn’t just tell me that I had too much dialogue. Her comments were insightful, and she even encouraged me to revise it and submit it for publication in our school’s literary journal. My story was accepted, and I presented the published piece to my mom. She didn’t say one word about the dialogue, and, in fact, no one who has read my work since has told me that I use too much dialogue. I’m no F. Scott Fitzgerald working on The Great Gatsby…but I could be because I didn’t give up. And so can you.