Sometimes writers I work with are like proud parents wanting to show off their beautiful, highly intelligent offspring. They have polished and honed and redrafted and revised and are confident about the finished manuscript. That’s great. But it doesn’t mean that they are finished with the manuscript.
Close scrutiny by a professional will almost certainly result in recommendations on how to further develop the work to give it the best possible chance with an agent or publisher. In all my years of reading manuscripts, I have not read one that didn’t require more work, even those that have gone on to be bestsellers and award-winners.
The key to dealing with feedback is to separate your sense of self from the actual work, from all those words. Only with this separation will you be able to embrace the potential that feedback and revision can offer.
Yes, you pour yourself into your manuscript – you live it, breath it, are immersed in the process – but remember that the writing produced is a collection of words, a representation of your thoughts, ideas, research, imagination. Yes, you are likely to be emotionally attached to your work, and indeed you need some sort of attachment to find the commitment to have come this far with your writing project – but the words be cut, rearranged, changed or omitted, without drawing blood. The manuscript is not you. Any suggestion that something may not be working in the manuscript is feedback about the story on the page, not about who you are.
It can be difficult to receive feedback suggesting changes if you thought your work was done – let’s face it, it can be positively excruciating! But every writer I know who has faced the unwelcome news that the manuscript is not quite ready, has, in the end (and perhaps after a glass or two of red wine, or a week or month of putting the manuscript out of sight) been thankful for the opportunity to make their work richer, deeper, stronger. It’s about trusting the person to whom you have handed your work. If they are any good at their job, they will treat it with respect, care and consideration.
Too many cooks
Constructive feedback can be an eye-opening experience, allowing you to see the potential of your work and your ideas in a new way; it can unleash a new wave of creativity. But feedback from too many different readers can be confusing. Particularly if the feedback is conflicting. Reading is a subjective experience; there is no getting around that.
If you get conflicting feedback – probe further. Why didn’t that reader like the use of all those action words – Wham! Bang! etc.? Why did that reader want to know more about the characters up front? Some of your readers won’t be able to answer, but some will. And if you get the same response from a number of different readers, then perhaps they’re on to something.
If you get feedback you don’t understand, ask the reader to clarify their response. If you feel that the feedback is unhelpful, ask someone else, or ask for feedback a different way.
Responding to feedback
The most common issue I see writers wrestle with – whether they are just starting out, or have a couple of bestsellers behind them – is self-confidence. Your particular personality, your life journey, your circumstances, your day – these will all affect your confidence levels and how you handle criticism of any kind. Keep in mind that while you don’t have control over the feedback you receive, but you do have control over how you respond to it.
Certainly, dealing with challenging criticism can bring you down, but what do you do next? Do you feel defeated? Angry? Do you give up? Become determined to ‘show ’em’? Most likely there will be a range of responses over time. It may take a while before you can rekindle your enthusiasm to revisit your draft. Think back to the kernel of the idea that inspired you in the first place, touch base with your love of writing. Recharge your batteries, take a deep breath and push forward.
A few years back I got a call from a writer who said, ‘You probably won’t remember me – you assessed my manuscript five years ago.’ I did remember her, and her story; the manuscript needed a lot of work. She told me that when she had received the assessment report she was so embarrassed about what she had sent me that she stuck the manuscript in a drawer. It took over 12 months before she could look at it again. Then she re-read the report, and started rewriting. After several more drafts she found a publisher who loved it, and she wanted to know if I could come to her book launch.
There is no one way to manage feedback and it can take time and practise to find the best way to deal with it. It is part of what it means to be a writer.