Sunday, April 11, 2010

Finding Balance When Receiving Feedback

If there's one thing I've learned from being a technical writer for the last 19 years, it's to have a thick skin when it comes to getting feedback. I am so used to having my drafts come back covered with red ink that I no longer labor under the illusion that my words are somehow sacred or divinely inspired. Instead, I get really excited when people give me feedback, because it means they took the time to read what I wrote and paid enough attention to give me comments. I think developing this attitude toward getting feedback is absolutely essential for a writer.

That being said, you must also be careful to take all feedback with a grain of salt, and part of what helps you with this is getting many different people to read your work. If you have only two people read your book, you can get wildly different opinions and not know which way to turn. But if ten people read your book, and seven of them tell you your dialogue is too stilted, chances are you should listen to that feedback.

A couple examples of this came up for me recently. Two of my favorite bloggers sent me fantastic and detailed feedback on Merger, the second book in the Soterians series, which I just released. They both liked it, but one of them felt that there wasn't enough romance and she missed the interactions between Kai and Ashlyn that had been more plentiful in book one, Rising Shadow. The other blogger, on the other hand, said that there was too much romance for his taste and that he wished there'd been more action. I value both of their opinions very highly, and knowing that they represent two different audiences for my book, I felt that this critique meant that I had actually gotten it just right. If I'd just paid attention to one or the other, I might have been tempted to take my next book too far in one direction, so getting this type of varied feedback was very useful.

The other example was the feedback I got from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Rising Shadow made it to the second round, where two judges read an excerpt from your book and give you feedback. Their opinions were again pretty different; the first one liked it a lot and said she was left feeling like she wanted to find out more, whereas the second one said it left her feeling like "so what?" The second judge acknowledged that she'd just read another entry very similar to mine and that it might have impacted her impression of my book. The vibe I got from the first judge was a lot of energy and enthusiasm, whereas the second one just sounded tired, making me wonder if my excerpt was the last of the 250 she'd had to review. This is incredibly important to remember: no matter who is giving you feedback, they are people, and as such, there's no such thing as a completely objective review. Their feedback will depend on what else they just read, how they're feeling that day, even (as one agent said about her process of sifting through submissions) what they had for lunch.

So the upshot is that when you receive feedback, it's important that you a) put yourself into as centered and receptive a mood as you can, b) listen deeply without being defensive and try to see where you can improve your writing based on the feedback, and c) take it all with a grain of salt, because no matter how well-regarded or brilliant your reviewer happens to be, there are many factors at play that affect their perception of your work.

In other words, keep in mind that neither your words nor those of your reviewer are sacred. Once you truly grasp this, you'll find receiving feedback is actually a wonderful experience--or, at the very least, slightly less painful.


  1. I soo agree with this - I mean, 2 people reading the same book will bring it that book such different tastes and styles...Me reading a book is 100% different than what Aubrey might get when she reads the very same book. :) That's why it's so wonderful to have so much out there to choose from when reading! I am just thankful I found your series! :)

  2. And I'm so grateful to have found your blog, Jenn! (For those of you who haven't seen it, check out Book Crazy blog--link is in the sidebar). I love how you put your whole heart into your reviews and your passion for reading.

  3. I have a bunch of comments. First of all, great post and congrats on making it to the second round in the Amazon contest! Thanks, also, for pointing out Jenn's blog. I look forward to checking it out.

    I know some writers who think it's a mistake to show your ms to a bunch of people, that it's better to find one person you really trust and just show it to that one person because otherwise you can get overwhelmed with different feedback. Of course, if it's your first book, you don't know yet who will have a vision similar to yours or who will be the most helpful, so you need to show it to a lot of people (I have shown my book to, and received feedback from, a LOT of people.) But I also found (like you) that if I got the same feedback (in a writers' group, for eg) from five people and totally different feedback from the sixth, I would listen to the five people. AND, as someone who has critiqued a lot of works, I agree that - as hard as I try to be objective - if I'm in a bad mood my critiques tend to be more negative.

    My last comment - since you got two very different responses on the love story in Merger, this might be a good example of when you need more opinions, no?

  4. Thanks for the comments, Meghan! You're absolutely right--I am looking forward to seeing more feedback on Merger. I had my usual set of six readers review it before I published it, and I was happy with where it was when it went out the door, but it'll be enlightening to get more comments and see how it's received now that it's out in the world.

  5. Jacquelyn, I've found this to be very true in my own writing -- my critique partners and I are poles apart in our writing styles and voice and even genres ... I think those differences add to the value of the critique they give. It's so helpful to have more than one person read my work before it goes out to an editor -- and that means being read by CPs who aren't your clones!

  6. Great point, Cynthia. Diversity of critique partners is very important. We do have to take it with a grain of salt when one of our reviewers is definitely not in our target audience (e.g., I don't expect the romance in my young adult novels to resonate with my husband), but their comments are still very helpful and thought-provoking.