How to deal with negative feedback about your writing

Whether it’s sharing your novel, a brief poem, or your resume – getting feedback on your writing can feel brutal. So here are some tips to hopefully make it less of a painful experience.

Why feedback is so important.

Feedback, whether solicited, or not offers opportunity for growth. That mindset is key when it comes to the feedback aspect of writing.

It’s hard to remember, because writing often feels deeply personal. Especially, I think, if it’s creative writing. It can feel like we’ve poured a lot of ourselves into the piece and when someone points out a flaw, it can hurt.

But by investigating the feedback you’re provided with, your writing craft will develop, as well as your confidence.

1. Don’t call your book your ‘baby’.

This might seem a little harsh. Sorry.

But I think referring to a writing project as your ‘book baby’ makes it hard to obtain the distance and emotional perspective needed to make something great. It’s going to be difficult, because this is a project that you care about (otherwise, you presumably wouldn’t have started it).

The language we choose to describe ourselves and our work has power. For me personally, describing my book as a ‘baby’ makes me feel too many protective emotions, whether I realise it or not. That means it’s actually harder to share my work with others.

Will they be kind to it? Or will they be mean? How can I make sure they like it?

The above questions are parodies of those I need to ask to really improve and hone my writing. They don’t ultimately serve me in making me a better writer.

It’s dangerous when we start conflating our art with our own self-worth or identity.

2. Think about what feedback you need rather than what you want.

Come up with better questions to ask about your book. Ones that will give you insight into what is working, and what isn’t.

Questions like:

  • What are the areas of the book where the pacing feels off?
  • Are the characters interesting, and do my readers feel a connection to them?
  • Are the themes and plot of the book clear?
  • What questions/ideas do I want my readers to be have as they read?

The above questions will guide you a lot more than generalised feedback such as, ‘did you like it?’

You might get answers you don’t like. Maybe the feedback tells you that your book’s hero is boring. Or that they found the ending confusing. Or that your sentence construction distracted them from what was going on.

Whatever the answers are, they’ve helped you to identify where you can improve. Without knowing, you could end up sending a book that is not as polished into the world, and which readers may ultimately enjoy less.

Yes, we all want feedback that says we’re the next Stephen King, but ultimately that’s probably not what we need if we’re going to keep growing as writers.

Don’t be afraid to ask for particular types of feedback, or feedback to be delivered in a format that you prefer. If you think you need brutal honesty – ask for it! But if a gentler approach is going to be more helpful for your mental health, ask for it.

3. Ask the right people for feedback

Often authors are surprised by their first round of negative feedback. This experience can be disappointing, even devastating. “My family loved it” or “My friends told me it was the best thing they’d ever read.” It’s a confusing time… did your friends and family lie to you?

No. But it’s possible they looked at your work with rose-coloured glasses. Why? Because they love you, and they don’t want to damage their relationship with you. Those closest to us often can’t be as objective when it comes to our work.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule. Your mum or best friend might be excellent at giving feedback. But I would advise that you also seek feedback from those who aren’t as close to you.

Why? There’s less at stake for them relationally, when it comes to giving feedback. It means that it’s probably going to be honest.

You might also like to consider getting a professional, paid beta-read. These are often editors, who are able to look at your manuscript and use their experience to tell you what is and isn’t working. You also get the benefit of knowing you’ll be getting high-quality feedback within a specific timeframe.

Who should you ask for feedback?

  • People who read voraciously in your genre
  • Fellow writers of a similar, or just ahead of you, skill-level.
  • Paid professionals (editors, manuscript assessors)

4.Compliment sandwich time.

When you ask for feedback, ensure you ask for what is working well in your book as well as those areas you need to improve on. Ideally there should be a nice balance of building you up, and alerting you to what needs attention.

I provide feedback to the authors I work with in a ‘compliment sandwich’.

That means I start out with something I enjoyed, or thought was executed well in the book. This is the first bit of bread.

Our filling is made up of areas that need some work.

Our final piece of bread ends with encouragement, and a reminder of what was done well.

When I request feedback for myself personally, this is the format I request it delivered to me in. I find it cushions the blow of the filling, but also lets me know what I don’t need to revise and where my strengths as a writer lie.

5. Take some time

Had a bad day? It’s probably not best to open your feedback letter on top of that. Take the time needed to make sure you’re in a positive (or at least not extremely negative) mindset before opening that email. If you don’t, you will likely just focus on the bad.

If it’s tough to hear, take some time away from it before you respond. Always be grateful for your readers time, and experience in sharing with you. Know that as much as it hurts, and may not be what you wanted to hear, the other person is trying to help.

But, at the end of the day…

6. Take what’s helpful and leave what isn’t.

You are the author. Ultimately, you’re the one that knows your story best. Occasionally you might receive feedback that is contradictory, or confusing. Always view feedback with a critical lens. Assess and consider what is helpful to take on board.

Most of the time, I find questions or points of confusion raised are more helpful than solutions. Sort through what is opinion or preference for the reader, and what is a theme across all the feedback you’ve received.

Usually, if more than one reader has picked up on the same issue in the book – you need to pay attention it.

Final Thoughts

Negative feedback is a natural part of the writing journey. Ultimately, it is an opportunity to grow and learn — sometimes, that’s painful.

If you’re struggling with dealing with negative feedback, be sure to talk to someone about it. Sharing your doubts and emotions, especially with fellow writers, can help you to process them and move forward.

Looking for honest feedback on your book? Let’s chat.

How do you deal with negative feedback? Share your tips in the comments.

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