Thursday, October 02, 2008

Taking Feedback

Posted by Lynne Griffin

I've been doing some manuscript consultation through Grub Street and through my own company and I'm learning a lot about how writers respond to editorial feedback. Now I'm not an agent looking to buff and polish a manuscript to get it ready for submission. And I'm not an editor at a publishing house. I'm reading like a writer and giving honest development feedback on stories and nonfiction book proposals. There are a number of myths out there about editorial feedback, some I admit to grappling with in my writing career. I'm going to attempt to bust a few.

Myth 1
If your work needs editing, it isn't very good.

Every writer needs a good editor, or two! From developmental edits about structure and voice to copy edits for consistent grammar, open your mind to this: you will be edited. Before any kind of submission, be sure to find smart, savvy readers. Your work will absolutely be better as a result of constructive feedback.

Myth 2
If you accept the editorial feedback, then the story isn't yours.

You are in the driver's seat making the final choices about what stays and goes, and what is deepened and strengthened. If you write with the hopes of being published, then get set to embrace a team mentality when it comes to fine-tuning your work.

Myth 3
If there is too much editorial feedback, then the story probably isn't worth revising.

Feedback on a first draft may well be overwhelming, but keep in mind most writers believe it is in revision that the real writing begins. I doubt Arthur Golden or Wally Lamb would show you first drafts of Memoirs of a Geisha or She's Come Undone.

Myth 4
If an editor suggests that an aspect of your work is confusing, he or she just doesn't get what you were trying to do.

When one trusted reader says he doesn't get, and then another says the same, it's time to listen. If sophisticated readers don't understand something, likely readers won't either. There's an art and a science to listening to feedback, and of course then to taking it.

Myth 5
If your editor gives you feedback, that means he or she doesn't like the work.

Often editors can be more objective about your work than you can. Simply because he or she points out flaws in argument or weak plot lines doesn't mean he or she doesn't like your overall effort. It's all too easy to take feedback personally. This business requires you to know when to put on your armor or when to close the office door.

Like anything in this journey toward living a literary life, it's important to learn where you are in accepting honest, constructive feedback. Perspective taking is hard work, but I will say it's important to do it. If you're able to let go of mythical thinking and really sort through the feedback you've received, only then will you be able to see what rings true and what doesn't. You'll be in a better position to execute changes that deepen the piece, and in the process become a better writer.

Working through my own feelings about accepting feedback is it's own work-in-progress. I'm willing but not always able to challenge my thinking about accepting feedback, but when I can, my writing is stronger for it. I'm truly grateful for the cadre of trusted readers who've challenged me to reach for a new personal best when it comes to story telling.

The first step in debunking myths related to accepting editorial feedback is to be open to what gets in the way of seeing it's validity. What gets in your way? And how do you attempt to overcome it?


Unknown said...

Myth 4 is one of my most/least favorite comments-- I can't count the number of times, in workshop situations, an author says "Oh, you don't think it's in there? It's right there!" And as a reader you say "Well, it wasn't clear to me," and the author says "But it's obvious! I'm not changing it."

The reader's interpretation is always valid. All the more so in this situation, where you're trying to offer helpful editing advice. Even if you as an author think it's there, if the reader doesn't think it's there... well, you should probably do something to make it clearer.

Great analysis, Lynne!

Anonymous said...

Heh - I'm totally guilty of subscribing to Myth #4, except more along the lines of, "Well, you're just not reading carefully enough! Pay attention, dammit!" Even now, it takes a concerted effort to acknowledge that, nine times out of ten, the reason someone's "not getting it" has less to do with his or her attention span and more to do

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Jael and Leslie,

I admit to saying this one once or twice. :)

You're both right. If readers don't see it, it may not be there. Always wise to reexamine and then clarify.


ggwritespoetry said...

I loved this post. It is so true. I have found that it is in revision that I find my true writing. Because I'm so close to it and it lives in my heart, I oftentimes think I've put it on the page. However, sometimes I haven't. Listening to feedback does help. Thanks for posting this. It makes a lot of sense. said...

Accepting editorial comments from an outside source is always difficult because we invest so much of ourselves into the work. On the other hand, because we are so close getting outside perspective is incredibly valuable to have the work seen by someone who is hopefully objective.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

gg and suzanne,

I agree that when you pour over the work for such a long time, it becomes difficult to get objective perspective. That's why a healthy, well functioning writers' group can be invaluable. I'm so glad the post resonated with you.


Nomad said...

I recall one experience in a short story writing class at my local college years back that I found very aggravating. I had worked hard a small piece of fiction with a Western theme. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece but it was better than average if I do say so myself. This was chosen to be review by the class, the very thought of which terrified me. The professor had actually given high marks to the work, but from the back of the class, I heard a fellow novice say,"Oh god, the Marlboro Man story!"
Editorial criticism is sometimes difficult to accept mainly because, unlike fixing a leak in the plumbing, the writer must put so much of him or herself in the work.

It is very much like somebody commenting on the appearance of your ugly baby. You may know that every word they tell you is true but it can very difficult to admit it. A kind of emotional detachment to your work is certainly something that makes a writer's life easier, I think.