Part 3:  You've Got Feedback!  Now What?

   Congratulations!  You followed the tips in Part 1 of the WEbook Guide to Feedback, about how to
   encourage fellow WEbookers to weigh in on your writing.  You read Part 2 the feedback you gave
   others was top notch.  The Golden Rule is working, and you're starting to get all kinds of feedback on
   your WEbook work - and I do mean all kinds.

   Now what?  Depending on the feedback you're getting, you may feel like composing your Nobel Prize acceptance speech - or you may feel more like breaking every key on your keyboard, burning your notebooks, and crawling into a dark corner to cry.  Heck, you might feel like breaking every key on your keyboard, burning your notebooks, and crawling into a dark corner to compose your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Welcome to the wonderful world of being a writer.

 Unless you write only for yourself, or possibly for a group of people who specifically agree not to provide criticism, praise, or feedback of any kind, your readers will have opinions about your work - and, especially if you go out of your way to seek them, by taking a writing class, submitting your work to agents or publications, or posting your writing on WEbook, those readers will tell you their opinions.  This can leave you exhilarated, angry, encouraged, discouraged, irritated, happy, or downright confused.  Often, you'll get conflicting opinions from different readers, leaving you wondering how you'll ever make every reader happy.

Don't despair.  By following these handy rules, you'll be sure to get the most out of the feedback you receive.

The Rules of Receiving Feedback

1)     Know Your Goals.  Before you can benefit from feedback, ask yourself:  What do I hope to gain from sharing my work with others and asking for their opinion?  For many writers, the easy answer is, "I hope to improve my writing."  However, this may not be the goal of every writer who goes looking for feedback.  Often, you may not be looking for ways to improve your writing - instead, you're more interested in getting the encouragement you need to keep going, or a quick survey of readers' responses to your work.  These are perfectly valid goals.  But if you're not honest with yourself about what your goals are, you may set yourself up for disappointment.

If you're in need of encouragement, rather than constructive criticism, try asking your readers to point out images or phrases from your writing that really stuck in their minds, rather than telling you what's working and what's not working.  Make it clear that you're not asking for hollow praise.  Instead, you're interested in finding the "hot spots" in your work - those moments where your writing has the energy to grab a reader's attention - so you can build on that heat.

You may also want to find out what readers think of a particular piece of writing.  You just want to know whether your story or subject interests people enough to put a lot of work into making it shine.  It's easy enough to find out if the particular people who happen to read your work and comment on it are interested in it - but it's harder to know how much these people's opinions should sway your decisions about whether to keep writing.  You can get valuable information from this kind of quick, rapid response, but remember that, ultimately, you're the best judge of how you should spend your time.

If you can honestly say that you're looking to improve your writing through feedback, congratulations!  You've taken a very brave step.  You may be able to distill your goals even further - for example, you might decide you want to work specifically on character development, or sentence structure, or plot - but sometimes it's enough to know that you want to make your work better, in general.

Keep in mind that goals change.  Your goal for one piece of writing may not be the same a week later for a different project.  

Warning!  A common goal comes up all the time in requests for feedback on WEbook - What is it?  "I want someone to tell me whether I'm good/have talent or not, so I'll know whether to quit or keep writing."  Forget about it.  Even if you spend the rest of your life writing, and actually get a chance to compose that Nobel Prize speech one day, no one will ever be able to tell you whether it's worth your while.  And if you really want to write, no one will ever be able to permanently discourage you.  The fact is, talent isn't set in stone.  "Great" writers write lousy books - or at least have lousy days - and "lousy" writers have moments of great inspiration, and, with determination and elbow grease, produce good work.  Don't waste your time trying to determine where exactly you fall on the talent scale.  Instead, figure out what you want to accomplish with your writing, and try to find ways to accomplish it.

2)    Find the Feedback that Serves Your Goals.  When you go looking for feedback, you'll get all kinds of responses, from all kinds of readers.  Learn how to identify the feedback that helps you achieve the goals you've spent so much time identifying.  How do you do this?  Easy!  If you're trying to improve your writing, ask yourself, "Can I learn something from this feedback?"  If you still can't tell, ask yourself a few more questions:  "Do I respect this person's opinion?  Does this person follow the basic rules for quality feedback?  Does this person understand what I am trying to accomplish with this piece of writing?"  If you're looking for encouragement, ask yourself, "Does this feedback inspire me to keep writing?"  If you want to know what readers think of your work, ask yourself, "Do I believe that this person's opinion is honest and valuable?"  If the answer to any of these questions is no, ask your personal secretary to file that piece of feedback under "Ignore."

3)    Never Complain, Never Explain.  Henry Ford, II may not have been much of a writer, but he turned out a good quote.  What does it mean when it comes to feedback? 

Never Complain:  When you get feedback that doesn't serve your goals, thank the feedbacker, get your personal secretary to file it under "Whatever," and move on.  Remember:  By posting your work on an open website, you welcome comments from all kinds of people, operating at all different levels of expertise, sensitivity, and even common courtesy.  Even when it seems like someone has been unforgivably rude ("He called my poem crap!"), you can almost always chalk it up to the vagaries of contemporary internet culture.  Shake your head, allow yourself one mournful "Kids these days," and go along your way.  There are exceptions - if someone's feedback violates WEbook's site policies, it should be reported to abuse WEbook com.  How can you tell if someone's feedback really crosses the line?  Read the WEbook Terms of Use (look for section 10), or ask yourself, "If someone said this to me in public, would I call my lawyer?"

Never Explain:  This is one of the most important rules of receiving feedback.  Do not, under any circumstances, defend or explain your work to someone providing feedback.  Your work must speak for itself.  If you have to explain what you were "trying to do," it's not speaking loudly enough.  If a piece of feedback has passed the Rule # 2 test (that means it serves your goals, for those of us with short attention spans), and you think your reader doesn't "get" something about your writing, this is a problem with the writing, not the reader.  This is especially true if you hear the same kind of feedback from more than one reader.  Saying, "But I'm trying to make Maury seem like the kind of guy who would cut up his wife's underwear with nail clippers," is a waste of your time.  Any sentence starting with "But" is a waste of your time.  If you really, truly don't think your reader "gets" your story - and you really, truly think it's the reader's fault - this means his or her feedback doesn't pass the Rule #2 test.  Thank your feedbacker for his or her time, have your personal secretary file it under "Nice effort, blockhead," and go make yourself a peanut butter sandwich.

4)    Never Take it Personally.  This is kind of the same as "Never complain," but it's worth saying twice.  Feedback about your writing is not a personal indictment of your character, your worth as a human being, or even - get this - your skill as a writer.  It is about that particular piece of writing, period.  If a feedbacker makes it personal, have your secretary's secretary file it under "You don't know me!", and start planning your next vacation to Fiji.  (Personal attacks disguised as "feedback" are not even worth your secretary's time.)

5)    Let it Marinate.  After you've identified the feedback that serves your goals, and had your secretary or your secretary's secretary file the rest, take a moment to let it all sink in.  Don't jump in and start fixing every little thing someone says needed fixing.  Instead, take a nice, long walk.  Then come back and comb through all the valuable feedback you've gotten.  Classify the advice into broad categories.  You'll have to make up your own, depending on what you wrote and the kind of feedback you got, but some examples include:  Character; plot; structure; theme; and grammar and word choice.  In general, you should tackle big issues before getting down to the nitty gritty.  Why make your second sentence absolutely perfect, if you end up cutting that sentence when you change the story's structure? 

If you're getting continuous feedback through WEbook, you may find it helpful to set aside a time - say, a week, two weeks, a month, or whatever - to work on things like plot and structure, then another time for working on character development, atmosphere, and setting, and yet another time for ironing out the language.  You, too, can use the feedback field to chime in and let your readers know what kind of feedback you're looking for at the moment.  If you do receive feedback on grammar while you're working on the plot, file it away for later.  (Do it yourself - your secretary deserves a day off.)

6)    Know When to Say When.  At some point, you may feel you've received all the feedback you need, and done all the work you can.  Congrats!  Submit your work for publication and get started on your next project.  If you don't get chosen for publication right away, don't sweat it.  You might come back to the project with fresh eyes in a month or two, and radically improve it.  In the meantime, enjoy your accomplishment!

7)    Give Props to Your Peeps.  Last week you posted the first chapter of your non-fiction book about the correlation between buttered popcorn and perpetual life.  Today, you received your first review.  Whoopee!  Your reviewer is a doctor, and she's given your chapter a full-fledged, all-out, 700-word critique, including an overview of the negative impact of high fructose corn syrup on the heart.  Sure, she basically ripped your argument to shreds, but she also offered a suggestion for a new book on the history of popcorn.  You're motivated.  You knew your argument was missing something; now you have a new direction.  But before you start over, it's a good idea to give your reviewer some props.  You could slap her a virtual high five and send her a bag of microwave popcorn in the mail, but WEbook offers compliment buttons that make the "thank you" process easier.  When you receive a comment, feedback, or critique, take a moment to think about whether the review is truly brilliant, enlightening, in-depth, motivating, helpful, or unique.  If so, click the blue link underneath the review: "Was this feedback helpful? Leave a compliment."  From there you can give your reviewer a colorful compliment button.  Some people collect stamps; great feedbackers on WEbook collect compliment buttons.  (Of course, if a review isn't so helpful, it's okay to move on without offering a button.)

  • Part 1:  How to Get Feedback:  The Golden Rule
  • Part 2:  The 5 Rules of Great Feedback