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Writer's Den #4 - Using Feedback to Better Your Work

Original Link: Writer's Den: Using Feedback to Better Your Work

Writing a book is hard. Nobody told me this when I started writing my first novel. I went in blind thinking "Hey, I can do this, it's just words right?" Well, over time I've learned that it's more than words. It's prose. New writers may not have any idea what the word "prose" means, and the truth is, it means something different to everyone. The constant struggle a writer faces is how to turn "words" into "prose". Some people are naturals at it, and write the most beautiful lines without even thinking about it. The 99.5% of us who don't have this gift must find other ways to improve our work, and one of the best ways to do this is by getting feedback.

My previous article discussed how to write a good critique. This is a discussion of how to use critiques, and how to distinguish good feedback from bad.

Start at the Beginning

That's right. Don't wait until you've written the entire first draft before seeking feedback on your work. If you're a new writer, chances are good that your writing is still a collection of words on a page (or screen). These words will not magically morph into prose on their own, and nobody writes perfectly the first time. My recommendation is to start getting feedback once you have around 3000-5000 words. This will help you identify the mistakes you tend to make before they get propagated throughout an 80,000 to 100,000 word novel.

You will be tempted to continue writing while getting feedback, but I discourage this. In the long run, this will only serve to frustrate you, especially if you find out you need a major re-working of your words. Be patient--writing is a marathon, not a sprint.

Sources of Feedback

Where to gather feedback is a common question, and there are many answers, some better than others. Here's a few suggestions to get you started:

There are many other places you can go. Get creative, and don't be afraid to ask people. Make sure you go to multiple sources for feedback, and talk to multiple people.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Once you have feedback, the question that usually remains is: "What do I do with it?" To which the obvious answer is: Read it.

Then read it again. You will get some glowing reviews, some average, and probably some that will totally trash your work. Start with the glowing critiques, the ones that tell you nothing bad about your work. These critiques will use lots of adjectives and offer praise about your work, maybe even claiming it's the best thing the person has ever read. Toss these ones.

Delete this kind of feedback, or throw it in the garbage. The goal here is to improve your writing, to morph words into prose. And thus, if this reader has found nothing to improve, the feedback--nice though it may be--is of no further use to you.

Now we start on the balanced, average critiques. Make notes of what they point out that needs improving, then read through your work and try to understand what they mean. Keep an open mind, as we are all blind to our own mistakes. Remember: They are trying to help you. If you disagree with what they have to say, then thank them kindly for the time they spent on your work, and move on.

Finally, read the ones that trash your work. This will happen, and it will hurt. You've been warned. See if there are any common themes between these and the average ones.

Find Your Focus

Once you've analyzed all of your feedback, you need to decide which suggestions to take, and which ones to ignore. You can't make everyone happy. It's impossible. But if there are issues that come up over and over in your feedback, these are the things to fix. If somebody brings up an issue that makes sense to you--resonates deep in your writer's gut--then go to it, whether the issue is small or large. But one thing to be weary of during this process. Don't tear your work apart and rewrite large portions just to make one person happy. You'll spin your wheels and never get anything done.

Focusing on the common issues will bring about a drastic improvement in your work in a very short time. People will notice, and you'll find that the future feedback you get will be better, with fewer and more specific issues being noticed.

The Trust Factor

After a few rounds of feedback, you will begin to learn whom you can and can't trust to give you useful, honest feedback. People who give you nothing but glowing reviews (maybe even give everyone glowing reviews) are probably wonderful folks, but they aren't helpful when it comes to reading your work. Also, people who are out to cut up other people's work should be avoided. These people often feel their own work is flawed, and tear others down to make themselves feel better. Avoid them if you can.

The people you can trust to give you frank feedback every time are worth the time to establish a good relationship with. The feedback will be subjective--reading always is. But if you have a wide enough assortment of readers, you will be able to balance the subjectivity factor by seeing where responses overlap and what may just be an outlier. These readers will drastically improve your work, and help you gain a real understanding of the written word. Pay attention, as even the most seasoned writers can learn a thing or two from fresh eyes.

Responding to Feedback

No matter how bad the feedback is, even if it gets personal, it's in your best interest to avoid responding to feedback in a negative way. When I get feedback on my work (and I do, often) the only thing I generally say is a polite thank you for the time spent on it. No matter how good or bad it is, the person has taken the time to read your work, and that's a big deal. Show your appreciation for that much at least, even if you don't like what they have to say.

Garnering feedback from various sources is a sure-fire way to improve your writing and turn your words into prose. I've said it before, but it's worth saying again: Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. And with patience, you'll end up with a final draft that is not only worth publishing, but it will be worth reading to thousands of people. Good luck!

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Current WIP: approximate numbers only, working titles
The Spell Breaker:
64% (Writing... 64,230/100,000 words)