“Processing Feedback”

Here is what most writers forget. You are the boss of your own story. Not the other writers in your critique group. Not the famous author whose workshop you were lucky enough to get into at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Not even your mother-in-law who comes into your house while you are at work and vacuums the mattresses because somebody has to protect her grandchildren from dust mites. When it comes to applying feedback, you — and only you — are the one who gets to determine what stays and what goes in your story. And that is a good thing.

So why do so most writers forget this fact? Why do most of us, when confronted with feedback, automatically relinquish authorial control and start scribbling copious notes all over our manuscripts like some junior intern on Red Bull, determined to meet everyone's demands? "Yes sir, I'll rewrite the whole novel in first person and add more sex scenes, no problem…" "No ma'am, I don't need to kill off the grandfather in the end; I thought he was a nice guy, too…" "Yes sir, I'm sure my memoir would sell better if I was raised in a Chinese orphanage. I'll get on it right away."

When processing feedback, most of us need assertiveness training, if not for the sake of our stories then for our mental health. For one thing, you will never be able to please everybody. Newton's third principle of motion explains that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and any given writing workshop underscores this same reality. For instance, if your well-respected writing instructor hates the scene depicting your main character's long bus trip to Reno, it is inevitable that another respected feedback provider in that very same workshop — likely the graphic novelist/performance artist whom you have had a crush on since day one — will drill his tortured eyes into your soul and insist that the long bus trip is the one part of your story that rocked his world. So now what do you do?

There is only one thing you can do. When processing feedback, you must plant yourself figuratively in the corner office, plunk down one of those massive paperweights on your desk that reads "Head Cheese," and claim creative control. Because if you don't, whenever you sit down to revise your work you are likely to start second-guessing and compromising and rewriting by committee, until your story starts to read more like word salad than impassioned, polished prose.

Acknowledging that you are the boss of your own story makes processing feedback a lot more palatable, even when you are in the hot seat. Who doesn't have a silent meltdown when their writing is up for review by a trusted reader or writing workshop? I know when the time comes for my work to be critiqued, I always have a strong urge to toss back a few in the powder room, if only to stop the soundtrack in my head. They're gonna hate it, I know they're gonna hate it… Oh, I can already hear the workshop star, Roberta, with her usual refrain, "Kill your darlings…"(which she keeps attributing to Mark Twain). And Lars with that weary note of resignation in his voice, "It doesn't matter if it really happened, you have to make it convincing on the page," and Marilyn throwing her fifty-thousand dollar advance in my face by telling me, "Add more conflict. Only trouble is interesting."

But then I remind myself that I am the boss of my own story, so there is really no need to get all worked up in my head. If someone does trash my work — "Well, this is a sorry excuse for a story" — I can and should hold that person accountable. "What exactly do you mean by 'sorry excuse'? What part was sorry? Why was it sorry?" Like any good boss, I should strive to be inclusive, encouraging all my readers to speak up and be forthright. I can listen to their comments with equanimity, even appreciation, knowing that soon I will return to my corner office, shut the door on the cacophony, and continue to process all feedback on my own time, and in my own way.

Over the years, I have calculated that feedback on any given piece of writing always falls into one of three categories, and breaks down into the following percentages: 14 percent of feedback is dead-on; 18 percent is from another planet; and 68 percent falls somewhere in between. I am not a statistician (actually, I am hopeless in math), but I find it reassuring to know that there is an element of predictability to the art of processing feedback.

Dead-on feedback is the kind of feedback that feels right the moment you hear it, usually because it confirms something you already knew on a gut level. Oh, yeah, you think when you hear dead-on feedback, now I remember not liking that passage myself, but I was having such a good writing day I just kept going and forgot all about it. Dead-on feedback is also the kind of feedback that can lead to those wonderful Aha! moments. For example, a reader might tell you that he isn't hooked by your story until the scene on page eight when the surgeon amputates the wrong leg (as opposed to the long-winded summary of the protagonist's medical school education outlined in the first seven pages). For weeks, you had been struggling with those opening pages, trying and failing to get them right. Now, just like Archimedes in the bathtub, you see the solution all at once. Cut the opening! Cut the opening! It only gets in the way. Processing dead-on feedback is easy because a small region of your brain — the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus — flashes you the instant message: Eureka!

The 18 percent of feedback from another planet is also relatively easy to process, once you catch on to the fact that the feedback provider has issues. See how long it takes you to figure out where this feedback provider is coming from: "I think your main character should kill off her boyfriend. Why? Because men are pigs! All men are pigs! They're born pigs, they die pigs, and in between they give you a promise ring on Valentine's Day, but then they make out with your ex-best friend Sheena at Happy Hour two Fridays ago, and I know this for a fact because my new best friend Heather saw the whole thing while I was out in the parking lot throwing up after we did all those two-shots-for-two-dollars…" Feedback from another planet should be discounted for obvious reasons, but make sure you don't discount the feedback provider along with it. She may surprise you when critiquing your next story.

Which brings me to the remaining 68 percent of feedback, which falls somewhere in between dead-on feedback and feedback from another planet. This category of feedback may include a timid suggestion that speaks volumes about a weakness in your plot. It may include a brilliant insight that ends up being wrong for your current story, but will certainly apply to another story down the road. Or it may include a blunt comment that raises your hackles, but also the level of your prose.

One of the first things to look for when processing in-between feedback is a consensus of opinion. Say you present your work to two or three trusted readers or members of a critique group, and more than one of them found your ending confusing — Did the father reconcile with his teenage son or didn't he? If your intention is to clearly show a reconciliation then you should pay particular attention to any type of collective opinion. This doesn't mean you should automatically change your ending, but it does mean you should scrutinize your motives if you don't change it. Are you preserving the ending because you really think it works and is perfect as is, or because you are being lazy or overly attached to the writing?

Now take the same story, but a different scenario. Let's assume half your readers "got" the ending, but the other half didn't understand your intent. If this is the case, first you should feel good about batting five hundred. Then you should take the time to process the feedback of your excluded readers more carefully, just in case they offer any insights about how you might tweak or revise the ending to make it more accessible to a broader audience. For instance, Darla, the romance writer in the group, offered the following feedback, "If you want to make it clear that the father and son reconcile at the end of your story, why don't you just have them hug in the last scene?"

Your knee-jerk reaction to Darla's feedback may be to dismiss it outright because Darla writes genre fiction and you are a snob. But part of processing feedback is getting over yourself, as well as recognizing that sometimes feedback can be wrong in the particulars, but right overall.

Okay, so the father in your story is not a hugger. But what if he did show some outward sign of love for his son at the end? What if he offered the boy his prized pen-knife, for example, the one that his own father gave him when he left home as a teenager? Now that would maintain the integrity of the father's character, add a wonderful symbolic gesture, and clarify the ending for more readers.

One of the biggest mistakes writers can make when processing feedback is to categorize readers too quickly — good reader, bad reader — and to do the same with their comments — good advice; bad advice. Sixty-eight percent of the time, that's not how feedback works. As writers, we have to be vigilant to fight the impulse to accept or ignore feedback wholesale. Just recently, someone gave me some heavy-handed advice that I thought was totally ridiculous, until I took the time to scale it down in service to my story.

Processing feedback effectively means being receptive to hearing a variety of opinions, but filtering it all through your own writerly lens. What serves your intent? What rings true? What is your own inner voice telling you to do? Sometimes it can be hard to tune in to your own instincts after a feedback session, especially when the comments have been coming at you like the arrows flying at St. Sebastian. But that is when you need to hightail it to your corner office and rest your cheek on the cool weight of your Head Cheese paperweight. Breathe. Give yourself some space and quiet.

Listen carefully and I promise you, your inner voice will speak up over time. And here is what it will tell you: 1 percent of the feedback feels dead-on. Eighteen percent is from another planet. And 68 percent feels like Darla, coming at you with good intentions and arms outstretched. Just remember, Darla can comfort you, or she can squeeze you. As boss of your own story, it is up to you to decide.

Tips for Processing Feedback

Be open: You can't begin to process feedback if you won't let it in. I know how hard it is to curb the impulse to defend your work against every little criticism, but try. If it helps, write a note on your palm as a reminder — Hush up! — and refer to it whenever you hear yourself going on and on. In a workshop setting, some groups institute a "no talking" policy to prevent writers from interrupting the critique, but I feel that's an extreme measure. Writers should feel free to ask questions or raise issues that inform the discussion.

Resist the urge to explain. A teacher I know who works with both writers and actors once noted that if you tell a performer something didn't work in his performance, he simply drops the line or fixes it. Writers, conversely, have a natural impulse to explain why they wrote something a certain way, or what they were trying to do in the piece. As writers, we need to resist the urge to explain because it gives feedback providers too much information, making it harder for them to separate what is really coming across on the page from what you have told them.

Little by little: It is easy to get overwhelmed when processing feedback, especially if you try to take it in all at once. After a feedback session, sift through all the comments once, but then put them away and only worry about addressing one issue at a time. For example, if a reader has told you that your plot is slow and your main character seems shallow — forget about the plot issue for the time being and concentrate on character. Or focus on moving your story forward, and worry about character development in the next draft.

Ignore feedback until you are ready for it. If you are on a roll with your writing, don't let feedback stop you. Some writers avoid feedback until they have taken their work as far as they can on their own. This makes sense if hearing feedback too soon interferes with your own creative vision. But feedback can also serve you in the midst of a productive period. The value of hearing feedback, and then putting it in your mental lockbox as you push forward, is that this allows your unconscious to quietly process the outside information in a way that informs your writing in sync with your instincts — without slowing you down.

Try out the feedback. Sometimes the only way to judge feedback is to play it out on the page where your own writerly instincts can react to it. For example, if a trusted reader is adamant that your first-person coming-of-age novel should be written in third person, try writing a couple chapters this way. See for yourself what you lose or gain. If several readers think that your main character isn't likeable, write a scene inside or outside the story that shows your protagonist doing something endearing. Whether you ultimately use the scene or not, this is a great exercise in character development. No writing is a waste of effort.

Give yourself time. If you are at a point in the revision process where you can't tell whether you are making things better or worse, stop! Move away from the computer with your hands in the air, before you do any permanent damage. Take a break from writing, or start something brand new. It is remarkable how a good night's sleep or a short period away from the manuscript can restore clarity, and help you process feedback in a way that leads to enlightenment.

*reprinted with permission from author

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Joni B. Cole

About Joni B. Cole

A 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, Joni has published numerous magazine articles and essays in literary journals. She is a contributor to The Writer magazine, and a regular blogger for www.thirdage.com. Joni has been a guest on CNN and dozens of radio shows, and survived (read had a blast) a satellite media tour that included 31 back-to-back television interviews for morning wake-up programs. Joni lives in White River Junction, Vermont with her husband, two daughters, one cat, and one bad dog (who isn’t really that bad).