Today I want to talk about feedback – why it’s important, where to get it, what to ask for and how to take it on board without having your feelings crushed.
Whatever you’re writing, in my opinion, it’s essential to get some feedback along the way. OK, we all secretly hope that we’re geniuses and one draft is all we need to do. But even the best writers in the world get feedback and do rewrites. So it’s unlikely you’ll be any different. We’re not the best judges of our own work, so if you want to improve your writing – and especially if you want to try and sell it – it’s essential that you get feedback, take it on board and then start the process of rewriting.
If you’ve never asked for feedback before, or if you’ve always found the process difficult and unsatisfactory, here are some guidelines…
If you’re working on a long piece of work such as a novel or film script, start getting feedback from the idea stage. You don’t want to get to the end only to find out that your central idea has a fatal flaw. Give yourself the best possible chance of success by getting feedback on your idea before you start writing it, and again on your outline before you start your first draft. It’s much easier to revise a premise or an outline, than it is a whole novel or film script.
Depending on what you’re writing, will depend on how many drafts you need to do. But as a rule of thumb, film scripts generally undergo multiple drafts – in the region of 5-10, but could be more. Novels might go through around 3 drafts; so in either case you’re going to need to ask for feedback multiple times throughout your writing process.
How do you actually get feedback?
Firstly, if this is your first or second piece of writing, don’t send it off to an agent, publisher or producer hoping that they will give you the feedback you need. When you hand it over to one of these professional people they will assess it as if it were a professional script or manuscript. So if you send them your first dodgy draft, they will reject it out of hand. You want them to see your best work to ideally take you on or recommend you to someone else. Sadly, they don’t have time to give novice writers feedback on their first drafts.
So, where do you go for feedback?
Ideally not from friends and family, unless they happen to be experienced writers. Otherwise, they probably won’t know anything about story, structure and character and will simply tell you that it’s brilliant. Secondly, if they do actually critique it, you could take it very personally and end up falling out.
One option is to pay for feedback from a manuscript or screenplay critiquing service. This can be helpful, however, there are several downsides. It’s expensive and if you go through multiple rewrites, that cost will build up. Also, it will most likely be anonymous, so you won’t be able to ask questions. Furthermore, it’s only one person’s point of view. They will hopefully be skilled and know what they’re talking about, however, it’s still objective, to some extent. Even if it’s a constructive and helpful critique, if you are new to receiving feedback, there’s a risk that you will write off their comments on the basis that you think they have missed the point of your magnum opus!
My recommendation, therefore, is to aim to get 2-3 people’s opinions on every draft. That way, if several people are noticing the same common issues, you are more likely to accept the problems. Join a group of aspiring writers, find a few people in the group who you like, trust and respect, and ask if they would like to do a feedback exchange, then set up a formal or informal workshop group.
Setting up a writing workshop
I have been ‘workshopping’ my work for a long time and I truly think it is an amazing way to get feedback and improve your writing. I formally learnt how to give and receive feedback whilst on my MA – and many of the guidelines here are based on what I learnt at that time. But no matter what your level of experience, anyone can use this framework. Start now because we get better with practise.
Here are a few rules…
If it’s face to face – arrange to meet somewhere quiet, around a table so that you can all take notes. Obviously in the current climate of social distancing etc, Zoom or similar is a great alternative. Grab a nice coffee and a pastry – try to make this the most enjoyable experience possible.
Give everyone an equal amount of time.
When giving feedback, start and end with the positives – the strengths of the piece. If you just launch into a series of problems, the writer will most likely feel so overwhelmed that they won’t hear what you’re saying. All they will hear is: this is rubbish, give up now!! So be tactful in your approach to giving feedback. Even if someone tells you that they can handle it, they most likely won’t be able to, and there’s a risk that they give up on this piece of work – possibly even give up writing altogether if you just list the problems. So being delicate and mindful of the other writer’s feelings is essential.
If you read a piece of work and there are many things wrong with it – only focus on the big things, when giving feedback, don’t spend hours detailing every last little problem, including all the punctuation errors. And remember, even if there is an awful lot wrong with a piece of writing, you still need to find some positives for your feedback.
Here are some questions to ask your readers to consider when reviewing your work – and for you to consider when reviewing other people’s work:
- Who is this story about? What is their problem and why can’t they solve it?
- Are the characters original enough? Are they believably motivated?
- Is the story (or stories) clear?
- Is there a clear structure?
- What is original about this story and what is familiar?
- Does it start in the right place? Too early or too late?
- Is the ending satisfying?
- Who or what is the antagonist?
- What genre is it? Are the genre’s conventions being used? If they’re being broken, does it still work?
- Is there a theme?
Through exploring this list of questions, and any others you think are relevant to the medium you’re working in, your readers should then identify the strengths and weaknesses of your story and present them to you in a coherent and logical way along with any solutions they can think of.
As you listen to the feedback, take notes. Write down everything that’s said, even the things you think are really dumb, because we can’t always judge the feedback in the moment. It’s good to take time to reflect on it. The solution offered might not be right, but there could be some underlying truth to the problem raised. The process of writing notes also distracts you from the pain of hearing the feedback! You don’t have to look at anyone, you can just concentrate on your notebook and keep writing! Also, the chances are you won’t remember what is said unless you write it down.
Now this is really important: Just listen and don’t interrupt – otherwise it can quickly escalate into an argument with you desperately trying to defend your work. If you have a question, make a note and ask it at the end. But try not to be too defensive.
The point is to find out what’s working well, what’s not working well. So if someone raises an issue – there’s no point in trying to explain yourself, if it wasn’t clear from the writing itself, then that’s a problem you need to resolve in your next draft. You might be tempted to think – my writing is too deep and clever for this person to understand therefore they’re wrong and I’m right. But if you do that, you’re missing an opportunity to take your writing to the next level.
At the end of the feedback, ask questions if any of the points weren’t clear to you.
After your first time getting feedback, go home and lick your wounds. Ask someone for a big hug. Don’t make any other plans for the day, stay home, treat yourself to a nice dinner and movie on the couch, have an early night and try to recover from the experience. There’s a big chance it will be emotionally draining.
I remember the first time I ever had a script workshopped, I was so drained afterwards I wasn’t capable of having a conversation! All I wanted to do was lie down in a cool dark room on my own and go to sleep.
What to do after you get feedback?
There is a reasonable chance you will never want to look at the feedback again. But you must make yourself do it and soon!
Give yourself a week – that’s all – then, while it’s still fresh in your mind, get out your writing and your feedback notes, and start to go through all the comments you received. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? You shouldn’t try to incorporate every piece of feedback or suggestion in your next draft. Think about which bits of feedback make the most sense to the story you’re trying to tell. But be honest with yourself. If you need to make big changes, be brave and get stuck in.
If you have received masses of feedback and it feels overwhelming, try not to panic. The first thing you might be thinking is – I might as well throw this story in the bin now. But firstly, just know that first drafts are generally terrible. That’s right, terrible. You’re not alone. If you can accept this simple fact, the process of getting feedback, and undergoing rewrites will be much easier for you to handle.
Secondly, try to remember that writing is rewriting. It’s a process. I will talk more about how to approach a rewrite in another email. But just keep in mind that when you embark on a rewrite, you don’t have to address everything at once. If you have several big issues to work on, see if you can address them one by one, and do a new draft for each issue. That will keep it manageable and less overwhelming.
Receiving feedback the first time is extremely tough. It’s always tough, to be honest, but it does get easier. You’re having your baby picked apart, and that’s hard to hear. But that’s not a reason not to get feedback. We all need it to improve. You’re a writing warrior, you can do it!
Giving and receiving feedback takes practise, but it’s well worth doing if you’re serious about improving your writing. So bite the bullet, find a group of like-minded writers, share your work and exchange some feedback. Both you and your work will come out stronger. Let me know how you get on!
By the way, if you don’t know any other writers to exchange work with, join my Writers’ Meetup Group. You will hopefully get to know some other like-minded scribes and can set up an informal writing workshop group yourselves. (We meet the 2nd Tuesday of the month. At the moment, we’re meeting via Zoom – save the date and come and join us).
Quick question, is there anything in your writing that you’re struggling with at the moment? If so, get in touch as I might be able to address your issue in a future post.
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