This is a guest post by Jessica Bayliss.
Welcome back to my series on receiving feedback. This time, I’m going to discuss my very own method of responding when my inbox pings the arrival of both the most coveted and the most dreaded missive in an author’s life: a critique. As I write this, I have one waiting in my inbox, so I can speak from my most immediate experience when I describe my system. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: getting input is never easy. It wasn’t easy for me the last time I got a round, and it’s not easy today. BUT, it will get easier, especially when you find CPs and develop relationships with agents/editors who you really trust and who have your best interests in mind.
I find it’s easiest to cope with this inescapable task in a writer’s life via a series of steps. When I’m not writing, I’m a clinical psychologist, so I’ve taken my method from exposure-based therapy. I have my own personal writing feedback exposure hierarchy. You may choose to tackle more than one of these in a single day, but I often give myself a whole day between steps. And for steps 7-11, you’ll really need ample time to really make the best use of the feedback, so I highly recommend one per day for those.
So here goes, How to Respond to Feedback in Eleven Easy Steps. (Yeah, eleven. I’m not kidding.)
Acknowledge that the feedback exists in the world. You see your CP’s or your editor’s or your agent’s or your mom’s (see last post on that one) email address in your inbox; time to take a deep breath and say to yourself these words: “I have feedback. I need this. It will be okay.”
Close your email and go eat something sweet or covered with tomato sauce and melted cheese. Bacon is a plus.
Remind yourself that feedback awaits you in your mailbox. Repeat Step 2.
Find the email, open it, and read it. You may decide to hold off on Step 5 for another 24 hours, but that depends on what the email says, which can range from “Hi, here you go,” to “It was great, I really enjoyed it. Here are a few notes,” to an entire essay right in the body of the email with all the stuff they liked and didn’t like. If the email is the former two, then go ahead and jump ahead to Step 5. If it’s the latter, no one will judge you if you prefer to read the email then go on back to Step 2.
Open the doc. Don’t read the notes, whatever you do! Don’t even let your eyes focus on the words. Just sort of scroll through and get the lay of the land. Are there a lot of track changes? A bunch of comments in the margins? Whole pages of pristine white space with nothing scary at all? Just get a feel for what you have coming to you.
Now it’s time to read the comments and track changes. Brew some coffee, get something sweet or covered with sauce and melted cheese (bacon is a plus), then dig in—but don’t get bacon grease on your computer. You may want to read through it all one sitting, but if there are profuse notes, make an agreement with yourself to get through at least a portion. I usually do it by halves, however that part is up to you.
At this point, you’ll really be able to breathe because now you’re in it, and getting in it is the hardest part.
Don’t make changes right away unless they’re the small, simple, no-brainer types. In that case, you should make any change that is easily accomplished in 2 minutes or less right away (i.e., line edits, small inconsistencies, an added detail, etc.). Cross these items off your list now. For any notes that you’re uncertain of or that require reworking the plot or making substantive changes, note those comments in the margins of your active document. Come back to them. Let them marinate, especially larger suggestions that come as a surprise or will require considerable work.
Reflect on these suggestions for a few days. This may be a time to wait for other feedback to come in or to request it. We hear this ALL THE TIME, but the fact of the matter is, fiction is subjective, so if you balk at a suggestion, it could mean that the suggestion is truly off base and you should ignore it. However, we need input to help us see things that we aren’t seeing on our own (Remember my first post in this series?), so we shouldn’t throw away any piece of feedback until we’ve given it some thought. If other CPs or readers have said the same thing, then it probably means you should put the time and effort in to make the change. If not, then it’s totally up to you whether to keep or reject it. If you’re unsure, ask a trusted reader/writer what they think of the suggestion (see Step 10).
I like to collect all my CPs’ notes before I dig in for the harder edits, so repeat steps 1-8 with feedback from any other readers you’ve solicited for this manuscript. Though facing the rest may take just as long as the first run-through, I find that once I’ve jumped into the first batch of feedback, it’s way easier to breeze right through all the steps, often in one sitting, for any subsequent input I receive. But go easy on yourself, and if you need a few days to take your time, that’s totally fine.
The key is to allow our brains to be in the best place possible to objectively process and digest what our trusted CPs are trying to tell us.
Ask questions. Ask the reader for clarification of anything that confuses you.
Time to make the larger changes. After a few days marinating and adding in notes from any other CPs who’ve read the manuscript, it’s time to tackle the job of incorporating the changes you intend to make.
That’s it. You’ve done it! I wish I could say it gets easier with time, and it does—but only a little. For some, every round of critiques will be as challenging to face as that first round. But a process makes it way easier.
This concludes my mini-blog-series on receiving feedback. I hope this helps other writers consider how to make the best use of input from other writers, readers, agents, and editors. And, remember: You can do it, you can write!
Jessica Bayliss is an author of commercial fiction who loves nothing better than getting lost in a good story, whether in print or on film. When not busy with her latest fiction project, she can be found loving her friends and family—especially her husband, Eric—playing with one pesky Havanese, or trying to appease an ornery cockatiel, typically with a cup of coffee near at hand.