How to Recognize Good Feedback and Use It to Become a Better Writer

Feedback is important. In the words of my all-time favorite author, Brandon Sanderson, the people who actually grow up to be amazing authors are the ones who learn how to listen.

I dare say you can apply this wisdom to any line of work you decide to pursue.

Many aspiring authors fall into traps that prevent them from growing:

  1. Thinking they’re not good enough
  2. Or thinking that others are not smart enough to understand their art

Interestingly, most writers move along that spectrum and end up experiencing themselves and their art from both perspectives.

In a way, identifying with one of these traps doesn’t make you a better or worst person. Not all people who feel misunderstood are idiots, nor all the people who feel trapped by self-doubt are saints. These feelings are only complex forms of self-delusion that result from our innermost desires.

The innermost desire of every writer is – to be seen!

We want to reach out to other human beings and make them feel, rejoice, and cry with us.

We all have different reasons that prompt us to wake up early on weekends or staying up late on weekdays and sitting down to write. But, essentially, our reasons converge to this single purpose: we want to be understood.

When rejections starts piling up, it’s natural to fall into one or both of these traps.

But remember, none of them are real.

Who am I to offer advice on handling criticism?

I certainly haven’t published a lot of fiction. But I have experienced the pains of handling criticism throughout my 8 year career as a researcher. And trust me, scientists are an insanely difficult crowd to please.

After finishing my Ph.D., I realized that one of the things that I actually cherished the most from this whole experience was all of the training I got from constantly handling criticism.

The scientific peer-review system is designed to be hard.

You spend years conducting experiments, analyzing data, writing the best possible manuscript, only to have some faceless scientist telling you that your experiments are flawed, that you should have considered other possibilities, that your conclusions are not fully supported by the facts, that you need to go back to the lab, that your writing is terrible, that your plots are miserable…

Ok, I think you got the picture.

One thing that I realized after all these years is that some scientists are really bad at giving feedback. Most scientists will completely destroy your work and never care about the consequences.

This is the sad truth of peer-review, and you know why? Because reviewers are overworked scientists who aren’t getting paid for the precious time they need to invest in reading your work.

This reality is incredibly similar to the one experienced by editors of literary magazines and publishing houses.

Editors and reviewers are humans too. They have bad days, personal problems, and broken hearts too. That is the single most important thing you have to remember when you receive the type of feedback you weren’t expecting.

How to actually handle criticism

Having said that, there’s another thing you need to keep in mind before we continue: not all feedback matters!

Hold on to this, because it will save your mental sanity in the years to come.

And how do we know what type of criticism matters?

It’s easy, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the person giving you feedback, an experienced writer, editor or reviewer? And experienced here means: this person knows how to separate their personal tastes from an objective analysis of your skills.
  • How well do you know this person? Receiving criticism from strangers on the internet is a terrible way to assess your weaknesses as a writer. Ideally, the very first people to analyze your writing should be an experienced person who you know and trust. Plus, this person shouldn’t be afraid to point out the flaws in your writing.
  • But, in the end, the most important question we can ask when someone points out a flaw in our writing is this: can it be fixed?

Can you fix the issue that somebody pointed out to you?

Good criticism will make you aware of the things you can fix in a given story or in the stories you’re planning to write in the future. Good criticism is insanely specific and it is directed at your writing, not at yourself as an individual.

Bad critics will be intentionally vague.

To give you an example:

  • Condescending: “Your story was very confusing, I disliked your characters and the ending wasn’t very satisfying” – this an example of a typical bad feedback, because, you can’t use any part of this comment to grow, you can’t use it to improve your story, the only sane thing you can do when you get comments like this is going for a walk and forget you’ve read them.
  • Flattering: “I absolutely loved your writing, your story was amazing!” – this is also not good feedback, it feels extremely good to read these types of comments and very rewarding, but you shouldn’t use them to convince yourself that your writing is good enough and that you don’t have to keep trying to improve as a writer. To put it in the words of Terence Fletcher from Whiplash:

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’

Terence Fletcher, Whiplash

To become a balanced writer, you need to understand that condescending and flattering critics are NOT the ones you NEED. Especially during the first 10 years of your journey as a writer.

Good criticism will point out when your characters are not being true to their natures and longings. It will make you aware of your biggest weaknesses and, more importantly, what you can do to improve them before your story is ready to be published.

My weaknesses as a writer and what you can learn from them

I can only write from my perspective. I cannot tell you what’s wrong with your writing, I can only tell you what’s wrong with mine.

For instance, I know my main weaknesses are the following:

  • My characters are devoid of emotions – sometimes my writing becomes too descriptive and I fail to convey what my characters are feeling at the moment. My brother never gets tired of pointing those things to me, and I’m extremely grateful for his stubbornness. Sometimes I make my characters push through absolutely horrific things without giving the readers a glimpse into their feelings.
  • My pacing is too rushed – again, this is tied to that first point – a lack of emotions, I rush through my plot points without giving my characters the time to think about what’s happening to them. This is why my third and fourth drafts are usually much longer than my first drafts.
  • Weak plots – this tends to happen because I have yet to figure out how to plot and write as a discovery writer. Sometimes, this means having to go back and re-write a scene to use it to establish an important character trait or desire, or simply to move the story forward in a convincing way.

These issues boil down to a single problem: I don’t know my characters well enough.

And a way to fix this is to sit down with a pen and paper and try to dig into the psychology of my characters by drawing from my own experience and the experience of other people.

A lot about being a writer boils down to something that Brandon Sanderson said in a recent interview (I’m paraphrasing here!):

Being a writer is sitting down to think about problems and in creative ways to solve them.

Some problems will be obvious after you leave your first draft “rest” for a while. But, when you’re starting out, you’ll be really terrible at assessing your skill level and at identifying your main weaknesses.

So, don’t trust yourself, find experienced people who can give good constructive feedback. Don’t listen to that inner voice trying to cast you down. Don’t listen either to condescending or flattery. 10 years from now, those words will only matter if you let them matter.

The takeaway

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

To become a better writer you need to learn how to listen. And you need to know where to seek and how to handle criticism.

Criticism of the good kind will be very specific and, most importantly, it will provide you the answers to the single most important question you can ask yourself during revisions: how can I make it better?

But most criticism, good or bad, can actually hurt you. And it’s ok to take the time to acknowledge your pain.

Writing is supposed to be hard!

I think most aspiring authors don’t realize just how important it is to embrace the growing pains of this insane path to become an author.

That is why most people give up.

If you take anything from this article, I want you to take this: writing and exposing your writing will hurt you at times, but these growing pains are necessary. So, don’t you dare giving up!

Now, get out of the internet and sit down to write!

Featured image credits: Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

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Constantina Maud

Absolutely loved this! Very well-written and undeniably insightful ~ Well done!

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