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Writer’s Response: How to Use Critical Feedback

January 25, 2024

As a writer, you are going to receive some harsh feedback. It’s a given. Many writers must either learn to be thick-skinned or give up. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Surviving criticism of your work comes down to understanding your view of your writing, the person giving the feedback, and the type of feedback you receive. 

Feedback is an important part of the writing process. You can’t get by without it. So instead of running from it, let’s learn how to face it head-on, starting with understanding the types of feedback you might receive.

Types of Feedback

There are many different types of feedback, but the ones we want to focus on are positive and negative. 

Positive feedback highlights your strengths. It tells you what resonated with your readers. This type of feedback should be more than compliments (e.g. “I liked it!” or “You write well!”). It should provide specific insight into what aspects of your writing are effective and why they work.

Negative feedback can be sorted into that with criticism and that without. 

Negative feedback with criticism is what some may call “harsh criticism.” It points out the areas that need improvement in a piece of writing. It is different from “constructive criticism” because it may be worded in a rude or harsh way, whereas constructive criticism will be polite. Harsh criticism may or may not break down issues and offer suggestions.

Negative feedback without criticism is barely feedback. This type of commentary is usually blunt and unhelpful (e.g. “This is terrible”) without offering reasoning. It is typically intended more to discourage than to help. As a writer, it is important to learn to distinguish this feedback from others and ignore it.

To get through feedback more effectively, it may be in your best interest to stop viewing it as “positive” or “negative” and instead view it as “helpful” or “unhelpful.” This focuses on how you can use feedback rather than focusing on the emotional tone of someone’s word choice.

Consider the Source of Feedback

Now that you’re familiar with the types of feedback you might encounter, it’s important to consider where it comes from. 

The background, expertise, and taste of the person providing feedback can significantly influence its relevance and usefulness. Are you receiving feedback from someone with credentials you can identify or someone anonymous? 

Remember that everyone’s opinion is shaped by their preferences and understanding of your genre or style. Is your reader familiar with your story? Do they know what you are trying to accomplish with it? If someone isn’t familiar with your intentions, then their feedback is useful to help you approach your intent differently to get your message across sooner in your writing. If they do know your intentions, then their suggestions in other areas will prove more helpful in achieving those goals.

If someone doesn’t like your work, don’t worry. That just means the story isn’t for them. But there are plenty of people who the story is for. Something that one person dislikes may be the thing that another person likes the most.

Ground Rules for Receiving Feedback

Your approach to feedback also depends on your writing goals. If you write as a hobby, criticism might feel personal. However, if you’re aiming for publication, critical feedback is a necessary step in your journey. Understanding your personal goals in writing can help you process feedback in the most constructive way.

When taking feedback from anyone, it’s good to keep some ground rules. Here are some to keep in mind:

  • Avoid Perfectionism: View your work as a continuous project, always open to learning and adaptation. Some people avoid perfectionism by removing themselves from their work, as if unattached, like it belongs to someone else. Then when someone gives feedback, they can maintain a curious stance to try to understand that person’s perspective.
  • Stay Humble and Open: Resist the urge to defend your work against criticism. Remember that the critique isn’t about you or your worth as a human being; most critiques really are trying to help your writing become the best it can be.
  • Show Gratitude: Remember, most feedback is given freely and takes time and effort. If you struggle with the words here, try thanking them and telling them that you’ll consider what they said or that you’ll look over it more closely again later. You don’t have to tell them what you keep and what you ignore.

Reviewing Feedback Effectively

When sorting through feedback for information you can use, take it in steps. First allow yourself to experience an emotional response. Then identify the content of a critique and break it into categories. Afterwards, reassess your stance and the information, then use that to make a decision about it.

  • Acknowledge your emotional response: It’s natural to have an emotional reaction to feedback. Even if you try to remain distant, some criticisms can still hurt. When reviewing feedback, allow yourself to feel emotions in response but don’t act on those immediately. 
  • Categorize the feedback: Break down the content of the feedback into different aspects then fit them into these categories: things you messed up (grammar, point-of-view, continuity, etc); things you need to clarify (anything that takes the reader out of the story and could be fixed for a smooth experience); things you could improve (such as if one of your characters is acting inconsistently with their personality); and personal taste (these are the reader’s opinions).
  • Reassess your stance: Ask yourself if any of the feedback is useful. Will it improve your writing? Many writers take what they find most helpful and move on, but before doing so, you should keep feedback for at least a few days. Feedback is probably important to reconsider if you find yourself staying up at night thinking about it or if you have gotten the same feedback more than once. When determining what is helpful and unhelpful, always go with your gut. You know your story best.
  • Decide an action: Figure out if you want to use feedback immediately, save it for a future edit or version, or ignore it.

Using Feedback

Feedback should be a tool used to improve your writing: use it to identify your strengths. You can take what you’re good at to fix areas that might be weak later. When you are aware of your strengths, you can also strategically place them in your writing to help it flow the best.

One of the main benefits of feedback is that it helps you identify your weaknesses or potential problems in your story. When you come across these, look for scenes in books you’ve read that have similar problems to the ones you experience and notice how others got through them. Use these to practice your writing and strengthen these issues.

If you are hesitant about incorporating feedback into your work, open up a copied document. This will allow you to play with scenarios and see what you like.

Writing is a skill

You won’t excel at writing from the start. And that’s okay. Writing improves and develops over time. Over the course of that journey, every writer, from novice to expert, receives criticism. Even bestselling authors have single-star reviews. Don’t believe it? Look up those reviews on your favorite books.

The key is to use feedback constructively to refine your craft. Remember to have fun and practice your creativity. The more you do, the better you will get at it.

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