Weekly Writing Memo: It’s Your StoryPosted: April 6, 2016
If you spend enough time writing, and receiving feedback on that writing, eventually you will run into feedback on your work that you disagree with. As I said in my piece on receiving feedback, there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s to be expected. So how do you deal with feedback you don’t agree with, especially when it comes from someone you respect and admire, and someone you know knows their stuff?
Do you ignore it outright? Do you argue? Do you grit your teeth and make the change because they’re an expert? What do you do?
- Treat every piece of feedback as if it were true.
This is the hardest thing to do as a writer because it involves looking at your work as if it were someone else’s, and focusing on what might be bad about it. Writing is a personal thing. We get attached to our creations, and as friend recently put it, it’s like being in a relationship. You’re so close to it that it can be hard to step back and see all that’s really wrong within it until someone else points it out. Even then, our instinct can be to defend it to the very end because it’s personal, and we’re emotionally invested in it.
If you really want to improve, however, you have to consider everything as possible in your work, even being wrong. To do this, you have to force yourself to put aside any emotional reaction the feedback may cause and focus on the question the feedback is asking. Try to think of it as being honest with yourself. If the feedback is right, then being able to accept it will let you fix it and make your writing better. If you are stubborn and insist you’re right and nothing needs to be changed without thinking about it, then you’re risking having a story that will not be as good as it could be.
So the first step when getting feedback you don’t agree with, whatever it is, is to tell yourself it is right. Even if you later decide it’s wrong, tell yourself it is right and force yourself to look at your work as if it is.
- Try to prove the feedback right.
Once you’ve forced yourself to think that the feedback is right, the next step is to try and prove it right. Look at it like looking at a scavenger hunt within your own work. If you spend at least five minutes analyzing things and trying to find elements that prove the feedback right, you may surprise yourself with what you see. Even if it seems like a stretch, force yourself to consider it.
For example, if someone says your character is flat or boring, then look at that character critically. Find all the traits you’ve shown about that character. Have you shown them, or told them? Find all the dialogue for that character. Do they say everything plainly, or do they have personality? If you covered up the name, would you know who is speaking? Look at as much about the character as you can, and see if you’ve been too subtle with your efforts, or if you’ve missed a key character element.
If by the time you’re done analyzing, you’re convinced the feedback is wrong, then maybe it is. But only settle on that after you’ve given an honest effort to try to prove it right. Is there anything you can do better or add to the story, without adding needless things, to help anyone who thinks the character is boring change their mind? If you find anything while you’re analyzing that may be what made the critic feel the way they did, then try to fix it so other readers don’t get the same reaction.
The point is, if you treat the feedback like it is right, and then analyze your story trying to prove it is right, you’ll be more likely to maybe see what the person giving feedback is talking about. If after all the analyzing you still can’t prove the feedback right, then maybe the feedback is wrong or focused on the wrong thing.
- Trust yourself.
Ultimately, people are not perfect, and every writer and reader has a different idea of how things work, and what is good or bad. The most important thing to remember is that it is your story, and while I strongly, strongly encourage considering every piece of feedback and thinking critically about each piece of advice, sometimes you have to simply thank the feedback giver for their time and ignore part of their feedback.
Breaking down a story and being able to explain exactly how it works and why is not an easy thing, and sometimes as writers we do things instinctively based on years of reading and watching and taking in stories. Sometimes, you get a piece of feedback that you know is wrong but you don’t have the tools to prove it wrong.
At this point, if you’ve given the feedback an honest chance and just don’t agree, it’s time to trust yourself. It is your story, and unless the person telling you to change it is your boss who won’t pay the bill if you don’t change it, then listen to yourself. As one of my former professors used to say, “At the end of the day your name is what’s on the page, so you get the final say.”
If you’re really concerned because the person giving the feedback is more experienced, or more knowledgeable, and you aren’t confident in ignoring the note, then your alternative is to make the change and see what happens. Try it out. Does it improve the story? Or does it ruin something you were going for? Even if you do this, however, you still have to trust yourself enough to look at the change and decide if it is improving or hindering your story.
Whatever you decide, it’s your story, so trust yourself. You are the one telling it. No one knows it better than you, and no one can make a decision for you. So think critically, try to be honest, and trust yourself. And remember, even if you go through the process of trying to prove the feedback right, and end up deciding the feedback is wrong, it is never a waste of time. Just the act of forcing yourself to analyze and think critically about your writing will help you be a better writer overall. After a while, you’ll find it far easier to analyze each piece of feedback, you’ll get faster at doing it, and you’ll be better equipped to defend your work because you’ll be used to breaking it down in a critical way.