Feedback. This word might make you jump for joy, or it might make you stash your manuscript in the back of the closet, away from prying eyes.
Regardless of how getting feedback makes you feel, it’s important for writers to know that there is such a thing as a “wrong” time to get feedback.
In fact, it’s possible that getting feedback at the wrong time can land a critical blow—one that may cause you to put your draft down indefinitely.
In this week’s episode of The Resilient Writers Radio Show, host Rhonda Douglas will go over when the right time to get feedback is, and how we may seek feedback when we’re actually looking for something else entirely.
Listen to learn:
But don’t let all this make you fear feedback—getting it at the right time is incredibly valuable!
[02:32] Often what's at the heart of that is, not just some of their own thoughts about their writing, but some of the feedback they may have received.
[03:34] There's a little bit of ego, and sometimes a lot of ego, wrapped up in this question of whether or not my writing is any good.
[05:40] In fact, I would actually argue that talent is precisely that persistent drive to shape language in a way that moves another human being.
[07:35] If you don't have a completed first draft, no one knows whether or not your story's any good.
[10:09] … and then you take all your notes, you come back and then you find yourself writing their story, not your story, the one you were really meaning to tell.
[11:28] You are the only person who can know when that's the case. But I just think we've got to pay a little more attention to our instincts and trust our own judgement about our work
[12:51] Now you're gonna get a lot of feedback about how the middle and the end doesn't work, and you already knew that.
Links from today’s episode:
Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page.
This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.
Well, hey there, writer. Welcome back to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. Today's another solo episode with me, your host, Rhonda Douglas, and we are gonna talk about writing feedback. It's often the case that when I talk to writers about their books—so, someone will come to me either in First Book Finish, or we're working together one-on-one, and they'll have a book that they've been working on. And so often, it's a book that has been abandoned, maybe for a little while, maybe for a long while. Like, maybe it's something that has sat in a drawer for a long time, or they finished it, but they weren't quite sure. And now they wanna pull it back out again.
Most often what I see, is that when people have kind of put a book aside, at any stage, either it's half finished, or it is all the way done in a messy first draft, or they got some beta reader feedback and they kind of worked on it for a little while, and then they put it aside. Often what's at the heart of that is, not just some of their own thoughts about their writing, but some of the feedback they may have received. So let's talk about this today.
At some point or another, every writer wonders if their writing is any good, right? How do I even know this is any good? We think about it in terms of the current project we're working on, but we also think about it as a judgement on ourself as a writer. We think, “oh, God, this sucks so bad. I'm no good at dialogue. How do I know this is even working?” And I think this comes from two separate desires. It comes from a genuine desire to improve the work, so it comes from a commitment to writing craft, which is fabulous, but it also comes from a genuine desire to feel that <laugh> we know what we're doing, and maybe even to be told that we're just a tiny little bit, kind of brilliant somehow.
There's a little bit of ego, and sometimes a lot of ego, wrapped up in this question of whether or not my writing is any good. Sometimes it gets really tied up in our self-worth, and we can't separate our worth as individuals from the perception that we think people have of us as writers. Every time I've given work to someone and I've asked, “comment on it,” definitely what I wanna hear, deep down more than anything, is that the story, the poem, the book that I've given them, is absolutely riveting, perfectly realised, an incredible work of art worthy of my, <clears throat> considerable talent as a writer.
This is what I want them to say. And ideally they would say this with like, this tone of awe in their voice. And that's a little embarrassing to admit, but, I think that often if we're honest with ourselves, we send things out a little too early looking for feedback because there's a part of us that needs or wants to hear that sweet siren call of praise, more than we want the technical advice on how to improve the work at hand.
It's just the absolute worst when somebody, you know, misreads your work and gets it wrong, or doesn't give you the kind of feedback you are looking for. And here's the thing—I think that praise is a legitimate writer need. We all need to believe that we have some level of talent, which is an amorphous and very subjective word that, somehow, we can't avoid.
None of us wants to waste years of our life on something that doesn't have any potential. And we also wanna move readers with our writing, the way we were once moved ourselves by the favourite writers of our childhood, or our favourite book we read last week. I also think that writers who are genuinely moved to write out of a love of language and image and story do have talent. In fact, I would actually argue that talent is precisely that persistent drive to shape language in a way that moves another human being.
You don't need anyone to tell you that you're talented. What you need is someone to tell you where your craft isn't yet fully serving your original artistic impulse or vision. That feedback might sting a little bit. It's like mercurochrome on a cut or a scrape. But really digging in deep with craft is where the magic happens for your story or your poetry.
I firmly believe that a fierce love of craft is what talent looks like in real life. It's such a vulnerable state to want so badly to reach out and move other people through our art. And so, I think we naturally seek reassurance that we're nearly there. You know, “it's good. It just needs a spell check and a grammar check. I'll run it through Grammarly and I'm good.” That's what we really want someone to say when we send them the draft of our manuscript.
Or, look, maybe it's just me. If you're not like that, fair enough. Maybe it's just me, but it definitely happens to me. I do believe, though, that we're doing ourselves as writers, and the work itself, a disservice, when we allow our desire for this kind of praise and this kind of connection—and sometimes it is connection, we're looking for connection with other writers about writing—and when we allow that to push us to seek feedback too soon in the process. Often, when it comes to writers who are working on book length projects, they seek feedback before the work is finished. And I need you to know that I can't tell you if your story is working if you really haven't finished it yet. If you don't have a completed first draft, no one knows whether or not your story's any good.
And when I say finished or completed, I mean you've worked through how you want your poem to appear on the page, not just typed it up and then call it done. Or you know the story you wanna tell, and you haven't given up on it out of frustration or because you reached your 12 page limit for your short story, or you got really frustrated that you've been working on your novel so long and you just rush the ending, right?
Often we send workout to first readers before it's really ready, and then we find ourself nursing this little nest of small hurts inside ourself when we hear from them what we already know: it's just not ready to be read by someone else yet. We're always sending out drafts, works in progress, something not yet fully realised. Of course, that's not what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about the difference between a finished first draft, where you really have reached the limits of what you can do with it on your own without feedback, and a draft that's just been abandoned. And a clear sign that this has happened is if your reader comes back to you confused about what's actually happened in your story, book, or poem.
I think that if you pay attention to your feelings about a piece of work, and you follow your instincts, and you're honest with yourself, you can come to know when you're tempted to do this. I can. If you're working with a reader you absolutely can trust to hand them something completely raw and unformed, sometimes we get away with it and we get good feedback. A lot of folks have so-called “alpha readers” or “first readers” that they give things to, and these are deep relationships of trust and they've been ongoing for a while and they really work.
But if you send an unfinished draft to a reader who doesn't already love your cotton socks and isn't already connected with you as a writer, and with your story, know something about it, you might get more constructive feedback than your little writer's heart can take right now. And that can lead you to abandon the story, abandon the book, abandon the poem, because you just can't deal with that feedback right now. But I think that sometimes something even worse happens.
We send a story out and—I've had this happen. I've sent something out in a workshop or a critique group, and people start to get excited about it. And they're like, “oh, you know what you could do? You could do this, and the character could have that happen, and then this could happen. And,” and then you take all your notes, you come back, and then you find yourself writing their story, not your story, the one you were really meaning to tell, if only you'd given yourself just a little bit more time to find out what that was.
There's no real, hard, clear line here. It's an area of judgement, for when a piece of work is ready to be read by someone else. I've also worked with writers who are really hesitant to release their revised draft of a novel out to beta readers, for example, and they just hold onto it and they're always like, “oh, I'm gonna do one more research trip, but I'm just gonna do one more pass, and I'm just going to work on the last bit a little more, a little more.” And they're afraid to let it go.
So, it's definitely an act of knowing ourselves and exercising our own judgement. But generally, if I think that I have the initial idea or impulse, the artistic impulse, expressed as completely as I can, and now I need someone else to tell me what is missing or where the gaps are, or to help me shape it into a more fully realised form, then I know I'm ready, and so is my draft.
You’re the only person who can know when that's the case. But I just think we've got to pay a little more attention to our instincts and trust our own judgement about our work. And I think it can't hurt to push ourselves just a tiny little bit further to see how much more we can do to ensure that you're giving your reader a truly complete first draft, and not one that's just kind of been abandoned in their general direction, if you know what I mean. I often will say in First Book Finish—when folks are getting ready to go to beta readers, and we have a whole process on this, but—what I say is, “what we wanna send to beta readers is not the perfect book.”
It's gonna come back from beta readers, we're gonna integrate their feedback, then we're gonna do some more editing. There's lots more time here to work on the book. The book doesn't have to be perfect when it goes out to beta readers. But you need to know that your story is cohesive, and a coherent read, so that there are no gaps, there are no big logic leaps, there's no true point of confusion, and you are not sending it to them and saying, “I know I still have to work on this, this, this, this, and this, and I know the ending doesn't work and I'm a little worried about the middle, but here,” like <laugh>, why would you do that? Now you're gonna get a lot of feedback about how the middle and the end doesn't work, and you already knew that. You wanna get feedback from someone who sees your story in a way that you yourself couldn't see your story. That's the true value of feedback.
And so to do that, we have to know when it's ready to go. And, for sure, it's a judgement call. So I like to think, particularly for book length work, definitely you want a solid structure. You want your beginning, middle, and end. You want all your subplots wrapped up. You don't want any gaps, no logic leaps, no points of confusion. You want your character arcs fully developed, and you want a coherent reading experience. At that point, send it to your beta readers.
I'll do a separate episode this season on how to work with beta readers, how to find them, what questions to ask, but send it to your beta readers when you know you can no longer see your own story. Someone else's feedback, someone else's eyes, is gonna allow you to see the trees at a level of detail that you need in order to be diving back in and really engaging and fixing what needs just a little bit more tweaking before you're done.
Okay? And I'm not saying we shouldn't seek feedback. I love feedback. But, I often find that people seek feedback too soon and then either their feelings are hurt because they weren't ready, and the feedback they came in—they sent it out too soon, and so they got a lot of feedback because it wasn't ready, and that's hard to deal with. Or, what they really wanted someone to say is, “you know what? It's good, keep going. I see it has potential.” And instead they got very detailed feedback and that wasn't helpful at that stage.
I just want you to give some considerate thought to when and how to seek feedback on your work. I hope this has been helpful and I look forward to seeing you in the next episode of the Resilient Writers or Radio Show.
Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm gods that “yes, this is a great show. Definitely recommend it to other writers.” And that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it, and I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.