I learned one of my most valuable lesson in writing back in my college years. I was taking a screenwriting class where every student had to write ten pages of their script per week. Then, we would take turns reading what we’d written that week in class, and everyone would give feedback. The professor had a couple rules, but the one that stuck with me was this: If you are the one receiving feedback, you are not allowed to talk. At all. This was one of the most difficult things to do, but it has helped me tremendously, in writing and in life.
There were two things I learned through this. The first was from students who tried to defy this rule, and that lesson was, nothing shuts down feedback faster than someone constantly defending their work. People who instantly defend their work or blame the reader for misunderstanding don’t actually want feedback, so why give it to them?
The second lesson was that by not immediately responding to criticism, I was able to suppress the knee-jerk emotional reaction and actually absorb what was being said. Instead of me dismissing it as, “They just didn’t get it,” it made me think about why they didn’t get it. Was it because I wasn’t clear? Should I word it differently? Was the protagonist acting out of character, or had I not written the character well enough so the reader knows how the protagonist would act in this situation? Or was the reader really just careless and didn’t get what was obvious?
To be fair, not all criticism is valid. Some people read too fast and skip over things, so when they say they don’t understand something, like where the villain got a knife, or why did he betray that person, it really is their mistake. Some people are just cynical jerks that will shout, “This suck! Your writing sucks! You suck!” That stuff can and should be ignored. But if you asked someone to read your work and give you constructive criticism, don’t be offended by their feedback. Listen to it. Even if they don’t deliver it in the nicest way, they are trying to help you.
That doesn’t mean do everything they say. Ultimately, it’s your work. You decide which feedback is valuable, and which can be discarded. In my own book, Among the Dead, I heard more than a couple people voice that they didn’t like the fate of one of the characters and wanted me to change it. After considering their thoughts, I decided to leave it because I felt it was necessary for the arc of another character. Meanwhile, their feedback about how the protagonist seemed to be acting out of character in a specific part was valid. I wanted the character to do something they would not have done, so I forced it, and the readers noticed. I went back and rewrote it. It ended up being different than I had planned, but better for it. Had I just shut down the people giving feedback, they might not have stuck around to give me that piece of advice, which helped my story tremendously.
This lesson has also served me in life. At jobs where my boss pulls me aside and offers some critique of what I’m doing, I stay silent. I offer no excuses, nor do I blame someone else, even if it was their fault. Nobody likes someone who offers excuses or passes the buck. Later, almost all of my bosses have told me that they love the fact that I take ownership of my mistakes. It makes them trust me.
When it comes to feedback, take it on the chin.Tweet
Don’t defend yourself or your work right away. Take the criticism (as long as it truly is constructive criticism), consider it, then decide what you want to do with it. I know it’s made me a better writer.
Stephen A. Kennedy was born in Wichita, Kansas sometime around the mid 80’s. His dad wanted to honor Stephen’s great, great grandfather by bestowing his first name to Stephen as a middle name. Unfortunately, Stephen’s dad wrote the wrong name on the birth certificate.
Stephen has been writing for 15 years, has won a handful of awards and was able to get an agent in Los Angeles. Stephen doesn’t feel comfortable talking about his accomplishments because it feels like bragging to him, which he hates.
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