Navigating the Forest of Feedback: 8 Ways to Recognize Helpful Criticism (and How to Ignore the Rest).

Recently, on a flight home from vacation, I met author Randi Hutter Epstein and we we were talking about her work.  She said “After about three days of writing, I don’t know if what I have is good, or crap.  I’ll ask anyone their opinion!”

Even Jefferson had to take feedback on the Declaration of Independence.

Even Jefferson had to take feedback on the Declaration of Independence.

Exactly.  If you’re a writer you need feedback, whether you’re a novice or an author with 30 books under your belt.   And there are a lot of people out there who are only too happy to give it to you. But how do you know what comments are useful, anyway? What should you take, and what should you toss? Here are some good things to consider when asking for, or getting, feedback:

#1) What are my manuscript reviewer’s credentials and experience?   Has he published books for the same age category as I’m writing for? Or is she perhaps less far along in the process, but still experienced in reading and listening to manuscripts, and in giving thoughtful feedback?  Maybe he is at the same place as I am and we can learn together?

Is it me, or does this photo shriek "Know-it-all blowhard?"  

Is it me, or does this photo shriek "Know-it-all blowhard?"

 

Because you don’t need to hire an experienced editor to get good feedback.  For example, critique groups probably help their members more with their works in progress than any other class, editor or method out there.  But do keep in mind who is telling you things.  If they are fellow writers, do you admire or like their work? Do they share your ability to learn and grow?   Or are they one of those types who seem to have all the answers, until you find out they’ve never actually published anything?

#1.5) And if the person reading your work is a professional, where does this person’s experience come from?  Teaching? Screenplay writing? Editing professional journals?  Pay attention if they haven’t edited or agented books in the same category as your own manuscript. I had a client who submitted a 16-page picture book text, and when I told her to cut the first third, she said her first editor told her she needed backstory.  It turns out her editor worked on screenplays, not picture books. 

#2) Be wary of anyone who works from a checklist.  This is a pet peeve of mine. Ok, more than a pet peeve.  Books are not formulaic. Each one should be responded to for itself, not for a set list of questions “did the beginning grab me, are the characters fully-developed, did it use appropriate vocabulary etc.”

Those are good questions for some books, but not all. In fact, those questions can force writers to twist their books into something bad just to get a good response from the checklist. 

#3) Are the reviewer’s comments talking more about themselves than about your book?  Sometimes people just can’t take the personal out of it, which editors are trained to do.  “I wept when the mother found her long lost daughter” might tell you more about the reader—probably a mother—than it might about how a teen would take it.  And watch out for feedback that uses “I liked” less than the more helpful “I didn’t understand.”

From a blog post  in The Missouri Review

From a blog post  in The Missouri Review

Another way of saying this: is the critiquer responding from a reader’s point of view, or their own? For instance, if someone wants the adults in the story to be more helpful, or if they think the ending should be happier, they may be speaking from their own vantage point as an adult who wants to help kids—and not from that of a teen reader.

#4) Ask yourself, “What kind of feedback am I looking for? Am I hoping for a first reaction, a ‘does this story engage you, is it successful?’ Or am I looking for little comments, more like line editing, a cleaning up of mistakes, of places I repeat myself, or where things aren’t clear?” It helps a LOT to know what you want, and ask for it.  If you want to know how a story plays and someone spends their time correcting your word choice and grammar, you’re just going to get mad. 

Some people can stand right by the Mona Lisa and not even notice it. Just sayin'.

Some people can stand right by the Mona Lisa and not even notice it. Just sayin'.

#5)  Can you remember that any feedback you get is only one person’s opinion?  This tip probably deserves its own blog post -- in fact, I think I’ll start working on one.  But for now, remember feedback is just feedback, not the 11th commandment. Every successful editor or publisher has stories of successful books they turned down. (Here are two of mine: Owl Moon, when it was a ms. with no illustrator attached yet, by Jane Yolen, and Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King.  And I LOVE those writers. But I digress.)

#6) Approach children’s feedback with great care, or better yet, don’t ask kids their opinion on your work in progress at all. Many years ago at Viking Children’s Books, the publisher, Regina Hayes, and I were working on a novel by Christine McDonnell called Friends First.  Regina gave it to her then 12-year-old daughter to read, who came back with only this comment: “Garth should play sports.” We were kind of stunned. Garth?? A stepbrother who appeared in maybe 3 scenes in the whole book? But Jocelyn was a pre-teen, and she was interested in how cool the teens were.  She hadn’t yet developed the skills to talk about what might have been missing in pace, plot, etc.

Experts? Yes, even if our posture is bad. From left: Julie Lake, Michelle Poploff, Me, and Arthur Levine in Austin 2011.  

Experts? Yes, even if our posture is bad. From left: Julie Lake, Michelle Poploff, Me, and Arthur Levine in Austin 2011.  

#7) Ignore advice about “what editors are looking for” unless it’s from someone really placed to know, like an agent or editor. I often hear “I’ve been told editors hate books about death” or “I hear publishers want sexier YAs” and I think “Really? All editors and publishers?” Probably your statement got inflated from something one editor said. I do not think a good critiquer or Beta reader needs to know what’s happening in the industry.  I just don’t want you to listen to advice on “what’s happening in the business” from people who aren’t really placed to know that.

8)  If you hear something from 3 or more people, take it seriously

Thanks to members of the SCBWI Paris for their help with this blog entry.

Thanks to members of the SCBWI Paris for their help with this blog entry.

BONUS TIP!) The worst critiquers, historically, are spouses.  I know, they mean well! But I’ve seen more bad advice from husbands than from any other source. Also, they’ll end up loving some part of the book because it mentions your neighborhood or something. That always ends up being a section that doesn’t move the story forward that your editor ends up asking you to cut.  So my advice is don’t let your significant other read your manuscript--or comment on it—in the first place.

And that’s it, everybody. Just remember to keep your eyes open. And PLEASE feel free to share examples of feedback that has--or hasn't--worked for you in the comments section.  I'd love to know, and I can always do another blog post with your tips, too. And best of luck to all of you. You’re fighting the good fight.