On the “gift” of feedback

Writers constantly receive feedback on our work. Solicited feedback from writing groups, beta readers, agents, and editors; unsolicited feedback from commenters, reviewers, or social media followers.

I’ve been told (especially in my business life) that feedback is a “gift.” I used to think: there are few gifts I’m less eager to receive than this one. Receiving feedback isn’t easy. We all want to be perfect. We want our writing to gleam, our stories and books to be deemed flawless and prize-worthy (or even prize-winning). So to hear that something missed the mark, especially something close to your heart (as a novel tends to be), is one of the most emotionally draining aspects of our jobs.

I’ve just received feedback from beta readers on my current novel. (“Beta readers,” often fellow writers, read your manuscript at the last stage before it’s ready for editors or agents.) Their feedback was a mixture of praise and critique (as it should be). Normally, in my defensive posture and drive to be perfect, I wallow in the critique and nearly forget the wealth of good things that were said. And I’m not alone. Matt Bell recently posted a quote from Antoine Wilson: “Artists, good ones, real ones, always take criticism seriously, even personally, and reject praise.”

But how would our lives be different if we allowed both the praise and the criticism to shape us? Many writers, especially those still looking for external validation (by securing an agent, or getting a book deal, or landing a short piece in their dream journal), could use more self-esteem. A confidence boost has never hurt a person’s chances, whereas the reverse, the deflation of negative feedback, can stop a writer in her tracks, convincing her she shouldn’t bother revising/querying/publishing, perhaps even stifling her writing ambitions altogether. So I’ve been toying with the following mantra as my new approach to feedback:

Receive praise with your heart and criticism with your head.

What if we allowed our hearts to stay warmed by the positive reviews, the notes of “I love this character” or “you write so beautifully” or “can’t wait to turn the page.” Fueled by this positivity, we might then have the confidence and energy to tackle the revisions that will help our writing shine even more.

Writers, try it on for size and see what you think. Maybe, with this approach, we’ll actually enjoy unwrapping the gift of feedback. 😉

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