In my last post I talked about “which types of readers to use for feedback,” covering the pros and cons of a weekly critique group, beta readers, specialty readers, and agents and editors. Knowing where to get feedback on our work is great, but what the heck do you do with it once you have it? It might sound like a straightforward question, but any writer gathering significant feedback knows how daunting it can be to face sorting through and implementing that critique.
The good news is that there is no one correct way to go through this process. The bad news is that there is no one correct way to go through this process. Every writer, every book, and every feedback resource will require different specifics. That freedom is liberating and, sometimes, a little overwhelming. In hopes of establishing a starting place, today I’m going to share my general outline of the steps I take to process and filter reader feedback. As with all writing advice, take what works for you and leave the rest.
1. Read Feedback
Step one is fairly easy straightforward: consume the feedback. If you’re reading notes, I highly recommend finding a private, quiet place so you can go at your own pace and so you don’t have to school your reactions. If you’re listening, and if your reader doesn’t have notes to hand you after they’re done talking, go ahead and take notes as they go (unless you can record or have a killer memory). Try to resist asking too many questions, especially if you’re new. Clarifying what someone means is fine, but you’d be surprised how easily that slips into justifying or defending our intentions instead. You can sort through that part later; for now, just listen and absorb.
2. Let Yourself Feel, Notice Your Gut
You might feel things as you listen. Some of them might even be bad feelings. That’s okay. Emotions are not only important, but biologically required. So don’t beat yourself up if you feel sad, disappointed, angry, scared, overwhelmed, etc. That’s all normal. (It’s also why I generally prefer to read feedback in private.)
Of course, if you’re in person you’ll probably be socially obligated to hide or subdue some of these feelings to seem “sane” and “professional.” (Bah.) Do what you must, but even if you have to bottle it up, I highly recommend letting it out later. Let it aaaaaaall out. Let it have free reign for a while—good and bad. Be excited, be intimidated, be whatever you need to be.
And more importantly, pay attention to what you need to be. To take every drop of romance out of it: emotional reactions are data. How we feel right away upon each particular piece of feedback is invaluable information for later, so stop trying to stymie it. Instead, let it happen and take a mental note. Pay extra attention to the things that make you the most defensive.
If your notes are all over the place—and/or come from multiple different sources—I find it helpful to organize them in some way. What way makes the most sense will depend entirely on the project, the feedback, and how your brain works. It might be a bullet-pointed list with sub-points to group related things into categories. Or it might be a timeline, or some strategic highlighting. However you go about it, the general idea is to get all of your feedback sorted into an easier-to-approach format for future use.
4. Give it Time Off
Then go away. Metaphorically speaking. (I mean, going on a trip in this phase would probably be great, if you can swing that.) Stop “working” on your project for as long as you need to for your subconscious to do its processing. For you antsy pants out there, that usually means at least a week for novel-length projects. This time might grow shorter the more novels (and feedback processes) you have under your belt, or it might vary from WIP to WIP.
What you do during this time off is up to you, but for me what works best are non-writing tasks that are writing adjacent. Reading, submissions, social networking, copy edits on something else, that kind of thing. You might also try doing no writing things for a while. The only thing that doesn’t work for me is doing deep work (planning, drafting, revising) on an unrelated WIP, because then my subconscious turns toward that other project.
5. Logic it Out
Once you feel your emotions calming down and your subconscious speaking up, it’s time to come back to the WIP. Luckily, you already organized your feedback itself, so the process of going through it now should be slightly less daunting than at first. I usually end up with a bulleted list, and I go through item by item working out two things: 1) Do I agree with this feedback? 2) How could I address the problem?
Those gut instincts from earlier are going to be your most valuable resource for whether or not you agree with each suggestion. If something made you feel hopeful or excited, it’s an obvious yes. If it made you feel angry or scared, it’s something to talk through. If it didn’t make you feel much of anything, it might be an easy yes or a clear no. This is a good stage to talk through with a trusted person (not one of the ones who gave you the feedback). This is also the stage when it’s appropriate to corral the emotions and make decisions with the brain instead of the heart.
As to whether or not to address each issue… it’s ultimately up to you. If I don’t have an obvious agreement or disagreement with the note itself, the source of each note becomes a huge factor in my decision making. How much do you trust the opinion or taste of this reader? How well do their intentions align with yours for the WIP? How skilled and knowledgeable are they? And of course, how much “say” do they get in your process generally? An agent or editor rightfully has more influence on a WIP than a first-time beta reader.
When all else fails, I tend to think of feedback in answer to, “Will it mess anything up to make this change?” If the answer is yes, I’ll explain my reasoning and either suggest an alternative or stand my ground (according to how important it is to me), but if the answer is no… I just make the change. If it doesn’t mess anything up but makes one of my team members feel better about the project, the change is worthwhile.
6. Respond if Necessary
For your average critique group or beta reader, responses to feedback (beyond thanks) aren’t required or generally expected. It’s assumed that feedback is given freely (or in trade) and that after that, you take or leave what you want to. However, if you’re working with someone like an agent or editor who will continue to be involved in the process, now’s the time to respond to their feedback. This might include concerns about their suggestions, alternatives to their proposed solutions, ideas you want to run by them before implementing, etc. If they’re on your team, now is the time to make sure you can all land on the same page—before you do a bunch of work.
7. Finalize a Plan
Once you’ve talked through any concerns, finalize your revision plan. This might mean making a to-do list of things to tackle as well as the ways in which you plan on tackling them. This part might take weeks to brainstorm and talk through, or it might be intuitive. The more specific you are about what and how you plan to change, the easier the actual revisions tend to be.
8. Execute the Plan
Last but not least, get to work. (I wish it was as easy to do as it just was to write.)
Like most big tasks, breaking the feedback process down into stages will make it much less daunting and more manageable. If you’re really anxious about it, you can even set up a timeline for yourself so you know exactly when you plan to move on from each phase of the process. Or you can feel it out as you go along. No matter how long it takes you, remember that each time will be the first time you’re learning how to sort through that particular set of feedback, so don’t be too hard on yourself if it’s challenging.