The Dos And Don’ts Of Handling Bad Feedback

As much as we want to think everything we write is gold, it isn’t. In fact, when you’re first starting out, it’s not even silver or bronze.

Anyone who has dipped their toe into the feedback pool knows how scary it is to send your beloved draft to someone else. You know how it feels when you see that new email notification and how much your heart thumps when you open the returned file. Will the comments be bad? Will they tell you can’t write? Did they get the plot twist in chapter five?

Unless you’ve written and sent out the perfect manuscript, there will always be feedback that skirts between constructive criticism, pointing out what works, and the bad. Guess which one you’ll remember the most? The bad, it’s always the bad. Simply because it feeds into our own self-doubt, often mirroring what we know deep down is wrong with our words.

But even bad feedback, the kind that makes you consider giving up, can be learned from. Here’s how…

The Dos And Don’ts Of Handling Bad Feedback

Do Grow A Thick Skin (You’ll Need It)

A lot of writers say once they publish their book and it’s out in the world it belongs to the reader. Before you get to that enlightened point, the book is still very much yours, and everyone protects what’s theirs.

It’s easy to take every bad comment personally, but for your own sanity, it’s better if you don’t. The feedback is for the words, not you. The quicker you learn that the thicker your skin will grow. And you’ll need that armor for when you submit to publishers or agents and get your first rejection.

Don’t Let It Harden Your Heart

That armor you’re trying to build should not wrap around your heart. A hardened heart leads to bitterness, and that’s not what writing should be about. Most writers put down their words because they love it, because it brings something to their life; joy, meaning. Things that will serve your writing better than bitterness ever will.

Do Make A Plan

Go through the feedback methodically. Break everything down using colored highlighters. Assign colors to praise, misunderstood paragraphs, typos, formatting issues, confusing sentences, and hard-hitting criticism. Make a plan for what you’ll fix first. One tip I’ve found that helps me is working through the easier re-writes first. It’s not so scary or daunting going through your MS fixing typos. Then, once you’re used to going back through it with a critical eye and fixing errors, you’ll be more comfortable dealing with the harder stuff.

Don’t Forget That Critiques Can Help

As much as you want to just scoff and dismiss anything you don’t agree with, take a closer look. Really weigh up what the critique says. Put your ego aside and look at it objectively. Are they right about the first chapter not being strong enough? Is it possible your MC is coming off as unlikable? Do you need to move your exciting incident closer to the beginning of the book? It wouldn’t have been brought up if it worked, so consider why it’s not working, and how you can fix it.

Do Walk Away (Temporarily)

As much as you’ve thickened your skin and tried to see the best side of the critique, you’re still human, and humans need to process things. Give yourself some time. Read the critique and walk away from it. Don’t respond. Don’t make radical changes. Don’t delete your MS. Don’t give up. Give yourself space and a little time to consider what they have told you and then go back to it when you’re calm enough to remember that critiques can help.

Don’t Stop Learning

Sometimes it’s not that the feedback is bad, it’s that we don’t know how to fix the issues that are brought up. That’s the straightest route to self-doubt town. Knowing what is wrong but not knowing how to fix it almost broke me earlier this year, but I worked out what I needed to learn (Show, Don’t Tell and Deep POV), and I started my re-writes. Take a course, read a book, ask for help from writers who’ve been there before, scour every blog post on the topic. Then practice, re-write, and continue to learn. You’ll get there in the end.

— K.M. Allan

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36 thoughts on “The Dos And Don’ts Of Handling Bad Feedback

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  1. My editor and I have a 48 hour rule. It resulted from me taking a rather harsh critique a bit to far. I’ll save that particular story for another time.

    You are correct: A thick skin is vital. Sometimes people read our work who should not be our readers. We write in a style or a genre they do not like or understand. The more a writer has their work critiqued the more they will recognize this kind of person.

    On the other hand a bad critique can be worth its weight in gold. I’ve had many who were able to highlight things that literately turned the story around. When you find that person hang on to them. Or better yet, hire them.

    This is a journey full of smooth and rock roads but we’re on it and we have no plans on getting off.

    Extremely informative. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Love your outlook, Bryan. And your talk of rough and smooth roads. It’d be nice to switch to the smooth road for awhile, but that’s unfortunately not up to me 😅. Put that story in a blog post, I’d love to hear it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s kind of bittersweet but I believe all the bad things I’ve been called as a kid helped me to grow some thick skin. I hope it’ll help me when handing feedback though it’s unavoidable that I will be at least somewhat emotional about it. I had some lessons from my earlier, unshared drafts – about passages I knew that had to change and did not know how to change them for a while. In these times, I sometimes dreaded opening the file…

    …but eventually, I found a way and liked the result. I believe it improved the story. It’s not guaranteed, of course. It was uplifting to see that I managed to do it, eventually.
    I guess it’s important to remember the good moments and find strength in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very true, Tomas. Sorry to hear about why you had to grow a thick skin. It’s definitely an uplifting experience to see for yourself that you’ve grown as a writer instead of being stuck in that place where you weren’t sure how to fix it. I hate that place. Thanks for reading 😊.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I will never EVER grow a thick skin – it’s just not possible for me, I’m built this way and have been for 46 years – but the more time passes the more I’m beginning to agree that if you don’t have a thick skin then you shouldn’t be a writer. I’ve received very little feedback that makes sense to me, to be honest, aside from realising that the people who read my work simply do not like my writing style. Yes, I’ve had tons of critiques saying my writing is too verbose and has too much purple prose, that my sentences are too long, my paragraphs too long, and it makes reading very slow, very boring and very confuse. And guess what? They’re right – up to a point – my writing is purple prose-ish, verbose, with long sentences and even longer paragraphs, but I do believe my use of punctuation does make the reading easy and flowy. The only problem here is, despite I do agree with all this, it is the writing style I want to use, it is the writing style that IS my voice, and it is the writing style I most prefer reading. But I am wrong, of course, and even had one reviewer advise me to get a ghost writer, because my idea for the plot was a good one, but my writing was atrocious and nothing made sense. Also had bad critiques when it came to mixing Arthurian legends and vampire lore, was beaten on the head for the lack of historical accuracy – because there’s proof of Arthur’s existence?? Really?? – and was told by seven out of ten readers that my MC was disgusting, and detestable (as they were meant to be). In the end, most critique comes down to what is trendy at the moment, in terms of publishing and writing, and to personal preferences. My work does not fit with today’s reading preferences, I doubt it ever will, but I refuse to change, my bad. So for me, the only solution is NOT being a published writer anymore. I cannot stop writing, but I cannot write in conformity to what the reading world desires to read, so it makes sense to me that I write ONLY for my eyes, these days. Maybe at some point it will change, but the devastating number of bad reviews, bad feedback and bad critiques I’ve received over the course of two, nearly three years of being a published writer have really killed me inside, and I just don’t want to share my work anymore. I know it comes down to being thin skinned and refusing to change, but hey. I’ll be one less number in the “competition” ehehehh.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A great place for feedback, for those who don’t already know about it, is Scribophile.com. It’s a community of writers, all on different levels, who critique each other’s work.
    There are newbies there who might not have extensive writing know-how, but they’re still readers and can give valuable input.
    There are a few professional editors there too, and if you’re fortunate enough to get them to stick with you for the entire novel, then you have a valuable resource in your corner.
    You can join for free with some restrictions or you can pay for membership and have some great benefits.

    It’s a good place to develop that thick skin you’re talking about.

    If anyone joins, look me up with the username ronowen1.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Extremely helpful but I was wondering about what you do with feedback that doesn’t make much sense, or is in conflict with itself? I got a whishy, washy review and drove myself crazy for a better part of a week trying to make sense of it. Any tips on that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So far I’ve only ever dealt with feedback from betas, which gives me the opportunity to ask questions back if I get something whishy washy. If you can’t ask the person to clarify what they mean then the best tip I can give is to decide, as the writer, if the feedback is relevant to the story. Is it something other people have brought up? Or is it feedback no one else has touched on? If it’s something you disagree with, or contradicts itself, go with what works for your vision of the story. Don’t drastically make changes or go with feedback you don’t understand/like/agree with just because one other person brought it up. You know your story the best. Trust yourself and go with what you want 😊.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very true indeed. I think most writers have some conceit as part of their makeup. It is what makes them write. And what they write they think is right. The first reaction is bound to be fury that someone dares to criticise this brilliant prose.

    A good plan is to give vent to one’s fury by composing scathing rebuttals. Then, sit on them for however long it takes to become objective. At that point, crit the rebuttals. If they still work, you might even consider sending them. Idiots deserve to be told what they are.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great points, particularly the one about putting some time between reading the critique and acting on it. It’s also important to know when it’s OK to stand your ground on a particular point – you don’t have to change everything. Of course, this knowledge only comes after a lot of trial and error!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, very true, Katie. In the past I’ve changed things because I just automatically thought I needed to follow the advice. I now know to just always go with what I’m comfortable with. Thanks for reading 😊.

      Like

  8. Great tips, as usual. While I am not as methodical as you, I do agree that you need to give each comment due consideration. I think we can jump to quick conclusions about which comments are good and which we think are just wrong. But it’s important to get into the reader’s head and think why they made the comment they did. Is the prose unclear? Is an idea that you, the author, think is obvious, perhaps not so much? I tend to reject a lot of beta reader comments, but I consider each one carefully before I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I can’t tell you how much I have learned from my readers! My writing improves with each book, even though I rejected the early criticisms. There are some comments which have little/no value, but most can teach you something if you listen.

    Liked by 1 person

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