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Editing Tip: Squelching Feedback (or Making the Most of Critiques) by R. Judas Brown

One of the most useful tools of the editorial process comes once you have completed your story: your draft readers.  They are the first people who get to see your new baby.  You spent days, weeks, and months laboring over sentence structure and word choice, now — whether it’s to your local critique group or a cadre of personally recruited alpha- and beta-readers – you pass your new baby into their waiting hands.  Hands filled with sharpened knives. Their cruel eyes glint with malice. Sharpened fangs drip—

What I am saying is they are going to tear into it.

And they should.

No matter how thorough you are, you still have work to do. Another set of eyes is invaluable in the editing process.  Your tricky brain knows the story.  It fills in details that didn’t make it onto the page.  It auto-corrects words as you proofread.  It knows the story, so it doesn’t actually need to learn the story from reading, as such it cannot fully evaluate your work.  That is why feedback is so important before your release, whether through a publisher or self-publishing.

Here are a few ways to get the most out of your reader-feedback.

  • It was good. I liked it. – When you start, this seems like the best feedback you can get.  It’s good!  What more could you want?  Well, a lot more.  Is this a favorite aunt who doesn’t want to hurt your feelings?  It could be a reader inexperienced with critiquing. When you get this response, it is important to ask follow-up questions.  Some authors create reader-question sheets they send out for specific answers.

    I don’t go that far.  I prefer to get the broad picture from my readers, but I need more than rubber stamping.  I ask: what works? What doesn’t?  Did my villain feel real?  Did the wumpus scene feel like certified legitimate wumpus?  This not only helps you; it cultivates this person as a reader.  Sometimes, it can be awkward (I have asked specifically about the authenticity of lesbian scenes, having no frame of reference myself), but I chose them for a reason.

  • It is bad, and you should feel bad. – This hurts. It hurts a lot, however, this is good, not just for your story’s development, but your own.  Writing is art.  Art gets criticized, and it isn’t always nice. Some authors do not handle it well.  I won’t go into the multitude of stories illustrating how to ruin a career by aggressively confronting critics on a personal level. Don’t be that guy. Be professional.  This is not only someone who (theoretically) is trying to help you, but they may be just as inept at giving feedback as the example above.

    Time for those questions again:  Was there anything that you did like?  Was it the story or the subject matter? The fact is that not every story is meant for everyone.  Is this not their thing?  Does it deal with something that they find triggering?  For instance, no matter how well you write, someone who has survived an abusive relationship may find too much of their own pain.

Those are the two extremes of blanket feedback: the all good and the all bad.  The best kind of feedback is more focused and specific.  It will usually come from readers who you have “trained” through questions to look for what you want, or from other writers who know what they would want.   These more specific responses can be far more useful, on the surface, but will still require careful consideration.

  • There are a few grammar issues to correct. – I admit this phrase frustrates me more than any other, mostly because I am so self-conscious about my grammar. Grammar is important. There are rules for a reason. But–

    The analogy I always use is a red light.  Everyone knows to stop at a red light.  Yet, when rushing your hypothetical pregnant wife/girlfriend/sister to the hospital in labor, you give it a break and a glance, and blow through because you need to.  You learn the rules so you know how, when, and where you can bend them a bit. This can be a tool to storytelling, but should not be the tone of the entire story. Take a look.  Are they a stickler or did you unknowingly set a pattern that makes your story seem unpolished?

  • I would have said… – Other writers love to write. We can’t help it.  It’s a thing. If you ever have a chance to watch two other writers swap story ideas, watch their faces.  They will trade looks of abject horror and betrayal as the half-formed idea they were nurturing is twisted – SULLIED! – by the perverse imagination of their counterpart who doesn’t see the same exact flowering tale they do.

    This may come with the rewriting of a sentence, a rearrangement of paragraphs, or a replotting of months of your passion.  You will want to ignore this, delete the contact, and crop this person out of every picture you have.  Don’t.  Read it and consider.  Once again, you chose them for a reason.  In this case, a measure of professional respect for their abilities as a writer.

    Writers have different voices, so you have to filter their voice out of the commentary.  Would the sentence work better re-worded a bit? If you shift a paragraph, does it become clearer?  Just because they wrote their suggestion in their voice, doesn’t invalidate it.  Just because you admire their writing, you don’t have to accept it.  Judge the raw suggestion on its own merit.

  • You don’t need this. – Remember that your readers have exactly what you have given to work with. No context provided beyond that which is on the paper. When shooting the Harry Potter movies, the late Alan Rickman had to pull the director aside at times to explain a certain scene needed to be changed from the script. J. K. Rowling had given him a deeper glimpse into Severus Snape that had not yet appeared in published books.  The director deferred, because Alan had access to context the studio didn’t.

    I recently shared a few paragraphs with a good writing friend because I was pleased with the atmosphere I had laid out.  I am enamored with her as a person and author.  She absolutely eviscerated them.  I think there were a few bare sentences left. There was no atmosphere, only the bones remained.  She was not incorrect, she was offering her opinion without the context of the larger tale that would follow, the tale that would be built on what lay within this antiquated shop.

    That doesn’t mean to ignore suggested deletions.  Just bear in mind the whole story you are telling, and how that passage serves your tale.  A popular refrain is to “kill your darlings.” If it doesn’t serve the story, cut it.  Your prose doesn’t have to be bare, but it does have to do its job.

That will get you most of your mileage from feedback. As with any writing advice, I encourage you to understand that your mileage may vary.  Use what helps.  Discard the rest.  I will leave you with one final tip.

  • Remember everyone involved is human. – Everyone, yourself included, is learning and fallible. Thank your readers.  Mean it.  Recognize that honesty takes bravery, and respect it.  Respect yourself.  The interaction between you and your readers can be a strong bond that leads to growth for each of you.  Cherish it.

 A recent transplant to the Midwest, R. Judas Brown has found a home along the banks of the Mississippi surrounded by wife, kids, animals, and friends. His work with fantasy, sci-fi, and horror has appeared in several anthologies. Aside from numerous solo projects, he is working with The Ed Greenwood Group, collaborating with other authors on the upcoming Split Image worlds, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Quincy Writers Guild in Quincy, IL. You can follow him on Twitter @RJudasBrown, at www.facebook.com/RJudasBrown, or visit his website at www.rjudasbrown.com.