The Biggest Thing Standing Between You and Writer Success
Okay, you got me. There are actually many variables that determine whether you succeed as a writer – not just one thing. If there was an exact magic formula there wouldn’t be a need for anyone to blog about this stuff…but…there is, in fact, one critical factor that determines just how good you get as a writer. And that one thing is feedback.
Over the last twenty plus years, I have worked as a journalist and editor on daily newspapers and magazines. I have written all forms of marketing and communication content for globally listed companies, government, SMEs and not-for-profits.
The reason I tell you this is to demonstrate I’m no stranger to feedback. In my first gig as a cadet journalist in the 90s I quickly learned how to write better.
Pumping out half a dozen and more stories a day, I had to write fast but also well enough to avoid the sub-editor angrily stomping down to my desk and pulling apart my story line by line. I’m not sure about newsrooms these days but sub-editors back then didn’t mince their words when it came to feedback. If they knew about the feedback sandwich, they certainly didn’t subscribe to it.
I later worked for a head of a government department who was known for scribbling ‘What is this BS?’ in giant red letters across anything he didn’t like – fortunately I never received one of those.
Now I’m not saying these were great ways to get the best out of a writer or that everyone should have to experience this, but it definitely taught me a lot about the importance of feedback and how to deal with it.
Specifically, here are the key things I’ve learned.
1. Be Open to Feedback
Everyone….I mean EVERYone needs some form of feedback and editing.
No matter how experienced you are as a writer, we can all do with a second pair of eyes.
Often as writers, we are so close to our work that we don’t notice things that might stand out to another person.
You may have read your work a hundred times (and sometimes it does feel like that) but completely missed a typo. As the writer you also have all the pieces of the puzzle in your mind, you know the background and whole plot, but you may not have translated enough of those puzzles onto the page for the story to make sense to the reader.
A good reader/editor will tell you which parts or syntax that weren’t clear to them. They may even make useful suggestions about how to improve a sentence, phrase or segue.
2. Be Brave
Presenting your work to others for feedback for the first time is a big step. Putting your precious words out to the world (even if it’s just to one other person) takes bravery.
I mentioned earlier that I was used to the idea of feedback…but that was in relation to my news and corporate writing.
When it came to my creative writing, it was a completely different matter.
For many years (nearly a decade) I tinkered away at my first novel – my first serious attempt at creative writing. Those years of writing and refining and attending courses were important to learn my craft but only up to a certain point.
The harsh reality was that my novel wasn’t going anywhere until I was prepared to share it with someone.
I was writing in a vacuum. I felt safe in my vacuum but it was a confined space. Nothing can truly grow in that kind of environment.
It was only when I was brave enough to share my novel that I was able to really improve my work – and the rate of improvement was rapid! Only after that point did I enjoy any form of success with my creative writing. I started entering competitions and submitting my work to industry professionals.
My work started getting recognised and I took what feedback I was given and improved my work more.
3. Ask the Right People for Feedback
I tweeted recently about how my mum insisted on reading my draft YA fantasy novel, even though she doesn’t read YA and “hates” fantasy.
This is an example of someone I shouldn’t be asking for feedback.
The people you ask to review your work, will depend on what kind of feedback you’re looking for.
Here’s who you may like to ask for what.
- Avid Readers of Your Genre – These readers can give you very useful feedback on whether your story and characters meet their expectations. They are more likely to be invested in your story so their feedback may go beyond structural feedback to character voice and line edits.
- Family and friends – If your family and friends don’t read your genre, prepare yourself for the fact that they may not enjoy your story, regardless of how good it is. Unless they have a writing background their feedback may not be particularly useful. If they insist on reading your work, let them, but you can’t be sure of hearing what you want to hear. If you’re expecting a pat on the back and to be told how awesome you are, then you may be disappointed. For those of you whose family and friends are the cheer squad types, take the encouragement. Use it to boost and motivate you, but don’t kid yourself. This kind of feedback does little to make you a better writer.
- Writing friends – People in your network or writing groups that are professional writers, or are on the same creative writing path as you, can provide really helpful feedback (as well as support and encouragement). Regardless of the genre they write in, writers “get” other writers. They can provide invaluable feedback at a structural and line edit level. Just make sure though you are working with people whose opinions you respect and trust.
- Grammar police types – We all know those people – whether their friends, family or workmates – who know their em dashes from their en dashes. By all means ask these people for help once you’re ready for proofreading.
4. Seriously Consider All Feedback
If you have asked someone for feedback and they have taken the time and effort to give it, then you should seriously consider all of their suggestions.
It’s completely natural to not agree with every piece of feedback you’re given but it’s important to take a beat and challenge your thinking when it comes to each and every suggestion…even if it means you have to do a lot of work.
Ask yourself, would their suggestion make the story better?
If you’re not completely sure, engage the person who gave you the feedback in a discussion about their suggestion or ask for a second opinion.
Generally, when I have ask a specific person for feedback (they will be someone I trust) I will take on board around 90% of their changes.
Of course, if you’ve been given feedback that is not in keeping with your voice, story and characters, feel free to ignore it – perhaps even explain why to the person who gave the feedback.
5. Feedback You Must Take on Board
There are some forms of feedback I believe you should always take on board. These have nothing to do with stylistic feedback or authorial voice, it is to do with clarity.
If a reader has flagged something that doesn’t make sense to them, or is unclear, then I personally believe you should listen to them.
The way I see it is that if one person didn’t understand something, there’s a good chance that others won’t.
Unclear writing jolts a reader out of a story, which is the last thing you want to happen.
While it is possible that your writing is clear and it was just one particular reader who had an issue, the fact they mentioned it is enough reason to check the section and/or get a second opinion.
Yes, feedback is tough. Feedback can hurt. But feedback is also the single most important tool for becoming a better writer.
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