Get Better Feedback For Your Writing

Get Better Feedback For Your WritingPhoto by AltumCode on Unsplash

Every writer can agree: terrible notes are the worst. There’s nothing more frustrating than giving your all to a piece of writing for days, weeks, months, years, only to get back a bullet list of vague, often contradictory musings from a would-be helpful colleague/now-former-friend.

Of course, some of the blame lays at the feet of the wrier. We often just drop our draft into an email with a quick message like, “Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!” It’s a crapshoot if that reader’s “thoughts” will be of any value. If you want better notes, you need to know how to ask for them.

When I finally mustered the courage to get feedback on my first TV pilot, I went through four rounds of notes. Never once did I ask for anything more than “thoughts.” And thoughts I received. Gobs and gobs of directionless, well-meaning but ultimately useless thoughts. I didn’t know which to take and which to ignore.

I’ve learned a few things since that first script. It’s still hard for me to ask for notes but by using the four tips below, I now know how to ask for better feedback.

Ask for feedback on the parts that bother you

The reason writers are vague when asking for notes is that they’re often afraid of the answers they’ll get. If something about our story bumps us, keeps us up at night, we secretly hope that maybe it’s just us. Maybe when we send it out, if we keep quiet, no one will notice. We’ve worked so hard to come this far. What if our worst fears are confirmed?

It’s time to rip-off the band-aid. The best way towards better notes is to ask about the parts that bother you, especially if you have fundamental concerns about the following:

  • Character motivation
  • Stakes
  • Believability
  • Authenticity

It’s super scary. Because, yeah, writing is hard and you don’t want to spend a bunch of time working on something only to found out you’ve built a story on a foundation of quicksand. Or lyme. Better to ask sooner than later, though, because the longer you wait to fix fundamental problems, the harder it will be to start over.

Target who you’re sending to

I recommend sending drafts to no more than four readers at a time. More than that and you are wading into a deep ocean of opinions. Four is a manageable range of opinions. You will still see if any patterns emerge and if different readers arrive at the same critiques. Those are the notes you want to take.

Send your work to the “right” people. Certain peers have certain sensibilities. I’m not sending my horror script with feminist undertones to my buddy who writes bro fantasy-comedy. Sure, I might get some interesting notes, but ultimately you want to find readers who are closer to the work’s audience.

Finally, target the level of writer. Start with your peers and move up to more experienced writers. And don’t think of peer notes as less-than. They’re often working through the same issues you are and can be quick to spot them. And if nothing else, they can offer support and encouragement when you’re in the muck.

Take constructive criticism with all the grains of salt

You will get back hard notes at some point. Hopefully, not too hard because these are supposed to be your friends, colleagues, and mentors. But readers can be rough so be prepared for that. But also know that sometimes your writing just isn’t someone’s taste. And that’s okay.

One way to get to know a reader’s sensibilities is to offer to read their stuff. Then you have a first-hand look at what they find funny, engaging, or moving and a better idea of whether they are the right person to read a given project.

I’m not suggesting you avoid constructive criticism or even hard notes. Sometimes we need to hear them, especially if there are fundamental flaws in our work (see tip number one). It can be helpful to get outside perspectives from audiences that aren’t necessarily your target but remember to weigh those reader’s tastes against their notes. Take all the grains.

Get your notes and get out

Writers need feedback to make their work better. However, there is a limit to how much feedback and for how long to ask for it. It depends on the type of work (novel, screenplay, feature story) and the experience of the writer.

A good rule of thumb is to ask for no more than three rounds of notes. The first round is the scariest. You expose your work to the outside world. There’s a range of opinions and some big flaws might be pointed out. The second round is less scary. Still, you’ve made some big changes from your first draft and you need to know if it still hangs together. In the final round, you send to your top-level readers. Hopefully, the big stuff has been sussed out, and now it’s all about refinement. You are asking them to use their expert eye to make your work sing. To go from good to great.

The last thing you want to do is note yourself to death. The more rounds you do, the more compelled you will be to keep taking notes. The more you will change and the further away you risk going from your original vision. Get your notes and get out.

In the end

Feedback is critical but not all feedback is created equal. Asking for what you want from the right people will produce infinitely better notes. Get the feedback, process it, make the changes, and then be done.

Because the next thing is waiting to be written.

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