You can’t learn to write in a vacuum. Feedback, and learning to take it, are both essential to your growth as a writer. Like editing, feedback sharpens your awareness of what you need to work on. But too much of anything, including feedback, can introduce fresh problems.
In the case of feedback, too much can put you into an endless editing cycle. You finish a draft, you solicit feedback, you edit again. Wash, rinse, repeat – then it’s been years and you’re still trying to finish that novel. When the feedback loop is out of control you have to stop, find your own editorial voice, and re-center your work. Asking yourself some questions can help:
1. Is my book ready for feedback? Putting your work out there is a lot like sending your child off to her first day of school. She’s unlearned, untested, but she should be dressed and armed with glue, crayons, and a straw for firing spitballs. Similarly, your writing should be ready for people to see it. It doesn’t need to be perfect, that’s the whole point of soliciting feedback, but it should be complete. You should know what your writing is about, where it’s going, and who it’s intended for. Imagine you’re going to be interviewed about it. When your book is published, who’s going to want to buy it? Can you sum up the plot in a few sentences? If asked, can you explain your vision for the novel? If you can’t answer these questions, you’re probably not ready for feedback.
2. Who’s your audience? Every book has an audience. It may be as small as your own family or as large as a dedicated fan base. Even if you’re writing towards commercial success, you still have an audience. Stephen King, in On Writing, suggests identifying an ideal reader, a single person you’re writing to. This gives you an excellent way of narrowing your audience to a specific person. But however you do it, identify the person or people you’re writing to. Your work should be targeting them. They should enjoy what you’re creating. Imagine their response to your work. Play with them. Entertain them. But don’t never them. Even when you’re deep in the zone, crafting a fantastic bit of dialogue, some tiny part of you should be wondering if the audience will care.
3. Are you trying to please everyone? The other side of the audience coin is the scope of the feedback. In a critique group or workshop, you’re going to get, and give, a lot of feedback. Much of it is going to come from other writers, all of whom have their own vision for their writing, and much of it isn’t going to apply. This is where developing a clear relationship with your internal editor is crucial. You have to balance what the critique says against your work. Some of the feedback will resonate, indicate an area where you need to improve. Some of it won’t pertain to what you’re trying to do. Take all the feedback as it’s given, and say thank you. Someone took the time to read your work and give you input on it. They’ve done you a kind favor. Then sift through their notes and see what truly applies and what doesn’t. You can’t please anyone, and you shouldn’t try, especially if the feedback would change what your book is trying to do.
4. Are you listening to the feedback you’re getting? It’s very easy to put your writing on an artistic pedestal, consider it above feedback, and ignore whatever comes at you. This is a terrible way to behave in a workshop, and arrogance is generally a sign of some deep insecurity about your work. But it’s also easy to self-deprecate, be insecure, and let all the feedback you get guide your writing, thereby creating the endless feedback loop. The first situation is easy to fix: open your mind. If you can’t, don’t sign up for workshops. Please. The rest of us will thank you. The second situation has a more elegant solution. Develop your inner editor. If you don’t have one, create one. I imagine mine as J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man. All the feedback goes to him first. Waving his noxious cigar, he decides which feedback resonates, matters, and gets passed on to the more sensitive writer part of myself. The rest he still reads, scanning carefully for ways to improve my writing, but he still sets it aside. He doesn’t order a full rewrite of the book because one person didn’t like the love interest.