Utilizing feedback to improve a manuscript during the editing process is one of the most crucial skills for any budding writer to develop.
But when I’m editing manuscripts, I so often see situations where authors made very confusing choices, like eliminating all physical description and/or exposition, launching straight into an action scene before the reader has gotten their bearings, or starting with a baffling prologue.
When we later have our consultation call after the edit, the author will invariably sigh and go, “Yeah, one of my beta readers said I should do X, Y, and Z.”
It usually turns out that the feedback was directionally correct, but the author took the advice too far and ended up making things worse.
Here’s how to avoid overcorrecting and ending up in the proverbial writing ditch.
Have an open mind, but trust your instincts
Having an open mind is an extremely important trait for a writer. No one writes a perfect draft on their own, and you need to be able to stay open to the way your work reads to other people. It’s extremely difficult for a writer to see what really is and isn’t on the page. You inevitably project things onto the page that aren’t there because you know what you mean.
But there’s absolutely such a thing as having too open of a mind.
Not all feedback is good or helpful. Some readers (including/especially industry professionals) can be way too confident in their opinions.
Definitely take all feedback into account, but it doesn’t mean you have to act on every piece of advice you receive. When enough people read your work, you’ll sometimes get two completely contradictory pieces of feedback, and you ultimately just have to choose which one you agree with. You have to learn to sort through the noise to find what’s helpful.
Listen to your gut, and don’t let someone else with a strong voice blow you off course.
Get your diagnosis right
When you receive feedback, it’s crucial to first try to understand what the reader is truly responding to. It’s not helpful when someone just says, “Oh that action scene is great, you should start with that.”
Instead of just blindly moving the action scene to page one, stop and think about why they suggested that change. Is the buildup to the action scene too slow? Is that the stretch where the voice finds its footing?
Identify the real problem before you jump to a solution. Think past a beta reader’s ideas and try to get into the underlying issues that need to be fixed.
Implementing good fixes starts with being sure you’re fixing the right problem. There’s no point in changing a faucet when there’s a burst pipe in your basement.
Fear your own fears
One of the most dangerous combinations is when you receive feedback that taps into your pre-existing fears about your manuscript. It will be doubly difficult to see things clearly.
Here’s one of the more incredible things I’ve learned in my many years writing and editing books: If you’re scared something is a problem in your manuscript, it probably isn’t actually a problem. In fact, the real risk you should worry about is overcorrecting to avoid the problem.
When I’m writing, I’m always scared I’m going to bore the reader and I end up rushing past slower moments and need to weave in more physical description. Other writers with similar fears will completely excise context and exposition. Writers who worry their world is confusing will write pages of pedantic exposition.
The real problems in your manuscript inevitably stem from things you can’t see, or else you would have fixed them already. That’s why getting feedback is so important.
Know your fears and be doubly careful when the feedback taps into them.
Try to see things clearly
Getting feedback on a novel is not easy at all. It’s hard to stay calm and avoid being emotionally triggered when someone criticizes your pride and joy, and when you sense they didn’t like it very much.
Get to calm. Try to see the feedback as clearly as possible. Then you’ll be better-equipped to know what to do.
Do you have any tips for processing feedback and avoiding overcorrections? Take to the comments!
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Art: La diligence, route d’Ennery à l’Hermitage, Pontoise by Camille Pissarro
Ken Hughes says
“If you’re scared something is a problem, it probably isn’t.”
Excellent point. Generally, feedback is best at pointing out something we missed: an error, maybe an impression readers might get. We take that and apply our own instincts to how to fix it.
Or like Neil Gaiman said “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
This post is gold and it came exactly when I needed it. (I just got a firm critique from someone whose talent I respect.) Thank you. I’d buy you a coffee if I could.
Neil Larkins says
This spoke to me, Nathan. For about 9 months I’ve belonged to a face book group for writers seeking beta readers and critiques and am not yet convinced that I want it. I’ve read many interviews wherein the author, usually first- time, had put their piece through several rounds of reading and felt the experience helpful. And I’m still not ready. It’s not that I think I won’t get anything of value; it’s that I won’t know what to do with it. This will help me get over the hump. Thanks.
Jackie Morris says
I’ve just finished an MA in Creative Writing, involving a lot of online critiquing, and definitely found the most useful feedback from people I didn’t know well involved the responses that told me how they felt as a reader, not a writer. Tell me you skimmed over that bit, tell me that bit thrilled you. Let me work out what to do about it.
Having said that, I do have a few people I trust who offer technical advice, and that is invaluable. This is where the real, fast learning comes. It’s often quite painful for a moment or three as well, but invariably useful. I trust these people because I’ve read their work and admired it, and I know I am a great reader, even if my writing is still work in progress.
HC COOMBES says
Thank you so much for this article. It has been so helpful … oh to possess your wisdom! HC
Ceridwen Hall says
This is solid gold! It’s so important to take a step back from your own fears about the manuscript and look for the root cause of the issue (not just the quick fix). I also think it’s helpful to be aware of your relationship with the feedback provider–you want to be serving the story, not pleasing or appeasing the person who gave you the feedback. And feedback should always be approached from a state of physiological calm (after a full night’s sleep, a good breakfast, and some deep breaths).
Chris Bailey says
I see myself in this mirror! As a long-time writer for hire, I’m accustomed to satisfying the client. I need to remember that beta readers are not clients—and usually have no skin in the game.
Laurel Mae Hislop says
Great article, Nathan. I’ve also found that it helps to keep in mind that a person’s critique may be affected by the mood they’re in that day. Whether I love a book when I begin to read it, often depends on my general mood. I belong to a writing group, and try to keep that in mind when offering comments for the other writers. I try to start with positive comments first. If you say something to offend in the first few lines, chances are they’ll be upset and they won’t see past that to any constructive comments you’ve made.