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Don't Sleep with Your Critic (And 4 More Feedback Tips)

Choose carefully who to get your feedback from.

Feedback (masks)

You've written the first two pages of your first short story, or completed your first graphic collage using Photoshop. It's time to get some feedback!

Or maybe not.

First, be clear about what you want when you ask someone to look at your work. You may not know yourself what kind of feedback you want until you've gotten the wrong kind. (Is there anyone reading this who hasn't had that experience?)

According to Joni B. Cole, writer, editor, workshop leader, and author of Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive, you need to access your emotional intelligence to determine what motivates you. Also, what causes you to melt down and hide from your own work? Feelings matter in the feedback process.

If all you want is effusive praise, say so clearly. Do you want it specific, i.e., enthusiasm about what the feedback-giver likes best or thinks works best? Suggestions for improvement, line by line? Or is what you're seeking general encouragement along the lines of "Way to go, I knew you had it in you, that's coming along great!"


If you're not clear about what you want or need or are able to hear, you're at the mercy of whatever style of feedback is most natural to the person you've asked. It took me years to learn not to nitpick my husband's poems. He usually prefers to hear what's good, especially when a piece of work is fresh out of the printer, when he's still very sensitive. My mention of a confusing word, or a comma that might be moved, can ruin his day (and mine).

A good friend once said, "Never share your work with someone you sleep with." Of course, many writers find their own mates to be their best readers. In a recent interview, John Grisham is quoted as saying that he asks his wife of 30 years to comment on his manuscripts. "She tossed a 500-page manuscript at my feet one time.There was an opening scene she wasn't very happy with. We had some strong words." He added that he rewrote the scene, and that book turned out to be The Rainmaker, a big bestseller.

But never assume anything. For example, a former writing consultee of mine wrote me a note headed "You told me so":

The other day my husband said for the tenth time how he wished he could read what I had written. So I gave it to him. And what do I get back? Some faint praise along with numerous "helpful" suggestions. People have no freaking idea how personal your work is to you.

"Most writers are chasms of sensitivity," writes Cole. "We are predisposed to overreacting to feedback." She goes on to point out that when you're the feedback-giver and you hear, "Be brutally honest," red warning lights should go off. Most creative people love (and need) to get something positive to balance and make use of that honesty.


Cole offers some very helpful strategies for processing feedback in her excellent Toxic Feedback. Examples:

  • Be open: try your hardest to let the criticism in and not to be defensive.
  • Resist the urge to explain: just fix the line (or the problem) or drop it, don't verbally offer additional information that only confuses the feedback-giver.
  • Take what you're given a little at a time. It can be overwhelming to apply all the good suggestions at once, so deal with each issue in a separate draft (plot now, character in another revision). (For one blogger's take on what to do if you get group critique that offers too many different viewpoints, read this.)
  • Don't ask for feedback until you're ready for it. It might bring your creation to a dead stop.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

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