On Receiving Feedback

“On Receiving Feedback” is the second part of a lecture delivered by BWW Organizer Peter Biello at the League of Vermont Writers “Writers Meet Agents” conference on July 19, 2014. The first part, “On Giving Feedback,” ran long, so this part was never delivered in full.

If you have never received feedback on your work, you’re missing out on an enlightening experience. To discover what your work looks like through the eyes of someone else is exhilarating. And scary. You put your heart and soul into a piece of writing, and your readers could pan it. Or they could praise it and, in doing so, prove to you what you’ve always known: that you are a genius.

We’re human beings, though. We get angry when someone’s feedback is careless or dismissive. We feel frustrated when readers don’t understand what we’re trying to do. We may want to defend or explain the work. All totally normal.

But these natural impulses aren’t the best ways to receive feedback. In an effort to be more mindful of our response to receiving feedback, I offer you these strategies.

A Burlington Writers Workshop meeting at our workshop space in Burlington’s south end.

Strategy #1: Ask Specific Questions

A great way to understand what someone thinks about your writing is to ask a specific question about some kind of element of form. How did you find such-and-such a character? What did you make of the fourth stanza? Focusing on elements of the craft will give you a sense of how the fundamentals of writing are working (or not) in your piece, but it’ll also prevent your readers from giving responses that don’t address the text.

Strategy #2: Bring Your Best Draft

Do not hand someone a draft with typos. Create each draft as if there’s no chance you’ll get a test reader before you submit to publishers. Give it your best shot, because if you have grammatical errors, punctuation problems, and spelling issues, your test reader will focus on those issues. That, in my opinion, is a terrible waste, since the value of a test reader rests in his ability to respond to bigger issues.

Strategy #3: Manage Your Expectations

Expecting praise in any writing workshop is a fool’s errand. Remember: most readers, even if they shouldn’t, hunt for flaws. And they always find them. Always. A good reader will offer a response, but that response may not line up with what you were expecting. In short, if you want praise, call your mother.

Before I submit work for review at a workshop, I am usually conscious of a few problem spots, and I’m happy to ask specific questions about these issues before or after the discussion. But I’m also mindful that there are problems in the text that I have not yet considered. Knowing this, I won’t be surprised when sharp readers point things out.

Overall, though, it’s not good for your mental health to enter a workshop thinking that you’re 100% terrible or 100% awesome . Your fellow readers are just that—readers—not experts ready to make the final judgment on your work. They have responses, but your artistic sensibilities are good enough to help you process them and take the piece in the right direction (and the word “right” here means “right for you”).

Strategy #4: All Reader Responses Are Valid—Yes, All Of Them.

If you’re in a workshop setting, your readers will be a diverse group. At least, I hope they will be. Some will have MFAs; some will despise the MFA system and the elite literary hierarchy. Some read mystery novels, others sci-fi. Some don’t read much at all outside the workshop. So. Who to trust?

All of them. It’s easy to dismiss those who didn’t quite get what you meant as less intelligent, but in fact, there may be cultural, social, or other demographic reasons for the misunderstanding. You will deny yourself a learning experience if you don’t investigate where your readers are coming from. Remember—if a reader is responding appropriately, he’s revealing as much about himself as he is about your piece.

Strategy #5: Be Gracious

Graciousness is what’s left when you trim away all the natural human emotions that occur when someone else responds to your work. Don’t defend or explain your work. Sometimes a workshop will want to know what you attempted to do. Explaining this when invited to do so can be extremely helpful to you, because workshop members can offer suggestions to help you get where you want to go.

Otherwise, though, defending or explaining a piece is simply bad form. When the discussion ends, thank your readers, and get cracking on the revisions.

Another emotion to expunge: anger. You may find yourself angry at one or several members of the workshop. In fact, every person in the room may have pissed you off. While that’s unfortunate, it’s helpful to remember that you can’t control how other people behave, but you can be the better person and remain grateful for the opportunity. Also, while you’re busy being angry, you’re missing out on the lesson these people are teaching you. You may not think there’s anything to learn about the writing process, but you may be learning something about the way humans behave, and that’s very important, since humans will be reading your book when it hits the shelves.

Closing Remarks

We’ve gone through some strategies for giving and receiving feedback. I want to stress that, in general, I don’t like telling people what to do. When it comes to art, going your own way is the only way to create something new and exciting. Following orders breeds imitation, and pieces of work that imitate, even if they’re published and reviewed well, will eventually fade into obscurity. So naturally I’m inclined to ask you to avoid bossing people around in the subtle and obvious ways that “established” writers sometimes do.

This is just one person’s way. You may have your own, and it may work just fine. But the fact that the BWW, while following these strategies, maintains a congenial, respectful, helpful atmosphere is proof that this system works.

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