THE TOP TEN TRUTHS FOR WRITERS ABOUT FEEDBACKDec 29, 2022
One of the hardest things to learn as a human being is how to take constructive criticism with grace. It's difficult to hear negative feedback about things we've said or done or written without being defensive in some way. Years ago, I read a description about a character that struck me to the core. I can't remember the book or character but I remember the words. They read simply: "There was no knee-jerk defensiveness in him." I so badly wanted that to be true about myself.
While I can't pretend to have mastered this in my personal life, I have made great strides in my writing life, mostly because I've come to see feedback in this realm differently. Nevertheless, the old temptation to defend or debate is always just below the surface, and I see many writers giving into this temptation on a regular basis. To that end, I've written a little something to help writers rethink the process of hearing and receiving feedback, so that they can utilize that feedback for success rather than defeat.
THE TOP TEN TRUTHS FOR WRITERS ABOUT FEEDBACK
- Know that all comments and feedback are just suggestions or ideas that usually point to a bigger issue in the story. Your job as a writer is to look beyond the specific notes for the root cause.
- You don't need to, nor should you, defend or justify your choices. That will not serve you well. Studios don't like to work with people who can't take notes, and a defensive response where the writers attempt to demonstrate why a particular note is "wrong" will only communicate that the writer can't take notes and are too defensive to work with.
- This doesn't mean the writer must take EVERY note, nor does it mean the notes are good. Indeed, I've gotten some TERRIBLE notes from studios and producers and teachers and other writers. Nevertheless, my job is to NEVER try to show them how they're wrong about their notes. That is a major slap in their face. My job (and yours) is to sift through those notes and try to see what's behind them, because nine times out of ten, it means that something in the story isn't working.
- The worst thing writers can do is be "precious" with their work. It can't be sacred to you. You need to listen. You need to recognize that there is always room for improvement. Remember, nobody gives notes or feedback or comments or suggestions on a scene or story that works. And nobody gives notes or feedback for their own benefit, but for yours. So, don't debate. Look deeper. Again, what's the real note beneath the notes?
- You get to keep or discard any of the feedback you receive so long as you address the underlying issue. So, if someone suggests how to solve a problem and you know it doesn't work for the story, you are under no obligation to keep that suggested solution. You ARE, however, obligated to address the root cause that prompted the note. This means that if someone offers a solution that doesn't work, you must find a solution that does. It still behooves you to try to see what prompted the suggestion in the first place.
- Reframe the paradigm. Change your mind about what feedback means. If you start looking at notes and feedback from a "joint-effort" perspective, where the end goal is simply to make the work better, you'll never be defensive again. Rather, you'll be excited to get feedback. You'll be eager to hear when something isn't working, because it'll make you see areas that you currently cannot because you're too close to the forest to see the trees, and it'll help you discover new and exciting ways to fix it.
- Feedback is a gift. It's not something you're entitled to. It's not something you deserve. It's not something that everyone gets. It's a big deal for someone to take the time and effort to read your stuff and give feedback. Cherish this gift as you should. To debate their feedback is an insult to their efforts and they'll think twice before giving you their time again or putting their neck on the line for you. So, don't spit in their face by debating with them or telling them that their notes are wrong, or that they missed something or that YOU think the way you've written it works just fine. The feedback is just their instinctive reaction. They haven't spent nearly as much time with the story as you have, so of course they might have missed something -- but that's not the point. The point is that they're reacting because of something in the writing, and they took the time to give you their reactions for YOUR benefit, not for themselves. That's why it's a gift.
- It's not about you. It's about the story. Writers who get defensive are making it about themselves, as if any criticism of the story is a reflection on them personally. This is false. Just because you've been given a note doesn't mean you're a bad writer. All it means is that something isn't working in the story (which means the story can be better). That's all. Separate yourself from the story so you can receive feedback with grace. I promise you that if you're not open to feedback, others will stop giving it, and this is the kiss of death. Furthermore, the fact that they're giving you notes usually means they find the story worthwhile enough to even give notes. This is a collaborative business. We NEED the feedback of others because we simply can't see everything clearly without help. So, resist the temptation to argue. Feedback is just feedback. Don't make it any more than what it is.
- Writers who can't take feedback will not last long in this business. If you plan to be a professional writer, then you will be getting feedback and comments on everything you write for the rest of your life. If you can't learn a healthy way to navigate this, then find a different career. Again, you must reframe the paradigm. You must change your mind about what it means. You'll be so much happier and easier to work with if you can just see feedback as a way to make your story better. Period.
- Finally, as confident as you are, as smart as you think you are, as sure as you are that you're right, most people who give you notes will be in a higher position of power and will likely have more years and experience than you. This doesn't mean they'll be right, but it should give you pause. Don't rush to defend your work. Think about their feedback. Let it ruminate. Give them the respect they are due. Humble yourself and take a step back. You may discover that while their proposed solution doesn't work, there is indeed something that should be addressed.
The bottom line is that feedback does not need to throw you for a loop. Just because someone gives you their opinion doesn't mean you have to take their suggestions, or that their comments and insights are correct. It ONLY means that there is a reason behind why they made them -- something might not be working quite right. But never, ever turn around and tell them why they're wrong about this comment or that. Instead, simply try to understand what prompted them to make said comment and then try to find a way to address the underlying issue. THAT'S what notes and feedback help you identify.