Getting feedback on your writing: the joys and the sorrows

Hot on the heels of the previous post, I wanted to talk about something that gets too little attention: the emotional side of getting feedback on your writing.

To start with, an admission. When we run events like Saturday’s Getting Published day, my colleagues and I are absolutely knackered afterwards. I won’t name names, but at least two of the WW team got up well after 1.00 pm on the Sunday after the event. And one member of our team – no names – spent her day eating M&S ready meals and watching Mutant Ninja Turtles on the telly, because it seemed like too much work to flip the channel.

Why so much knackerage? The answer has to do with the incredibly emotional quality of these events. Writers are invariably quite wired before they see their book doctor: anxious, jittery, fretful. Afterwards, they’re mostly relieved. Relieved that things went OK. Relieved that their book doctor turned out to be human, not a dragon. Over the moon if the feedback was better than expected. And so on. The wonderful WW team is there as organisers, of course, but we also find ourself acting as something like counsellors. We absolutely love doing it – but a full day of it does require the application of some serious ready-meals on the day following.

There are definitely some themes here, however, and ones worth highlighting.

First off, good editorial feedback helps because it turns a vague, amorphous but threatening problem into one that becomes simply a matter of technique. Sure, there may be a fair bit of work to do, but it’s nice to know that the problem is familiar, the solution is familiar, that techniques exist to grapple with the issue, and so on. It’s like going to a medical doctor with a strange, floating pain and to have that mystery diagnosed. Given a name, prescribed a treatment, made ordinary. That’s a huge help.

Secondly, it turns out that writers – all writers, professional and amateur – are the same. Our book doctors are able to be calm and professional when they give feedback on someone’s writing, because they’ve all been through this too. My first draft manuscripts still have baggy plot, unfocused characters, patches of weak prose and so on. If I presented that first draft to a book doctor, I’d expect the same calm, unflurried analysis. Pro authors are good at delivering feedback not because they never make mistakes, but because they’re so used to making them. The real difference between the pro and the newbie isn’t the mistake-making, it’s the mistake-correcting.

Third, and this almost goes without saying, getting feedback on your writing can be tough. It will feel bruising. Again, that doesn’t change. I’ve written and sold a fair few books now, but I still get nervous when I present a new manuscript to my agent. What if he hates it? What if my publisher hates it? Mostly, I’m pleased to say, I get generally a positive reaction (and after all, this is my job), but inevitably when I get detailed notes from my editor some of those notes will be adverse. I wouldn’t want it any other way – because my book will only get better – but that doesn’t mean to say there isn’t a ripple of emotional hurt. There is, there is!

So fourth, take your time. Don’t react to your editorial feedback straight away. Take your time. Give yourself a few days to ponder it. Your perspective on day three or four will be deeper – and wiser – than it is in the first shock of receiving it.

And finally, and more broadly, give yourself time. Developing your writing skills won’t be a one-shot thing. It’s not like one blast of genius feedback is likely to turn you into Jane Austen overnight. Writing is simply more complicated than that. The skills and magic are almost always slower to emerge. And that’s OK. If you press yourself too hard for tangible progress, you’re likely to disappoint yourself. Give yourself time, on the other hand, and you never know what may one day blossom. With luck, it’ll be the most beautiful of all writerly flowers:  two-book deal, signed and sealed. And if you want to start the process by getting feedback on your work – then come on over and make our day.

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