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taking feedback

Four Steps for Taking Feedback Like a Pro

Recently I was chatting with a friend who’s a published writer with several books under his belt. We were having one of those conversations where we were teasing each other about our respective roles of “writer” and “editor.” A.k.a., the Hatfields and McCoys of the publishing world. Totally dependent on one another, yet often at one another’s throats.

There are well-worn arguments on both sides of this fence. (“My writer always misses deadlines!” “My editor is always trying to put my work in a box!”) But often the weak point in this alliance has to do with giving — and receiving — feedback.

Of course, right? The writer-editor relationship is just that: a relationship.

Over the course of my career I’ve had to learn how to navigate this tricky territory. Giving feedback to a writer — even a writer who really, really wants it — requires a steady hand. We’re not just talking about someone’s “work,” we’re talking about their heart, poured out on the page. And I’m often the first one who’s set eyes on it.

When I’m training editors, I talk a lot about how to give feedback. For example, I teach about “the compliment sandwich”: first, talk about what’s working — what you love about the book. Next, offer suggestions for fixing what’s not working. Finally, talk more about what you really, really like.

I use this technique not because writers are, ahem, overly sensitive (though I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first editor to suggest such a thing) but because as a culture we’re not taught the critical skill of receiving feedback gracefully.

In our competitive, must-be-the-best world, feedback often lands as criticism.

But if there’s one thing to know about the life of a writer, it’s that you can expect to get feedback. A lot of it.

If you’re going the route of traditional publishing, you will first get feedback from agents. Then, from your publisher. Then, from book reviewers.

But it’s the digital age, so even if you self-publish, get ready to accept a bunch of feedback from your readers. For better or worse, there’s nearly unlimited opportunity for your readers to let you know what they think via Amazon reviews, and a thousand other online venues. Not to mention emailing you directly!

Without further ado, here is my four-step process for receiving feedback. This process is informed not only by my career as a book editor, but also my other career: as a relationship coach. (Yep, I’m a double-agent.)

So while this process is great at helping you sail the editorial waters with ease, it’s applicable to every relationship in your life. Bon voyage!

Kelly’s Four Steps for Taking Feedback Like a Pro

Step One: Take the feedback in.

One of the main problems I see with writers and feedback is the unwillingness to actually take in, digest, and really understand their editor’s thoughts — before making any decisions about whether to apply the suggestions or not.

It’s easy to skip over this phase, because reading through a marked-up manuscript or an editorial letter can be a nerve-wracking experience. You never know what feedback you’ll find around the next bend, so it can be tempting to skim rather than really dropping in.

My suggestion is to go slowly. Really try to understand what your editor is pointing toward — before deciding whether you agree with them or disagree. 

Step Two: Feel any emotions that come up.

Who likes to feel the disappointment, frustration and hurt feelings that sometimes accompany receiving feedback on our work? Nobody.

But skipping over them isn’t really an option. Just like any relationship, there will be emotions that need to be processed. But acting quickly — without really processing your emotional response — can have some negative consequences.

Twice in my career I’ve gotten angry voicemails from authors (well-known authors, in both cases) the minute they saw my edits. Each said something along the lines of, “How dare you give me so many edits? Don’t you know who I am?!

In both cases, the same authors called back a few hours later — after having felt their feelings and gone back to digest my editorial suggestions — and apologized.

“You were right,” one of them said humbly. “Your edits are making my book much better.”

But by that time both authors had lost some of their editor’s, ahem, goodwill. Which is not a smart move, especially if you hope to keep working with her!

So take some time to feel your feelings. Have a little cry if you need to. Call a friend. Do what it takes to clear your mind before you decide whether to apply the edits or not. I promise you’ll be happy you did.

Step Three: Humor your editor—just start to apply her suggestions.

Assuming your editor has come referred by a trusted source, and is a working, professional book editor, she probably knows what she’s talking about. So I always ask my authors to at least try out my suggestions. If they don’t fit, fine. But humor me at first.

If after a little due diligence you still don’t like your editor’s suggestion, that’s ok. But at least attempt to address the problem her feedback is pointing toward. While you may not like the specific solution she’s offered, take the edit as a red flag that there’s something that needs attention.

Once you’ve understood the problem, you may want to solve it a different way. To which I say, great! I love it when my authors one-up me. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater — don’t ignore the problem simply because you don’t like the proposed solution.

In the case of one prominent author I worked with early in my career, this refusal to address editorial issues resulted in many Amazon reviews that said, “This book really needed an editor.” Well, it had one — the author just didn’t listen to her.

Step Four: Make the final decision—and then let go.

Contrary to the expectations we hold for ourselves, no book is ever going to be perfect. Once you’ve digested your editor’s feedback, felt the feelings and done your best to address the issues she’s brought up — trust your judgment and consider yourself done.

Editing should not be an endless process. Some reader somewhere will always have a bright idea you hadn’t thought of, or a criticism that will make you cringe. It’s okay. You did your best. We all have to send our baby off to college at some point.

Plus, now you know how to take the feedback! Let it in, feel any feelings it brings up, and then decide whether to make the change in the next edition of the book.

So — how are you at taking feedback, in writing and in life? Are you excited to work with an editor? Does the thought of getting an editorial letter make the hair on your neck stand up? Let us know what you think over on the Facebook page. I’d love to hear from you!