How to Ask For and Receive Feedback

Okay, bear with me here, because before I get into the whole feedback discussion, I want to tell you a story. 

Before coming to work with me, one of my clients had another editor tell her, "I'm sorry, honey. You're just not a writer." 

When I heard that, it really pissed me off. 

Of course my client is a writer! She writes almost every day. Before I met her, she had already self-published two books, and had spent months diligently creating sample chapters and proposal content for her third. Is she the contemporary incarnation of Dickens or Shakespeare? Maybe not—but that's not her calling. She's an entrepreneur, she's great at her job, and she has a lot to say. What's more, what she's saying is valuable.  

In my mind, that makes her a writer.

Dictionary.com agrees with me, and defines "writer" as "a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession ... a person who commits his or her thoughts or ideas to writing."  

That's it. No qualifications or rankings, no tests to pass.

If you write, you are a writer. Period. 

If you write, you are a writer!

If you write, you are a writer!

I believe that the most important part of my job as an editor is to offer constructive, digestible, and most of all, actionable, feedback to my clients. I always try to do so in a loving way which gives authors the tools they need to bring their work to the next level.

This wasn't a skill I was born with. I've always been one to "tell it like it is"—which in my younger years often translated to being blunt, bold, or (to quote some high school friends) "bitchy." 

What I've learned, though, is that "like it is" is a heck of a lot more subjective than anyone wants to admit. 

It's taken years of practice, and many rounds of loving feedback from people in my inner circle, for me to learn to consistently communicate in a way that lifts others up instead of pushing them downa way that invites them to embrace change and release the attachments that are holding them back, instead of giving up in shame or frustration. In my world, "telling it like it is" now feels less like pronouncing judgment and more like "offering information and ways to use it." 

What does this have to do with you? 

If you're an author, blogger, or businessperson, there will inevitably come a time when you need to receive feedback on your writing. Maybe you're part of a collaborative book (like the best-selling anthologies I've edited for Inspired Living Publishing), and you're working with an editor as part of the process. Maybe you've hired someone to polish your self-published book. Or maybe you're simply trying to improve your writing practice, and have asked your friends and colleagues for ideas. 

However it happens, when the time comes to ask for and receive feedback, you'll want to be sure you're getting the most you can out of it, and not merely positioning yourself as the recipient of someone else's "telling it like it is." 

Here are my tips for asking for, receiving, and processing feedback. 
 

Tip #1: Ask the right questions

How you ask for feedback directly determines the quality of the answers you'll receive.

When you ask for feedback on your writing, you'll want to be as specific as possible, so that the responses can actually help you grow, rather than spinning you in circles. 

Also, try to avoid asking yes-or-no questions, because they effectively close down the discussion. If you do feel called to ask a question like this, invite your reader to explain her conclusions (as in examples 4 and 5 below). 

Helpful questions: 

  1. What did you think about the way I developed the storyline in Chapter 3?
  2. Did you notice any loose ends in the stories, or were there any unanswered questions? 
  3. In your opinion, how can I express concepts X and Y more clearly to someone who's new to my subject?
  4. Do you think that my piece followed through on the promise I made in the title/introduction? Where did you feel you wanted/needed more information? 
  5. Did the conclusions I reached at the end of the book make sense to you? Why or why not? 

Unhelpful questions: 

  1. Did you like the book/article? (Only invites a yes or no answer.)
  2. Do you think many people will buy this book? (Subjective.)
  3. What's wrong with my book? (Invites only negative comments.
  4. Do you think I'm a good writer? (Again, subjective.)

 

Tip #2: Be willing to listen ...

I know that "feedback," no matter how lovingly offered, can sometimes feel like criticism, and that our writing is a sensitive spot for most of us. However, if you're bristling with defensive energy or cringing in fear before your reviewer even says a word, it's going to be an awkward conversation. More, you're going to deflect information that may actually help you grow as a writer. 

Imagine that you are learning to play the violin. You've been practicing one piece for a while, and you're pretty proud of yourself. But when you play it for your teacher, he gently points out that you keep shifting your left hand to an awkward position, and it's making you play certain notes flat. Also, that note you've been reading as a high D is actually a D#. Now, you could argue with your teacher and tell him he's wrong, but how would that help you stop playing flat notes? Also, a D# is a D#, and arguing about it isn't going to change the note on the page to the one you like better!

Similarly, if a reviewer shares that you're using a word incorrectly, arguing with her won't change the word's definition. If she shares that your sentence construction makes it hard to understand your point, arguing won't make it easier for her (or future readers) to follow your narrative. However, if you receive what your reviewer is offering with an open mind, you might actually be able to use her feedback to make your piece more powerful, accessible—and, of course, grammatically correct. (And then, just for kicks, go and look up that contentious word!) 

Before you enter a feedback session, take a few moments to mentally prepare yourself to receive the actionable suggestions that come up. Tell your inner critic to go lie on a beach somewhere for an hour, and open your heart to the possibility that the information you receive could be valuable—even life-changing. Get excited about learning something new! 

At the start of the conversation, ask your reviewer to be honest but loving. (Don't ask them to "take it easy" on you, because their reticence might cause them to hold back some real gems.) Also, invite them to offer solutions along with their opinions, so that you can actually take action on what they're saying. 

Finally, if you feel yourself getting defensive during the conversation, ask to take a break until you can process what's being said. After the initial rush of emotion, you may discover that your reviewer is, in fact, being helpful. 

 

Tip #3:  ... But don't let anyone tear you down. 

Who you ask for feedback is nearly as important as how you ask for it. Stunning credentials don't necessarily make someone a great reviewer. 

Before you invite someone to critique your work, ask yourself: "Can I trust this person to have my best interests at heart? Can I be vulnerable with this person? Does this person understand my goals?" If the answer is no, find someone else to work with. 

No matter how discerning you are, though, there will be times when negative feedback comes your way. When that happens, you'll need to tap into your inner strength, sort the gold from the dross, and move forward. 

It took my client several weeks to recover from that other editor's thoughtless comment. Thankfully, she was able to move through the shame and doubt it brought up, and emerge a little bit stronger on the other side. But what if she'd let those words shut her down?

I know so many writers who have given up the craft because of a bad review, a rejection letter, or someone's unthinking criticism. Please, don't be one of them. Regardless of anyone's opinion, you have something to say. Maybe your message needs work, or maybe you need some help in the grammar department, but that doesn't mean you're not a writer. It just means you're on a learning curve like all the rest of us. 

So if someone gives you negative feedback or gets personal with their criticism, simply say something like, "That feels really unhelpful to me. Can you give me concrete action steps that might help me improve my craft?" If your reviewer can't do that for you, take a break, or simply stop the conversation. You're asking for feedback, not going ten rounds in a boxing ring. 

 

In conclusion, I'd like to remind you that, although there is always room to improve (see Tip #2 above), you are not required to believe anyone's opinion of your work. If you believe in what you're creating, that is enough. 

Some of today's most successful writers were rejected dozens, even hundreds of times. For example, Agatha Christie's books were rejected for five straight years before a publisher finally picked them up; to date, she's outsold every author in history aside from William Shakespeare. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, was told to "get a day job" since she'd never make any money as a children's author. And Jack Canfield, creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul, was informed a reported 140 times by major publishers that "anthologies don't sell." These authors eventually topped the best-seller charts, but it wasn't just because of the quality of their work—it was because they learned from their detractors, took steps to improve where they could, and flat-out refused to give up. 

Feedback is vital to growth because we can't always identify our own trouble spots. In other words, we don't know what we don't know. 

If approached correctly, the feedback process can catapult you to a whole new level of creativity and understanding. If you view it this way—as a springboard, rather than an attack on you and your creation—you will be able to harness its benefits while keeping your confidence and motivation intact.

Today, I'm thrilled to say that my client's book proposal is in the capable hands of a top agent in her genre. She pushed through the fear, willingly accepted actionable feedback, and created something beyond what she could have imagined when she started. Hooray! 

Keep writing, my friends. I can't wait to see what you can create! 



Bryna Rene Haynes is the founder and President of The Heart of Writing. In over a decade as a writer, editor, ghostwriter, designer, and publishing consultant, she has helped hundreds of authors find their authentic voices and create memorable, successful works. She lives outside of Providence, RI, with her husband and their little Moonbeam, Áine.