Monday, March 12, 2012

Entry # 45 - "Processing Feedback"

-->As I have observed the responses online here to a writer's work from a workshop, I have wondered what I could say that might help both writer and teacher come to terms with the emotional power of feedback.  So here are some thoughts that I do hope will help.  I believe that we are all trying to help one another say the truths in our hearts and write with clarity.
Photo by Jan Bowman - October 2011 

Recently I read a delightful book by Joni B. Cole, Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive.  I wish I’d discovered this essential book when it was first published (2006).  It’s a gold mine of useful insights.  One of the topics she addresses is what to do with the feedback you get from others. 

Often after I get home from a workshop or I’m looking through peer review comments on a draft, I feel overwhelmed.  How shall I begin my revision process?  Sometimes I spin around for weeks or even months trying to decide where to begin and what to do.
Cole’s section on “Tips for Processing Feedback” offers these useful ideas:

1. Be Open.  In a workshop setting – listen – don’t talk – listen thoughtfully and curb your desire to defend your work.  You may - in your heart disagree and that’s okay, because ultimately decisions about your work rest with you. 

2. Resist the Urge to Explain.  Remember that readers can only work with what’s on a page – so you really do need to know where it’s not working.

3. Little by Little.  “It is easy to get overwhelmed when processing feedback, especially if you try to take it all in at once.”  Cole suggests that writers sift through all the comments once then put them away and select one of those things to focus on for the next revision.  “For example: it your plot is slow and main character shallow – on your next draft move your plot forward and tackle the character issue on a next draft.”

4. Ignore Feedback -- until you’re ready for it. “The value of feedback, and then putting it in your mental lockbox as you push forward, is that this allows your unconscious to quietly process the outside information in a way that informs your writing in sync with your instincts –without slowing you down.”

5. Try Out the Feedback.  For example:  “If your main character isn’t likable, write a scene inside or outside the story that shows him doing something endearing.  Whether you use the scene or not, this is a great exercise in character development.  No writing is a waste of effort.

6. Give Yourself Time.  “If you can’t tell if you’re making things better or worse,” Cole says, ---”STOP!”  Take a break.  Take a walk.  Start something new.  Let your subconscious work on it again.  You should be able to see when feedback is useful to improve your vision for the work.  If it’s not helping, wait a while and come back to it.

Cole makes a strong case that after finishing a draft and subsequent revisions writers need to find a suitable reader for the work. And a suitable reader is rarely someone who loves you unconditionally.  Rather, the suitable reader is someone who “gets” what you’re doing, and who is willing to give thoughtful, insightful impressions; someone who reads carefully and who understands the struggles writers face, but who has sufficient tact to be honest and perceptive; someone who is not inclined to be unkind.

In short – Processing feedback effectively means being receptive to hearing a variety of opinions, but filtering it all through your own writer’s lens.

And it helps me to remember that Thomas Merton said, "The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth." 

So what advice helps you improve your work?  How have others helped?

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


  1. Jan~ This is very insightful. I especially appreciate #6. Yes, time is a key factor. An hour, a day or several days can certainly make a difference! Thanks for your beautiful and useful information.

  2. Yes. I really appreciate your response. It is hard when people say things about your work that suggests that they have no idea what you are doing. But if the writer waits for a little while, he or she will notice what is important to repair. I truly appreciate your involvement in helping all of us connect. Thank you, jan

  3. Nice Work here. Really love the wonderful photos and
    the way art connects to what people see and like. Thanks.

  4. Thank you. Feel free to comment on specifics that you wish to share with other writers. What would you like to say to people who read articles on your website?