Like the White Stag in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, good writing feedback is difficult to spot, harder to catch and once you have it, it’s almost impossible to know what to do with it.
Fortunately, receiving writing feedback doesn’t need to be a beast of a quest. With some tips from the world of rapid learning, we can refine our feedback processes to take our writing to the next level without all the stress and frustration.
We’ll cover the feedback process from start to finish: from finding sources and understanding the purpose of each type to knowing what commentary to incorporate into our work once we have it. Interested? Read on.
The 3 Types of Learning Feedback
Before we jump into the specifics of writing feedback, we need to understand the general types of feedback seen in any learning endeavor. In Ultralearning, Scott H. Young discusses the components of deep and rapid learning. One of these components is—you guessed it—feedback.
Young outlines three types of feedback:
Outcome feedback is the simplest form of feedback. It runs along the lines of a grade, pass/fail or a positive or negative audience response. Think of it as overarching feedback on a performance or an entire work. It doesn’t dig into details. It merely says: “Hey, this went well” or “This didn’t go great.”
Informational feedback gives a bit more detail on our practice. It points out if we’re doing something wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily provide direction to fix the issue. It’s the “I know something’s not quite right here, but I can’t tell you what.”
Correctional feedback is the most detailed of the three. It not only digs into if we’re doing something wrong, it also details how to fix the problem. Because it is so comprehensive and requires a certain amount of expertise on the part of the feedback-giver to explain corrections, it’s usually more difficult to find than the first two.
The Struggle for Writers
With most types of learning and performance, receiving feedback is fairly straightforward. The tennis ball goes over the net or it doesn’t. The audience goes wild for a song or they don’t. We’re able to carry on a conversation in a foreign language or we’re not.
In all of these cases, we know exactly when and where we’re struggling. We might not know how to correct the issue, but we can recognize the need for a teacher or instructor. That’s because these activities can take advantage of a very important factor: real-time feedback.
Real-time feedback provides an instant opportunity for self-directed correction. Though research cited in Ultralearning states that a delay in feedback may be more beneficial, Scott Young argues in favor of fast feedback. The sooner you know you have an issue, the sooner you can work on correcting it.
But writers generally don’t have the luxury of instant feedback. We can’t finish a piece and immediately know whether or not it’s a hit. Sometimes, we might not even recognize that we’ve hit a snag in our writing. So, where does that leave us?
Of course, we can use programs like ProWritingAid for real-time correctional feedback on grammar, spelling and style. But for the rest, there’s only one answer:
We need to get used to putting our writing in front of others.
Where to Find Fantastic Feedback
If you’ve never sought out feedback on your work before, you might be wondering: who am I supposed to get feedback from?
Your potential feedback audience can be divided into two groups: the general public (reached through posting on sites like Medium or Wattpad) and one-on-one relationships (such as your mentors, teachers, critique partners and beta readers).
The general public should be your last source of feedback on a piece. Why?
First, you may not receive much feedback until you build an audience. This can take months or even years to build. Which means it’s not exactly a source of rapid feedback. Though it’s always great to begin building your following as soon as possible, it likely won’t be your go-to feedback mechanism.
Second, it’s difficult to separate true feedback from vanity metrics. A variety of variables, including your audience size, exposure rates, and sometimes even sheer dumb luck can factor into the number of reads and comments you receive.
And finally, while public practice is wonderful, it can backfire. Fully polished pieces may be suitable for general consumption, but posting earlier drafts may draw harsh criticism rather than constructive critique. This can have a negative impact on your work and your attitude towards writing, especially if you’re not used to receiving any other feedback.
So save the public practice for the last steps of your feedback process. It’s better to get accustomed to receiving critiques from others in a one-on-one or small group setting before subjecting your work to public scrutiny.
Since we’re looking at one-on-one feedback, let’s tackle an important point: this kind of feedback does not appear out of thin air. Because you are putting your work in someone else’s hands, it’s almost exclusively about relationship building. Like any other relationship, it will take time to build. Give your feedback process time to work before making judgement calls on whether or not it’s helpful.
To get started, you’ll need to do some one-on-one feedback networking, either online or off.
On a local scale, don’t discount your existing network of family and friends. They can certainly have a place in your feedback process—as we’ll discuss shortly!
But if you’d rather go beyond your existing network, explore writers’ groups. By seeking out other writers, you’ll find a built-in network of mentors, peers and even non-writer readers. Local groups can range from writing guilds and conferences to open critique groups to your regional NaNoWriMo chapter.
While running some Google searches or checking sites like Meetup can help, don’t forget about independent bookstores. They can be a wealth of information on where local writers and authors meet. Depending on your budget, you might also consider taking day classes or longer courses offered at a local university. Frequenting anywhere writers and authors spend time can open up a wealth of potential feedback sources.
Online, the opportunities are almost overwhelming. Facebook groups, Mighty Networks, Slack communities, free critique group networks, paid critique group networks—the list goes on and on. To narrow down your starting points considerably, check the resources list at the end of this article.
Now, let’s dive into what to expect when you start receiving feedback.
What to Expect from the Fantastic Feedback Types
In your feedback journey, you’ll receive a mixture of the three types of feedback:
Where to Find It: Outcome feedback will typically come from your non-writing beta readers
What to Expect: Think of the typical reactions you receive from sharing your work with family or friends who don’t write. They can give you a basic overview of their opinion of your work, but likely won’t pinpoint weaker areas. That’s a job reserved for your informational feedback-givers.
Why It’s Useful: Yes, this can sometimes seem like feedback fluff because of the generality. But it can be an opportunity to receive a bird’s-eye view of your work and keep you from getting bogged down in too much detail while editing. It also most closely simulates post-publication feedback, so it’s always a good checkpoint before sending work off for final publication.
Where to Find It: Informational feedback will appear naturally in critique groups and partnerships. You may also find it from experienced beta readers, regardless of their writer status.
What to Expect: This feedback will impact developmental decisions about your work. It’s about structure, plot choices, characterization—not technical line edits or craft. Strength of opinions may vary, but they’ll typically pertain to an individual piece of work rather than your writing in general.
Why It’s Useful Informational feedback will improve your drafting by leaps and bounds. It’s the creative and “fun” form of feedback. Use your informational feedback sources to brainstorm and bat around ideas about how to fix weaker points. After all, this feedback is about exploration, not finding the “right” answers.
Where to Find It: This is likely to come in the form of a class or from a teacher or mentor. For a late-stage piece of work, it might also come from an editor. These professionals can dictate where your weak points are and potential ways to fix them. Don’t discount your peers, however—if you have a friend who excels at in a certain area of writing craft, their advice might be of a correctional nature.
What to Expect: Correctional feedback may be technical (such as line edits) or it may be more general. You’ll likely run into fairly firm opinions and probing questions.
Why It’s Useful: The “right vs wrong” nature of this feedback means it’s all about craft improvement and editing: ways to fix stilted dialogue, bring description to life, or craft realistic characters. Non-technical correctional feedback should focus on improving your writing skills as a whole, not necessarily a single piece of work.
Incorporating Feedback: Respect, Trust, and Gut Instinct
Once you begin receiving feedback, you may feel a bit overloaded. Should you change this section or leave it? Your readers are split 50/50 on this sentence—do you keep it or delete it? Everyone loved one character, yet you have this feeling they could be cut or condensed with another…
With any type of feedback, we walk a fine line. Writing is, after all, subjective. So the goal is to analyze your feedback and incorporate it in a way that doesn’t derail your specific voice or your confidence.
When deciding how to incorporate feedback, you’ll want to look for patterns. Usually, if multiple readers make the same point it’s worth giving that critique more weight.
For the less obvious fixes, however, you’ll want to look at the source. Consider:
How much do you respect this person’s reputation and body of work? This comes down to several factors including how well they’re respected in their field (i.e. a multi-New York Times bestselling author vs. a newly-published novelist) and how much you personally respect them. It’s up to you as to which you give more weight.
Consider the extreme version of this case: if you’re a rabid Sandman fan and Neil Gaiman comments on your work, that should be given more weight than the commentary of a bestselling talent whose books you can’t stand. Look at the feedback given by your peers, mentors, teachers, and beta readers through the same lens.
How much do you trust the source? Are they a critique partner or part of a critique group you’ve been with for years? Or is the source a random new reader who volunteered for a beta-reading round? How much writing experience do they have? And do you feel this person has your best creative interests at heart?
Creative jealousy is, unfortunately, an ever-present potential problem. If it feels like someone is trying to tear you down or knock you down a peg, jealousy might be to blame more than actual issues with your story.
What was your instant reaction to your source’s feedback? Did you immediately have a sense of: “Ugh, they’re right—I need to rework this.” Or did some small voice say: “Um, actually, I don’t know about this.” Occasionally, you may have to dig deep to get to your root reaction. But more often than not, your instinct will lead you in the right direction.
Ultimately, remember: this is your work. You don’t want to be so closed-minded in accepting feedback that you’re unable to improve, but you also shouldn’t accommodate every single piece of commentary that comes your way. Given time and strong relationships with your first-line feedback sources like your critique partners, you’ll develop your own sense of how to strike this balance.
Resources for Feedback
If you’re looking to build or expand your circle of feedback-givers, the following resources are excellent initial jumping-off points:
Offline Networking Resources
"Writers Write" Writers’ Organizations List (includes genre associations)
Online Critique Groups/Partners or Beta Reader Resources
Critique Circle (Free)
Scribophile (Free with paid membership options)
Inked Voices (14-day free trial; paid membership also allows access to monthly webinars)