Friday, January 27, 2012

Taking Sensible Advice

Ron’s post about the screenwriter is a great case study of someone who knows how to take feedback.

I got a lot of practice processing feedback when I worked in public relations and museums. I found plenty of press releases in my inbox that were covered in red marks. I presented text blurbs of 50 words or less at meetings where ten people would then edit-by-committee. I handled phone calls like the following:

Person who hasn’t read the text, but wants to give a contract to a friend: “Why don’t we hire a professional writer for this?

Me: “We did, and it’s me.”

After a while, a writer gets a sense for which edits you just do—and there are plenty of those. You might implement them because they clearly make a piece of writing better and you’re learning something for next time. Or you might do them because they are a bugaboo of whoever gave the edits. Really, who wants to waste time arguing about “however” vs. “nevertheless”?

Some edits you don’t implement exactly as is recommended, but you do something else instead. Whoever is reading the piece may notice that something isn’t working, and they may suggest a “fix.” Writers should accept this information for what it is—another person’s best thinking of the moment. It’s the writer’s job to get deep enough into the piece to know how to best solve the problem, but we can give credit where it’s due to the editor for flagging the issue.

There are times when another agenda at work, but that’s the rarest case, and it’s pretty easy to tell.

Learning how to take feedback is like anything else. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. If we really open ourselves up to feedback, then we’ll be able to recognize and appreciate sensible advice when it comes--and our writing will be better for it.


  1. Ahh, yes, letting go and trusting someone else's opinion, but also trusting our gut gauges--a difficult task, indeed. I agree; the more we open ourselves to another person's opinion, the "easier" it becomes, and I'll add, the stronger we are in certain convictions about a manuscript (those that feel best, those that we must trust without letting someone else "write" the story for us. But, letting go is necessary, so so so necessary and scary if we want folks to one day read our stories. Great post, Cheryl! I'll miss y'all this round! All the best to you! Cheers!

  2. Thanks for those wise words, Cheryl.
    This is also a follow to Ron’s entry on “Tough Love.” I used to respond to some editors’ inquiries about something that my character had said or done by writing back to the editors with my thoughts on whatever the editors had asked about, but not changing the manuscripts.
    Sometimes this has merit. In one of my historical fiction books (which, though published, shall remain unnamed here) the editor suggested that my reference to a character’s “gold tooth” be deleted because she believed that having a gold or silver tooth was a modern cosmetic . Hip-hoppers’ and rappers‘ gold or silver teeth came to her mind.
    I reminded her that gold and silver in and on teeth dated back to at least Greek and Roman times. I even sent her web sites that documented this bit of dentistry and beauty. Since my historical fiction book took place in 1904, the gold tooth in my character’s mouth stayed put.
    On the other hand, sometimes an editor questions a writer’s meaning in a scene or a character’s actions and assumes that the writer will respond to the question within the manuscript’s text, whatever the answer is. The writer instead may vigorously defend the character’s action directly to the editor (often in long letters or emails) and refuses to revise. I did that several times until I realized what she wanted me to do. Was I ever embarrassed!
    I had to learn that in the latter case most good editors don’t want or need long explanations directed to them about their inquiries. They merely want us writers to clarify a scene or a character’s actions, and to do it within the text.
    Tate Tip: Unfortunately, they don’t always tell us that. I guess they just expect us to know.
    Eleanor a E. Tate February 2, 2012

  3. Excellent points, Eleanora. There is a learning curve in working with editors and a tough skin and open mind are helpful.