The first time I heard, “there’s nothing about the main character that makes me care about her,” it felt like someone punched me in the throat. Yes, a bit of a dramatic response, but right then and there that’s how I felt. I sat for days afterward wondering what was wrong with me. Had four years of studying to be a creative writer made me no good at it? Did I pick up all the wrong lessons? Or worse, was I writing a story no one could ever truly care about?
No matter who it comes from, whether a close friend or family member, an editor or someone in your writing group, tough feedback is not easy to take. When first glancing over markups on the pages of your story, the mix of emotions that washes over can be stark. And though it may not be exactly what you’d hoped for or wanted to hear, there are invaluable ways tough feedback can help you.
That first workshop of the very first draft of my novel was life giving—I just didn’t know it back in 2014. Today, the story has morphed in ways I never knew possible, though its skeleton has mostly remained the same. And that’s in part due to countless rounds of critique, both light and not so light. Here are five benefits of tough feedback to help you face any critique head on.
1) It helps release you from your writer’s bubble.
So many times throughout the novel writing process, and really any piece I’ve written, I’ve gone back and forth between “this isn’t half bad” and “this is a steaming pile of garbage.” There’s also my personal favorite, “I’m giving too much away!”
But hearing from my writing group that they couldn’t understand the world I built or the plot, popped that bubble. All that time spent planning, plotting and meticulously writing every scene was lost because I’d kept all the details to myself—even though I thought I was putting too much on the page. Being released from your writer’s bubble by way of tough feedback can help you figure out if what you’re writing is what you thought or something else. That way, you can course correct and keep from spending unnecessary time writing in the wrong direction.
2) It challenges you to think about your piece differently.
This is perhaps my favorite part of the writing process. With every bit of feedback, there are always pieces I don’t readily agree with, which makes hearing that piece of feedback tough. So, whenever that happens, I ask the person who gave the critique to walk me through it. That exchange challenges me to see my story in a different way, like going from staring at one spot of a painting up close to pulling back and seeing the master design. Often, we writers are committed to the way we started telling our stories and sometimes it’s not always the best route to take. Tough feedback can help you dig deeper into what your story is all about and how best you should be telling it—even if it means starting over.
3) It gives you the opportunity to re-examine your motives.
Every single piece of writing was written for a reason. Though it might not always end up the way it began, it still serves a purpose. When we receive tough feedback on our writing we are given a beautiful opportunity to re-examine our motives. Is this piece just for fun or is it trying to make a point? What is that point? Are we adding to a conversation or are we detracting from it? Re-examining the why behind your piece can give you much-needed direction, especially if you feel you’ve lost it.
4) It can expose you to different interpretations of your work.
This is another part that I love about writing and that makes tough feedback a little easier to swallow: sometimes the tough feedback is actually a different interpretation of your work. Not always, but when it is, it’s definitely worth exploring. Your themes and message can all read completely different to another person and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The benefit to you when this happens is that you not only get an early read on what a wider audience could take away from your piece, but you also get to figure out where you either need to provide clarity or lean into a new interpretation.
For me, the current iteration of my novel was birthed from a different interpretation of an earlier draft. Thanks to that, the story and my writing are better.
5) It allows you to practice discernment.
One of the most important parts of receiving tough feedback, in my opinion, is discerning whether or not it’s feedback you’ll actually take. And this is a hard one. Because you’re not deciding whether or not to just throw out the feedback because you don’t like what someone said. You’re deciding what’s best for the work and for you as a writer. It’s a skill that must be practiced over and over again.
When I first sat down with the critiques from my book club turned workshopping group I took in every single thing they gave me. Not just their critiques, but their sensibilities, the styles and genres they liked all until the piece no longer sounded like me. It had turned into a culmination of all of their words and ideas that didn’t necessarily make sense for the story I was trying to tell. I swung the pendulum too hard in the other direction, even though years in classroom workshops had taught me never to do that. I had to relearn the skill and discern what parts of the critique I was going to take and which I was going to leave as ink in the margins of a previous draft.
All in all, tough feedback is just that—tough. But it’s good for us. It both makes our pieces stronger and makes us better writers. Because putting a part of yourself out there to be critiqued isn’t easy. At times it can be downright demoralizing. But understanding the benefits of tough feedback and responding accordingly will help you build the skills you need to put your best piece forward.
Jenn Walton is a writer, editor and storyteller based in Washington, D.C. She has drafted and edited sponsored content for top-tier academic institutions, Fortune 500 companies and leading philanthropic organizations that have run in The Washington Post, USA Today and the Atlantic. Her fiction works are housed mainly in the speculative fiction genre, and she is currently working on her first novel project that explores, through the lens of a failing utopia, what happens when those who suffer from mental health issues are neither believed nor empathized with, and are instead othered into non-existence.