10 May, 2021

Written by Alex
This needs work. Now what?

How to cope with feedback 

When you write for a living, whether it’s fiction, journalism or advertising copy, feedback is part of the process. It’s rare for any first draft to be perfect, but let’s be honest: getting criticism can sting.      

It’s all too easy to take it personally, feel inadequate, and even lash out at your editor. This is just human instinct. What matters is what you do with all those feelings.

So what exactly should you do next?


Stay tactful

Never respond to feedback as soon as you get it. Even if you don’t think you’re heated, you probably are, and it will show.

Walk away, get some coffee, work on another project for a while, and come back when you feel like you can respond thoughtfully – no matter how you feel about the comments.


It’s never personal

This is easy to say, but hard to internalise. When we’re under stress, there’s a tendency to slip into black-and-white thinking, where there’s no room for nuance:

  • “There are a few typos here, so I must be a terrible writer.”
  • “There are so many comments to address, so they must really hate this article.”
  • “I couldn’t get it right the first time, so I must have let them down really badly.”
  • “I don’t agree with this comment, so this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
  • “If I don’t write a perfect article, they’ll never hire me again.”

If you catch yourself thinking like this, come up with other ways to see the situation. For example:

  • ‘Good writing’ is subjective. What you’ve written might be perfect for something else, just not this particular job.
  • You’ve been slaving away at this draft for hours. Your editor is reading it with fresh eyes. They’re going to see things you didn’t catch, and that’s good for both of you!
  • Everybody makes mistakes. It’s not like the person you’re writing for has never messed up.
  • There’s no point in worrying about what will or won’t happen in the future. Focus on the task at hand.
  • You aren’t being paid to write only one draft. Nobody expects perfection from you, so don’t put that pressure on yourself.

Put coins in your jar

Getting back dozens of comments on your work can look intimidating. But the good news is most comments will be very small, quick changes. Maybe a comma is in the wrong place, there’s a typo, or a sentence is too long. Whatever the case, start working through the small stuff first.

It’s like putting a coin in a jar: eventually you’ll have a nice chunk of change. Tick off each tiny edit one by one and eventually you’ll get through most of your edits. Keep chipping away, and you’ll be much more confident when it comes time to deal with the larger issues.


Understand your critic

When it comes to more significant changes, sometimes the feedback may be too general to address properly. Comments like “I don’t like this” or “this needs work” can be frustrating because they don’t tell you what specifically is wrong. Some clients will also ask for seemingly contradictory things – like “the word count is too high” but also “build out this section more.”

In this situation, ask your editor or client for more specific guidance, so you can understand where they’re coming from. It may be difficult for them to articulate exactly what’s wrong at first (“I don’t know, it just doesn’t sound right.”) But if you keep pushing and trying different options, you’ll eventually find something that works.

Here are some questions you could ask to dig deeper into what your client or editor wants:

  • Let’s look at the brief again. What parts of it do you think I’m missing right now?
  • Would you say the brief is still what you want? Or have your ideas changed since then?
  • Is there anything here that you liked and want to see more of?
  • Is there something else you would like me to mention in the next draft?
  • Do you think this voice fits with your company?
  • Do you think this piece is long/short enough?
  • Are there any specific words or phrases that you would like me to change?


Help your critic understand you

What if you disagree with the feedback? How do you stand by your work? Again, it comes down to both sides understanding each other.

Explain why you made the particular choice you made, always referring back to the brief if you can. In some cases, you may be able to persuade your client, and other times you’ll just have to agree to disagree. Read the room and figure out if it’s ultimately up to you or the client. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to have the final call, but sometimes you just have to let things go.

Feedback shouldn’t feel like an attack on you or your writing. Writing is always a conversation – it’s just that in the case of criticism your reader can talk back! So even if some comments feel harsh, remember to value your own ability, and respect your client’s commitment to the work. They have put time into helping you make your work better, and that just shows they care.

Feedback is just an opportunity to make what’s already good even better.

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