Ask Esther: Incorporating Feedback While Staying True to a Vision
In sharing work, how do I evaluate and incorporate feedback while staying true to my own vision?
This is an excellent question and one I struggle with often. I first need to mention how wonderful it is to return to your smart and thoughtful questions after spending some time away from writing this column. Thank you for being engaged and tenacious, curious and unrelenting. You challenge me to stay accountable to my own reading and writing practice, and you remind me of an ideal I wish I could live up to. When you submit questions, you give me the opportunity to connect with someone else’s heart, and each response is a love note to the community. I’ve missed you, and it’s good to be back.
Now to your question. Even when feedback seems misguided, it still has the potential to help you solidify your vision. Regardless of whether you implement it, a seemingly irrelevant piece of advice can force you to articulate why you’ve written something the way you did. Try to discuss your vision as best you can with your writing group from the very beginning. The more you talk openly about your intentions with those who are critiquing your work, the more likely their feedback will be helpful in the next round. Eventually they may even turn into your safety net, your community of writers who hold you accountable to your vision rather than pull you away from it.
When I wrestle with feedback, I try to remember not to take it too personally (easier said than done, I know). Rather than viewing a critique as external judgement, I imagine myself as a thief. A selfish observer who steals others’ ideas for her own benefit, listening to reactions as if they’re coming from nowhere but my own imagination. This mind game helps me to listen carefully and avoid becoming defensive. If the suggestion serves the story, if the insight reveals further depth in the character, I’ll consider it. If the reader has expertise in an area I’m less than familiar, instead of being embarrassed by my ignorance, I think of it as a happy coincidence that this wealth of knowledge can be applied to my work.
When feedback feels at once like an improvement and a threat to my original vision, I create two versions of the section I’m revising. I take some time away, then return with fresh eyes to the rewritten version. I consider how it feels after I’ve implemented the feedback, whether it’s now missing something essential, whether it now cuts to the chase without extra fluff, whether it finally unloads the baggage of phrases I was overly attached to. A little distance from the original version, without having to fully throw it away, helps me implement a change that takes a bit of time to accept.
But only in an ideal world is all feedback useful (see above for how personally to take criticism). The more readers you have, the wider the variation in feedback you’ll receive. Trying to incorporate everyone’s feedback can become overwhelming, because you run the risk of writing to fulfill the wishes of people who have different goals. Trust your gut and your sense of how your writing needs to perform. You’re the only one who can see the story as a whole and write to what motivates and inspires you.
Esther Porter is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has written eight children’s books published by Capstone Press, most recently Peeking Under the City, which was named a 2017 National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students K-12. She was the publicist at Coffee House Press for several years, was a founding editor of the literary journal, Revolver, and has edited books for world-renowned publishers like Graywolf Press, HarperCollins, Coffee House Press and Milkweed Editions. Esther offers editorial services through the Loft’s Manuscript Critique and Coaching Program. Learn more at loft.org/edit.