It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? You get notes on your story or poem, read them over, and then revise based on the suggestions you’ve received. Just like that, you’ve got a bright and shiny new draft on your hands! Except mostly it doesn’t work that way. You can get great notes from your editor or your writing group, agree with 88% of what they have to say, and still struggle to incorporate the feedback you’ve been given.
I have some theories about why this is true, starting with the fact that by the time you show a draft to someone, it’s pretty much imprinted on your brain and the idea of changing anything about it—even when you know it needs changing—feels impossible. (It’s not, but it feels that way at first.)
On top of that, editors of all stripes are very good at saying, “I need to know more about your protagonist’s motivations—I don’t understand why she threw away her sister’s journal,” but they never actually write new scenes for you. They very rarely say, “What you need to do is add a new paragraph under the second paragraph on page three, a paragraph where Julia looks out the window, sees a kite on the roof, and remembers how her sister told her if anything ever happened to her, Julia needed to destroy her journal. The kite reminds her of this because of the time …” In fact, editors never do this! Which means you have to make up a bunch of new stuff out of thin air—and okay, making up stuff out of thin air is what we writers do, but sometimes it can feel overwhelming.
Another issue, and it’s a big one, is that every time you change something or add something, those changes and additions reverberate throughout the draft. You give more backstory to a secondary character so her motivations will be clearer to the reader, and that backstory has ramifications that have to be dealt with. It’s exhausting!
So how do we make feedback work for us? Here are some strategies I’ve tried; maybe they’ll help you, too.
Live with the Feedback. First, when you get feedback, live with it for a little while. If the person who critiqued your draft had some hard truths to tell you, give yourself a couple of days to be upset about it. Have imaginary conversations in which you tell this person how stupid he is and how unqualified he is to judge your work. Complain to friends and family. Stomp your feet if it feels good. Get it out of your system. (Important: Do not communicate these feelings and thoughts to the person who made the critique! Believe me, if you’re this upset–and I have been this upset–it maybe be because deep down you know the criticism is entirely on the mark. But even if it’s entirely off the mark, do not–I repeat, do not–write that email you’re dying to write.)
Make a List. Once you’ve calmed down, it’s time to read over the feedback again, highlighter in hand. Highlight key suggestions and concepts. Then make a list and print it out (it will be highly satisfying to tick items off this list).
Prioritize. Next, it’s time prioritize. What needs to be addressed first? Big stuff? Small stuff? Sometimes in a middle draft, my editor addresses some bigger issues that still need to be addressed, but also includes more nit-picky notes that can be easily dealt with. I prefer to start with the nit-picky stuff. It’s easy and makes me feel like I can do this revision thing, no problem.
Consider the Impact. When it comes to big picture edits, I start with whatever is going to have the greatest impact on the story or novel overall. Sometimes I find that when I tackle the biggest of the big picture revisions, the smaller big picture revisions get taken care of in the process.
Speaking of the process … don’t forget that that writing is a process, which means revising is a process. If you get feedback you’re not sure what to do with, you can put it aside. See how you—and your editor—feel about those issues after the next draft.
Remember, unless you’re writing for a grade or being paid, it’s up to you to decide what changes you want to make in your writing. Do your best to listen to constructive criticism without being defensive, and pay special attention to the feedback you resist the most—I’ve found this is often the feedback that’s most on target. Don’t forget that you can make changes and then revert to what your originally wrote. Pretend you have all the time in the world to get it right.