Feedback: When to Listen to it and When to Ignore It

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Since many of my readers are creatives, I’ve had a number of them ask me how to respond to criticism.  Anyone who’s creative and pushing the boundaries will have critics, so the question becomes, how should we react?  Can I learn from it?  Who should I ignore?  So I asked my friend and writer Simon Dillon, who’s based in the UK, and who’s work includes children’s adventure stories and novels for grown-ups for advice.  Here’s his take:  

Let’s be honest. No-one likes criticism, even when we know it is good for us. Even constructive criticism is like medicine that tastes disgusting but cures a horrible illness. The wisdom is to know when to take it.  However, stretching this metaphor a little further, medicine should not be taken when one is healthy. You cannot please everyone all the time, and on occasion it is important to stick to one’s guns when feedback is negative on one’s writing.  Self-diagnosing whether my books work is essentially impossible whilst writing them as I am too close to the material, which is why I rely on the feedback of trusted people. However, I do so with the following in mind:

Who to give your work to – If you want honest feedback, don’t give it to your mother. In fact, a good rule of thumb would be to avoid family and close friends entirely, unless you have exceptional reasons to do otherwise (e.g. – a father works in publishing).

The individual sensibilities and personality of the reader – This is critical.  Some are more naturally disposed to like one kind of fiction over another. I actually think it can help to give your writing to someone who isn’t the intended readership, in order to gain a more objective view. However, I fully appreciate this can be a two-edged sword. The trick is to find someone who won’t say they hate it, say, simply because it is for children or science fiction.

The reader is just one person – Sometimes our most trusted readers will dislike something beloved by countless others.  It is worth getting a few opinions, and you may find that more people agree with you than with the reader who thought you should change this or that. Again however, getting feedback from too many sources can be problematic, as you risk diluting your product by hearing a multitude of different opinions.

Sometimes you need to stick to your vision regardless.  When I submitted my most successful novel Children of the Folded Valley to mainstream publishers, one showed considerable interest, but wanted me to rewrite the book as a third person narrative. This was, to me, an absolutely inexplicable request that fundamentally changed the nature of what I had written. I refused and self-published. Given the subsequent overwhelmingly positive feedback, I’d say my instinct was correct.

All that said, sometimes I have tested early novel drafts with multiple people and got the same feedback again and again on pieces that aren’t working. When that happens, when the readers I trust all agree, I tend to listen.  The correct approach to feedback and criticism is a perilous balancing act, but writers must learn to walk that tightrope. It may sometimes be an unpleasant medicine to swallow, but in the end, I hope my novels are healthier for it.

—  What’s been your experience?  Any questions for Simon, or suggestions of your own?

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“Simon Dillon is a prolific independent author based in the UK, whose work includes children’s adventure stories and also novels for grown-ups. His blog (www.simondillonbooks.wordpress.com) contains information on his published works, several articles on the writing process, and also film reviews.”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Phil: Want to get together when you are in Nashville for NRB?