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Making the most of feedback, part two

In a previous post, I covered some advice for giving good feedback that helps someone improve their work. In this post, I continue the topic by offering some tips for making the most of the feedback you receive.

1. Ask for feedback early and often: One of the worst pieces of writing advice I ever received was when someone told me "Don't share your work too early. You don't want other people playing in your sandbox and kicking over your sandcastle." It's bad advice in part because it sounds like good advice, and it's easy to believe, especially if you're a young writer who's already insecure about critique. It's also just plain wrongheaded. If your feedback-givers are the sort to kick over your sandcastle, rather than helping you figure out how to get your project into a workable form, you need better feedback-givers, plain and simple.

In reality, it's far better to hear people's questions, misunderstandings, and misgivings when all you have is a one-line pitch, or a couple of paragraphs of an idea, or the opening pages, than it is to get them when it's all done. Not only is it easier to make adjustments or course correct entirely in the early stages of a project, but you're also going to be personally less invested and more receptive to the improving things that need to improve.

2. Find feedback-givers you can trust (& build trust with your feedback-givers): If you don't trust your feedback-givers, then it doesn't matter when or what kind of feedback you get. If you're in the position to seek feedback-givers out, you want to find people who will invest the time needed to give good feedback; who will not attack you personally ("either this is the wrong story, or the wrong writer"); whose opinion you respect; and above all, who you trust to tell you the truth. If you think the feedback-giver is going to cut corners or avoid giving harsh critique (perhaps due to a personal relationship) then you either won't receive quality feedback, or you won't trust the feedback you receive. But getting critique doesn't have to be about making you feel bad, or even about writing the work off, and a good feedback-giver can thread the needle of pointing out what's working and what's not without turning it into a personal attack.

If you're working in a professional setting where your feedback-givers are already in place, building trust is important. Have a discussion about writing feedback and get to know what they're looking for. Identify types of feedback that you find helpful (maybe you like to have examples or suggestions; maybe seeing what you did right as well as what's not working is important to you) and agree on when and where you'll seek feedback, and who ultimately makes the call on what gets implemented. If you're a writer reporting to a lead, you might have to defer to the lead's call from time to time; if you're a lead writer working with a game team or a department head, you might have considerably more freedom to decide what stays and what goes.

3. Know what feedback you're seeking and communicate it: If there are specific things you want a reader to look for, ask for them to look for those things. If you want their impressions uninfluenced by questions upfront, send them after. Don't waste your time or your reader's getting feedback on lines when you're interested in story structure. 

4. Ask follow-up questions, but don't challenge: No piece of feedback is wrong. It's a reflection of how that reader experienced the work. But sometimes it's still worthwhile if something strikes you as surprising or vague to follow-up. The important thing is not to put the feedback-giver on the defensive: it's not their job to defend their feedback to you. It's your job to ask the questions you need to understand it, and better diagnose what you can do to improve the work. Once I had a feedback-giver who felt as if they caught on to a twist late, and I asked a few follow-up questions to understand what they meant by "late," since they hadn't specified. It turns out they caught on right about when I expected them to, but they still felt self-conscious about it. I then had a decision to make: whether to let some readers have that experience (knowing it didn't spoil the overall experience for this reader, but it still made them feel as if they were behind the eight-ball) or to adjust the scene so that it was clearer.

5. Make a plan: Some feedback (like line notes) is easy to implement immediately. Other feedback requires more consideration. The reader knows their experience; you know what experience you're trying to achieve. Focus on the gap between these two and look for ways to bridge it. All feedback is valid, but not all the solutions that your feedback-givers may propose are the right ones (if only that were the case!) Learn to understand the difference. Once again, this is much easier if you follow rule one: you'll see with each step whether you're moving closer to the goal or farther from it. If you wait until you have a final draft, the process will be much longer and more laborious.

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