In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy discuss the value of feedback in strengthening our manuscripts and us as writers. How does feedback help, how do we get feedback that’s useful, and what are the spiritual principles guiding the process?
Scroll down for audio, video, and a full transcript, or find the podcast on Apple Podcasts here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/gracewriters-podcast/id1519376330
In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, accredited editor with quals in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
Topics covered in this episode:
- The value of feedback – why it helps.
- How to get feedback – and how not to get it!
- The spiritual aspects and how to respond.
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters podcast – Christian writers changing popular culture. Connect with us at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Getting Feedback on our Writing. I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books and blogs at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a romance writer and I live in Brisbane in Queensland and you can find all my information under my pen name alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. I’m a writer, a preacher, a blogger and a creative writing teacher. You can find out all about me at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Our topic today, getting feedback on our writing. We’re going to look at three main topics under that topic: the value of feedback and why we think it helps, how to get feedback and perhaps how not to get it, and the spiritual aspects of getting feedback and how we respond to that feedback.
Alison, you’ve being doing some research for us. What have you found that people, the writers out there, are saying about the value of feedback?
Alison Joy: I think as writers we all need to accept that, yes, we do need feedback. If we want to grow, we need to know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong because sometimes we’re too close to our writing and we can’t see the holes in it or the plot arcs that aren’t working. Because we’re with it all the time and we see it over and over again. So, we actually need to step back and let somebody else come in and have a look at it and give us some constructive feedback on how we’re going as a writer.
Sometimes we avoid feedback. Why do we avoid it? Well, because we worry about others judging us and it’s a thing that we’ve touched on before in this podcast that writing and anything in the creative area is very subjective and people’s opinion. So, to put something out there that has potential to get ripped to shreds is always very difficult. But if we find people who can approach it in a constructive way then it doesn’t have to be soul destroying.
I guess we’re always worried that we might be found wanting when we’re doing our writing, or we may not know where to find people who can give us appropriate feedback. Maybe the big fear is it’s absolutely no good and we might have to start all over again.
Belinda Pollard: Thank you. Donita, from your background as a teacher of writing in schools, what’s your experience and thoughts about why feedback matters?
Donita Bundy: Thanks, Belinda. I always tell my kids and also the people that I do writing group with that we will not improve if we don’t receive feedback. I could have a prodigy enter my class in year 7 and be amazing but if they don’t receive feedback and they’re not open to critique, when they’re 20 they’re still going to be writing like an 11-year-old. Giving and receiving feedback is a skill and it’s one that gets better with practice. At the beginning we all feel sick at the thought of sharing our work. That can actually develop into anxiety for some at the thought of actually receiving feedback. Asking people what they think about what we’ve done.
But it’s important and it does get easier, mainly because, firstly, you will hear an element of praise, you will hear that there is good stuff going on with what you’re achieving. Secondly, you will learn that you will live another day. You might hear some stuff that you don’t like but the next day the sun rises, you get up and it’s all going to be okay. And thirdly, when that sickness settles you can see that some people may have given you stuff that’s worth considering.
It will strengthen your work so that’s a skill that we practise, and also because of that we can then practise the skill of discernment. What do we take on board and what do we leave aside? Because we don’t have to take everything everyone says. Some of that is good and some of it’s not quite so good. And then we practise the skill of silence. When we hear that feedback, we don’t critique or argue our points because we can’t chase our writing out around the world. If a reader disagrees or they dispute something that we’ve written, we can’t stand over their shoulder and argue.
So, practising silence allows us to let our writing speak for itself. If we don’t agree or if our writing is misinterpreted, we need to learn to strengthen our writing, not attack the reader. So, these are all skills that we learn through giving and receiving feedback in the classes and the writing group.
Belinda Pollard: Great tips. I, as some of you know, am a huge fan of feedback and volunteer feedback that we receive from what I call ‘beta readers’ which are, for those of you out there it tends to be pronounced different ways in different countries, often ‘bayta’ in the US, sometimes ‘betta’ in various countries. So, anyway, I call them beta readers and I think they’re so fantastic that I even wrote a whole book about it, Use the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book. Because I just think you really can access this stuff. And the feedback is more about the writer than necessarily just this one manuscript.
That’s what I see, with my editor hat on, when a manuscript comes to me that has been through a good, useful feedback process. I can really see the difference in the quality of that manuscript. And one of the great things about that is that it then costs less to edit. So, that’s always worth knowing.
But a couple of things that I would say which totally agree with what the two of you have said is that you must always be the captain of your manuscript. It’s not the beta reader or the feedback person or the critique partner’s job to tell you what to do.
I see it as being more like one of those department store mirrors that are on all the different angles and so you can see yourself from behind for the first time in your life – which is sometimes horrifying! And sometimes horrifying when it’s our writing, too.
But if you get that different perspective, that different angle, suddenly the synapses start firing when you move past the horror and grieving processes of receiving the feedback. The synapses start firing and you start getting fantastic ideas for how to make your manuscript more intelligible and effective for the readers that you are targeting.
To me, I personally don’t use beta readers for typos, and I don’t necessarily particularly recommend it, because sometimes beta readers will put more typos in than they take out.
But more from that angle of developmental ‘content’ type of editing, to enhance your themes, your argument, perhaps, if it’s non-fiction. Help you find plot holes and gaps. Things that just don’t make sense. So, that’s what I find them to be the most useful for.
Alison, back to your research, what are people saying about how to get feedback and do you have any personal experience of those things, as well?
Alison Joy: Yes, you just can’t ask anyone. You really have to give it some thought and there are some suggestions that you should get: someone who’s an experienced reader, editor, writer, someone who’s an expert in the particular field that you’re writing in and someone who’s probably in the target audience for the book that you’re writing.
Now, they also say, please, you should avoid friends and family because they probably love you too much to be honest, and I’ll testify to that. I had a couple of friends who looked at my current manuscript and they loved it and I’d given them a list of questions and they’re going, “Yes, it’s great.” And I’m going, “Yes, but why? Some more information!”
I did have a friend, though, and she was particularly good because it wasn’t her genre, and she took the time to actually go through and look at the questions and actually answer them with some thought. So, she was really good, but I think finding a beta reader is going to be a hit and a miss thing.
But just a little aside, two of my kids did hospitality all through school and they used to have restaurants, pop-up restaurants, regularly as part of their assessment. They’d always ask the parents and friends to fill in a form. But the teacher, he would just look at them and if they were all positive, he would just chuck them in the bin because he said, “There’s no point. If they’re not constructive you’re not going to learn anything.” If they’re just being nice because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or they want to encourage you because you’re family and they love you. You need to grow.
So, then I took it on myself every time I was writing up, I would always find the good stuff but always find things where they can improve. And I think that’s the key, is to find a balance between being too critical but seeing both sides, finding good about something but you don’t smash somebody to pieces, but also finding constructive ways to help them grow in their journey as a writer.
Belinda Pollard: I love that. Finding the good as well as the opportunities. Donita, your thoughts with your teacher and your writer hat on. What are your thoughts about how to get feedback and how not to get it?
Donita Bundy: I actually agree wholeheartedly with what Alison said. In our classes and in the writing group we call that warm and cool feedback, and that’s very much the warm feedback. It’s not okay just to say, “I liked it, it was great.” That’s not acceptable. We need to be really specific. So, the warm feedback is, specifically what did you like about it? Was it the characters, the dialogue, the setting? Whatever it was, be specific.
And then we have cool feedback which is things that the feedbacker thinks that would strengthen the piece. And it’s always couched in language like, “Perhaps, you could try,” or, “Have you considered,” or, “Maybe you could try.” So again, it’s respectful, it’s polite but each time we give and receive feedback we need to give warm and cool feedback because it’s not just about learning to receive feedback, it’s learning how to give it. And that’s really tricky at times.
And also, with who to get feedback from, in my class I’m very careful about who we ask. I always give feedback, a lot of feedback, to my kids. Warm and cool, very constructive and positive but I don’t open it up to other kids outside the class because kids can be brutal and not really understand where we’re coming from. So, we do peer feedback all the time, and my feedback.
And with the writing group it’s up to the adults. They’re better at discerning who to give feedback to. But in those early years when we’re just starting out, we want to protect those kids and develop courage and a bit of resilience.
And that’s why the very first lesson, year 7, straight up we all sign contracts and covenant respect to each other, everyone in the group. And we create a safe place for kids to learn and develop their writing. So that feedback will always be couched respectfully.
And, like you said Alison, don’t ask your family and your friends because they’ll be too nice. A lot depends on what family you come from because I’m gifted with a really honest family and they will tell me exactly what they think, and they’re never too concerned about hurting feelings because honesty is really important, and it’s not always couched respectfully.
So, it depends. So, yes, maybe you might have a family member who is really good at being honest but hopefully find one that’s honest and kind in the way they say it! Yes, and again, from my experience sphere it’s trial and error. When you find a great beta reader you just want to hook into them and keep them for life. They are like gold.
Alison Joy: I think it’s important when we’re looking for feedback that we look for more than one opinion, if possible, and I think you’ve got to look out for things that people are saying that are repetition in what one person says. If one person just says it, okay, maybe yes, maybe no, there’s an issue. But if other people are saying similar things, “Okay, this is obviously something here that maybe I need to look at it in a bit more depth.”
Now, the current manuscript that I’ve just submitted had someone picked up something in it that didn’t occur to me because I don’t have experience. It’s a romance so I was coming across and there was a few DV red flags there that I didn’t pick up because I don’t have any experience with domestic violence. So, it wasn’t something on my radar. Whereas a couple of my readers go, “Well, this is a bit mmm, maybe you should need to work on that.” “Oh, okay.” And I went back and had a look at it again in the light of that. Yes, we’ll just change and reword things because if you don’t know, you don’t know. So, here we are.
Belinda Pollard: And it’s not always a huge change.
Alison Joy: No.
Belinda Pollard: Sometimes just slight tweaks can make a big difference to our manuscripts. From my perspective, with both my professional perspective and my writer, with my editor and writer hats on, with regard to getting feedback and how not to get it, I see a lot of people getting beta readers who are just random strangers and that makes me very uneasy. Partly because I’m very protective of my manuscripts. I’m also protective of my copyright.
So, we need to be a little bit aware of who we’re giving our work out to, but I also want to know, personally, I want to know it’s someone that I know relatively well and can trust them to give me. I usually get five or six beta readers on each of my manuscripts and they’re mostly fellow writers because they’re the people who are most likely to be able to give the depth of feedback that I want because they know what it’s like to be trying to get that feedback themselves. So, they’ll spend that bit of extra time and give me that extra depth of feedback. So, most of mine are writers.
I’ve had a few that are specialists. So, I had a character with type 1 diabetes, who was lost in the wilderness, and surprisingly enough, the books on how to live with type 1 diabetes don’t always specify how to manage being lost in the wilderness. So, I managed to get hold of someone who’s a writer and who also had a husband and daughter with type 1 diabetes which is quite unusual because it’s not a genetic thing generally. So, she was able to give me really great feedback and fundamentally changed the way that that character was handling her situation. So, really good, really important.
I also had a retired police officer give me some feedback on things like, this was a book set in New Zealand, do New Zealand police carry guns? Because not all police forces do and just how will they communicate with each other? It’s a country town. Will they be using a two-way radio or is there sufficient mobile phone signal for them to communicate that way? Because there’s not always mobile phone signal in country towns that’s reliable enough. And just little, funny things like that. So, I had stuff on that.
I tend to avoid group critique myself. I feel a little bit uneasy about it sometimes because I have seen groupthink happen in group critique where everybody just piles on to a writer and they go home battered and bruised and sometimes, especially, if they’re a new writer they might lose their way a little bit because of that.
I also don’t particularly like face-to-face feedback if I can avoid it. I would rather have it in writing so that I can read it, be devastated, and then come back to it tomorrow and get all the good stuff out of it!
We’re all different though. Some people will find it really good to discuss it face-to-face and some of those techniques that Donita is using with her school kids are really good techniques to teach them how to give that face-to-face feedback and how to respond to it.
So, those are a few of my feelings about it.
How do we find them? I met most of mine on social media. Most of them on Twitter and blogging. So, you just get to know people over a period of time and you’re perhaps writing similar genres or similar types of books and you might approach them, or they might approach you. So, that’s the way it’s mostly worked for me.
And I’ll say for the family aspect, my mother is an absolutely fantastic beta reader. She was very, very nervous about hurting my feelings when she started – and then she wasn’t! And she is great because she will argue with me all round the kitchen table about this, that and the other, and it’s fine because we’ve been arguing like that for so many years that I don’t take offence to it and we can really wrestle through some of those difficulties in the manuscript and I’ll say, “But, but, this is what I was trying to achieve,” and she’ll say, “Oh, well why don’t you do such-and-such.” And then we’ll work through to another solution.
What about the spiritual aspects of getting feedback on our writing? Donita, I wonder if you could just build us a bit of a foundation on that topic, both how we get it and how we respond?
Donita Bundy: Well, again, I’m always coming at this from my personal perspective and so it may or may not agree with what other people think. But I know I am not a gifted or a good writer or speaker or blogger. I know that everything I write comes through my personal experience. It’s filtered through my world view and my personality, but I believe that whatever good, the passion, the will to write and the good words that come through my writing, comes from God. And He is the inspiration. And the joy I get from writing, I believe, comes from Him.
So, before I start my writing, whether I’m blogging, in my books, even when I’m on my way to classes and I’m teaching, I will always touch base with God first and ask how I’m going with Him. But even if I was a supremely awesome writer and I was gifted and I was capable through practice and honing skills and whatever, I can’t see how it would hurt tapping into the Word, the Creator of all to touch base with Him and find out what He wants us to say. Especially, if my goal is to glorify Him through my writing.
So, personally, I like to touch base with God, and I ask, am I hearing Him? Or, in other words, am I taking time out to hear what He has got to say and so that can’t be just off the cuff, I need to intentionally take time out and listen to what God has got to say. And then I ask, am I open to receiving guidance from Him? Do I really want to use my writing to glorify Him? Well, then I need to hear what He’s got to say.
So, it’s my intention to first receive feedback from God. Am I right with Him? Am I in Him? Am I right before Him as I write for Him?
Because I feel that if I want to write for God, I need to be right before God. And again, practising silence is a really good skill – to hear that rebuke, if it’s necessary. The encouragement when it’s required. And for me, personally, inspiration all the time. What is it you want me to write? How am I going to write it? Who am I going to write it to? So, I feel that if I take time out to receive feedback from God, I am better equipped to deal with feedback from readers because I feel right with God and so I can receive the good feedback. I give it all to Him. And the bad feedback, I give it back to Him.
So, that’s how I deal with it and from my perspective, especially because of what I write in my blog and my books. And again, even in my teaching, I want to reveal Christ to my kids through what I do and who I am, so I go to Him first. So that’s my perspective on how I deal with it, spiritually, receiving feedback.
Belinda Pollard: Fantastic. There’s a sort of a combination there between, we need to have humility, but we also need to have tenacity, and a sense of our own vision for our writing. The vision that God has given us for our writing. So perhaps that’s something in a broader sense to be working on constantly across our career as a writer. To be honing what God’s vision for our writing is. That’s something that I often keep coming back to when I’m struggling with feedback that perhaps was less than encouraging.
And I’m interested too in the way that you talk about the silence. So instead of, sometimes, and this is one of the reasons that I find face-to-face feedback hard because there’s that wish to defend and I want to try, instead of being defensive, to be more curious. So, looking at, yes, what does that mean and why has it affected them that way and what could I do about that. Any extra thoughts, Alison?
Alison Joy: I just think, ultimately, with any feedback we get, we can accept it for what it is, we can adapt our writing because we can see that it needs some work, or we can totally ignore it. Because as you said earlier, we are the captains of our own book and we decide in the end what we want in it.
Belinda Pollard: And I think there’s a lot of value to be constantly turning to prayer. This is something that I always am forgetting when I’m working on my writing, to be turning back, turning back to pray, and praying, I guess, for clarity and courage when I’m assessing and responding to feedback, or giving feedback to others.
How about I pray for the Gracewriters?
Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for the opportunities that you have given us to write, to be your servants and your people in these interesting and creative ways. And I do pray for all of us as Gracewriters that you might help us to find good people to give us the feedback that we need and give us the courage and the curiosity and the strength and the openness to process that curiosity in good ways and to build the writing that You have ahead for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Donita Bundy and Alison Young, thank you very much. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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