Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: the face-to-face checklist, part II


This week, we’re concentrating upon building one of the most useful skills a career writer can have: the ability to take feedback well. Why is it so handy, you ask? Because from the industry’s point of view, an ability to respond to even gloves-off critique calmly and reasonably isn’t just a nice optional feature on an author — it’s part of the standard equipment.

With an eye to that reality, last time, I began going through a list of strategies for the critique situation where a writer is most likely to over-react, the face-to-face feedback session.

Are the shy among you sitting down? Good, because I have some potentially startling news to share: face-to-face critique moments positively abound in the writing world, in every form from the aforementioned writers’ group to a pitch session with an agent or editor to being approached by a less-than-enthusiastic fan at a book reading.

Unless you are lucky enough to land that one-in-a-million literary berth that enables you to hide out in a well-furnished cave in Outer Mongolia, typing away in solitude while the royalty checks roll in, then, you might want to prepare yourself for the experience.

The wise writer’s goal in these situations is simple: to hear critique of your work without taking it personally and respond appropriately, in a manner that both helps your book’s market and artistic prospects and maintains a positive relationship with the critiquer.

It may not sound like a lofty goal, but as those of you who have been on the receiving end of a honest-to-goodness professional critique already know, in the moment, it can be pretty difficult. Let’s recap yesterday’s suggestions:

1. Walk into the meeting with a couple of specific questions you would like your critiquers to answer.

2. Bear in mind that today is not necessarily a good day for response.

3. Take good notes.

Is everyone up to speed with those? Fabulous. Let’s move on, then.

4. Be an active listener.

If you watch the body language of someone unused to accepting critique gracefully, you’ll notice something interesting: most of the time, their bodies appear to be straining at an invisible leash, in constant preparation for jumping in to contradict the feedback-giver. It’s very confrontational; often, the listener even keeps his mouth slightly open while the critiquer is making her case, to prevent even the slightest delay in shooting out a response.

But contrary to popular opinion, feedback on a manuscript is NOT an invitation to an argument; it’s a series of points that a writer should take back to the manuscript to consider applying. And that is as it should be, because no matter how well a writer can defend a particular literary choice verbally, ultimately, what matters is what’s on the PAGE.

Seriously, ask any agent, editor, or contest judge in the English-speaking world — honestly, they’re not looking for a fight. They just want to help the writer improve the manuscript.

As I pointed out yesterday, it’s very, very hard for anybody to listen well when he’s trying to come up with a reply to each point being made. Believe it or not, though, the opposite response, to sit there stony-faced — or, as often happens in pitch meetings, with a forced smile plastered on the face — is even harder on the feedback-giver.

Why? Well, a mask is difficult to read, after all; can a critiquer really be blamed if she occasionally mistakes a blank face as a sign of boredom? Or concludes from the fact that the writer is responding to both high praise and deep damnation with exactly the same expression that the feedback is not particularly welcome?

Active listening is an ideal compromise between the two extremes. An active listener is engaged in the conversation, even when she is not speaking: she smiles at the jokes, nods at the good points, looks thoughtful when an interesting point is raised — and yes, even frowns when she disagrees with something.

What she does, in short, is pays the speaker the compliment of appearing to be interested in what he’s saying.

Heck, yeah, it takes a lot of energy to listen this way, but embracing this practice brings a very tangible reward: it forces the writer to LISTEN to the details of the feedback. Which, in turn, renders it infinitely more likely that she’s going to glean something useful from it.

Look: not every piece of advice you’re going to get is going to be stellar, or even apt, even if you’re hearing it from the world’s best-qualified first reader for your work or the agent of your dreams. A professional writer needs to learn to sift, to separate the wheat from the chaff, to pan for the gold amid the sand, and…well, any other sorting metaphor you might care to mention.

The point is, it’s the writer’s job to figure out which is which.

That can take some pretty close listening — and it’s almost impossible to listen closely when a writer is constantly on guard to respond to a perceived attack or concentrating on maintaining a jaunty facial expression no matter what is said, as if she were on trial for murder based upon ambiguous evidence and the jury might convict based upon a fleeting frown or two.

Yes, I’ve seen both in feedback situations.

Instead, engage. Trust me, it will make the person giving you feedback respect you more than if you pursue either of the alternatives.

5. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for a rain check. Or at least buy yourself some time.

All throughout #4, I sensed the timid out there wanting to ask a question. “But Anne,” they murmur unobtrusively, “what if I’m really blindsided by what the feedback-giver is saying? For instance, the last time I pitched at a conference, the agent cut me off before I’d said three sentences, telling me that she didn’t represent that kind of work. It took 100% of my energy not to burst into tears on the spot.”

I’m glad you brought this up, Modest Mice. Here’s a little tip that I wish every conference pitcher learned BEFORE that first face-to-face meeting: if the agent or editor says s/he is not interested in the book, the pitcher is under no obligation to stick around, doing violence to his emotions in a dreadful effort to remain polite until the time allotted for the meeting expires.

Yet in 99% of such meetings, the writer DOES just sit there, miserable and confused. There are some other ways to handle this, of course (discussed under the PITCH FOR AN AGENT OR EDITOR MEETING category at right, in case you’re interested).

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, leave. Take a powder. Vamoose. Believe me, the agent or editor isn’t going to take umbrage if you slip away quietly; usually, she’s not any more comfortable in this situation than the writer is.

Of course, you’re going to want to maintain your dignity as you go; manners, as nice British mothers used to tell their children, cost nothing. Murmur a quiet thanks, if you can manage it.

The same logic applies to any critique situation — if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is a far, far better thing to ask for, say, a five-minute break during your writing group than to bite your tongue until it bleeds. If you need to run into the nearest bathroom and scream into a scrunched-up pillow because you feel the critiquer has completely missed the point of your chapter, go ahead.

Or how about saying to the fellow writer with whom you have exchanged manuscripts, “Look, I’ve had a hard day. Do you mind if we postpone talking about this until I’m a little more coherent?

While it may seem like a cop-out, it’s infinitely preferable to a meltdown that results in burned feelings. Even walking into a meeting knowing that scuttling away is a viable option can render the situation less stressful.

If you don’t feel that you can call for a time-out, consider borrowing a trick from academia and forcing a lull in the discussion. Professors tend to be past masters at this, and for good reason: they have to answer a lot of questions on the fly, and — I’m exposing a trade secret here, so pay attention — they don’t always have the answers at on the tips of their tongues. Sometimes, they need to slip off to their offices and look something up.

Yet surprisingly few of them (or I suppose I should say us, as I used to be one of their number in the dim days of yore) are willing to say, “Actually, I don’t have an answer to that. Mind if I slither off to the library and consult a reference volume?” Instead, they often turn the discussion so they needn’t answer the question until they’ve had time to do precisely that.

To be fair, looking things up isn’t always an option — especially in the midst of the form of medieval torture known in academia as a job talk. In order to get a job as a professor at most major US universities, the top candidates have to give a lecture on their current research projects, with every professor in the department they hope will hire them sitting in the audience, eager to leap upon any logical holes in the argument.

Even for someone who wants to give lectures for a living, this can be a pretty daunting prospect. Especially when the job talk is scheduled, as it so often is, at the end of a couple of days’ worth of individual meetings with all of those professors, the department’s graduate students, and university administration. That’s a whole lot of sustained good behavior, particularly in the kind of well-regarded department that I used to occupy, where everyone one of those professors had a legitimate right to expect the hapless applicant to be intimately familiar with every article he had ever produced.

Speaking of something you might want to rush off to the library to look up.

Why the endurance test? Well, in the US, there are often a few hundred qualified applicants for every professorial position in a good department, so to be invited to give a job talk, your application has to have impressed a whole lot of people. But by the time they fly you in, the people you impressed will have been debating with for a month with the people who fell in love with Candidate B’s curriculum vitae, arguing with those who just adore Candidate C’s research agenda, and trading barbs with those who think Candidate D will vote with them at faculty meetings.

Question time at the job talk is typically when all of these intradepartmental squabbles come to the fore. The advocates for other applicants will leap to their feet as rapidly as their laurelled-but-aging bones will allow, to try to make Candidate A look worse by asking really, really difficult questions.

Many of which, I regret to report, tend to take the form of, “Why didn’t you approach this problem precisely the way I would have?” If not the even more dreaded, “Could you relate this to my last article?”

I mention this not to discourage any of you out there from pursuing the academic life, but because this last type of critique, the self-centered, is actually not confined to its hallowed halls. In a pitch meeting, an agent who specializes in mysteries might well take issue with the ways in which your thriller does not resemble a mystery; if you are the only memoirist in a critique group full of novelists, you’re probably going to keep hearing that you’re including too much backstory.

And so forth. Since the literary market is so diverse — and conferences can’t possibly import pros who deal with every conceivable book category — we writers often find ourselves receiving advice and feedback from folks who don’t specialize in our type of book.

But since the literary world is all about networking, it’s usually not a very good idea to point that out to a feedback-giver whose category preconceptions are, well, a bit off the mark.

As you may easily imagine, givers of job talks find themselves in this position all the time. So how do they handle it? By buying some time to think — or turning the discussion.

How does he go about it, you ask? First, the neophyte professor will pause after the questioner has finished speaking, as though considering it in all of its complexity. (Actually, this is a good strategy whenever an intellectually-insecure person asks you a question; it implies that it was a really good question that requires serious thought to answer.)

Then the wise job talker will extend an olive branch: “That’s an interesting question. I’ll have to think about that.” This is a very difficult conversational move for the questioner to counter, as it conveys a compliment while it defers further discussion.

Which is precisely why this tactic almost always works in a literary critique situation. Pretty much everyone is flattered by the notion that he has raised a point so incisive that the author wants to meditate upon it at length.

If all else fails, move on to tactic #6 — which is more than the poor job talker could get away with doing:

6. Say, “Thanks for your feedback– but I would like to re-read the critiqued pages before responding to what you’ve said.”

Aspiring writers often seem surprised when I suggest this, but in practice, there’s no better way to defuse a critique exchange that threatens to become personal or hyper-emotional. Expressing an interest in going back and reading the manuscript with an eye to the points the critiquer has raised is a perfectly reasonable request.

It’s also a pretty good idea in any feedback situation.

Think about it: when are you most likely to be able to give a revision suggestion a fighting chance to convince you to try it, immediately after you’ve first heard it and while you are still face-to-face with your critiquer, or a few days later, when you’re alone and face-to-face with nothing but the text?

Basically, this strategy will minimize the probability that you’ll dismiss a great idea in the heat of the moment — and maximize the potential for any follow-up discussion’s being productive for you and your book.

“Um, Anne?” I hear some of you calling. “I’ve been in a writers’ group/class/book collaboration with someone who does this, and the results aren’t, to put it as gently as possible, always positive, I can’t possibly be the only writer who has given feedback to someone who seemed to take it well at the time, only to stun me three days later with a 20-page e-mail explaining in exquisite detail, with textual illustrations, exactly what kind of an idiot I am to have suggested changing so much as a syllable of the chapter in question?”

Good point, anonymous commenters: the strategies of allowing time to pass and taking another gander at the text will not fuse into a magic wand that will automatically turn a behind-the-scenes seether (which, let’s face it, is not an uncommon writerly specialty) into an open-minded feedback-receiver who blesses those who help him.

In fact, as you so rightly point out, it can have the opposite effect.

So let me clarify why I am advising this: the point of going back to the text is NOT to come up with concrete evidence to support a future argument with a critiquer; it’s to try to figure out if the critiquer might have a legitimate point. This is high unlikely to happen within the first few seconds after the critique has departed the feed-back-giver’s mouth.

Speed of revision is sometimes valuable after a writer has begun working with an agent or editor, because publication deadlines wait for no man, but trust me on this one: no one familiar with the trials and tribulations of revising a manuscript actually expects the author to come up with the necessary changes within a minute or two of the suggestion to make them. You have every right to take some time to think about it.

In fact, I would argue that to be the best guardian of your book’s interest, you have an OBLIGATION not to react on the spur of the moment. Because — chant it with me now, everyone — the goal of getting feedback is to improve what’s on the PAGE, not to silence the objections raised by someone kind enough to read the manuscript and give substantive feedback.

This isn’t to say that a writer shouldn’t ask follow-up questions about feedback — if they’re warranted, she definitely should. But even then, the manuscript itself is usually the best place to start pulling together requests for clarification.

Besides, you wouldn’t respond to a change request from the agent of your dreams or the perfect editor for your book without first going to the part of the text they’ve flagged as needing revision, would you?

Um, you wouldn’t, would you? Hello? Anybody out there? Or would some of you just rather avoid thinking about that particular situation until it’s upon you?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, kids, but being on the receiving end of critique from a thoughtful agent or editor is the GOOD outcome here. Try to think of the feedback situations along the way as dry runs for that happy day.

And when that day comes, you’ll be such an old hand at taking feedback that you’ll listen carefully, pause long enough to indicate that they’ve raised interesting points, then open your mouth and chirp, “Wow, that’s an intriguing idea. Let me sit with it and the manuscript for a few days, thinking about it.”

Hey, it’s my job to envision you at your best and most successful. More tips follow next time — and please, critique veterans, feel free to pass along wry anecdotes and helpful hints of your own.

Keep up the good work!

(PS: today’s picture appears courtesy of

10 Replies to “Becoming a good acceptor of feedback: the face-to-face checklist, part II”

  1. Anne,

    This series is captivating. I’ve been visiting the site time and again, day after day. I think the advice you’re giving is great, but I’m also seeing part of myself in part of these characters … and if I’ve got a problem, I do want to fix it.

    I feel like I’ve finally found my style. It’s lyrical and long. I’ve recently had a few stories published but am having a very tough time selling my novel, even though I’ve gotten 25 agents to request a partial.

    One seasoned agent wrote me a two-page rejection letter. She said she “loved the idea, and you can sure write lyrically, but the lack of tension in the crucial opening chapters means that I’m not the right agent for it.”

    I asked an MFA grad for his opinion on the first 50 pages, since agents have been telling me they can’t “get into” the story. I keep thinking, “Is it me? Is it in the way this book is written? Or, being a very lyrical and very literary high-concept novel, is it just that I need an agent who likes and understands what I’m doing, and such a beast is a lot harder to find than someone selling your standard chick lit hundred-pager?”

    Well the MFA fellow got back to me and said that the writing was not too his taste. He said that the idea behind the book is great, but that the style “is so flowery and meandering like too many old-fashioned, long-dead authors. Maybe you can find an agent who still likes such things,” but he said that he’d rather see me “update your style to be more like Raymond Carver, the master, who is always succinct and doesn’t need adjectives.”

    My first thought was, wait a minute! I’m not Raymond Carver! I’d never want to be a “minimalist”!

    Another agent (who rejected me because he said it was “very pretty writing, but too slow”) just said this in an interview:

    “Your first 10 pages hold your fate. Forward momentum is critical. It’s not fair, but you have to give an agent a reason to turn the page. Know that you are one of 100 queries he or she will read that day. You don’t have the luxury to meander.”

    I like to feel that I’m open to anything. I’d change the title, I’d change anything in the book if it meant that I’d sell it — and that it would still be a good book. I don’t want to destroy the book, but I don’t want to make the terrible mistakes that your examples have made.

    I’m wringing my hands day and night, wondering to myself, “Am I being as pig-headed as the authors who can’t take criticism? Is it staring me in the face? Or could it be true, that the book’s just fine but only needs the right match?”

    I hope this series gets into this sort of thing. I’m *very* confused and need to know what I’m doing wrong. (Or right!)

    Sorry this post has been so long.

    1. Welcome, Harvey!

      First, take a deep breath and take a moment to appreciate what you’re doing RIGHT: you’ve gotten stories published, and you apparently write a pretty terrific query letter, if 25 agents have asked to see partials. That’s quite impressive in and of itself.

      You have another reason to congratulate yourself — do you have any idea how rare it is these days to get any personalized feedback on a submission from an agent at all, much less a couple of pages? If you weren’t writing pretty well, that wouldn’t be happening, I assure you.

      It’s evidently your lucky day, because you have a third reason to be pleased — you’re open to the possibility that something in your work may not be clicking, and believe me, not every aspiring writer (or published author, for that matter) is willing to toy with that notion. In the long run, you’re going to be happier for it.

      From what you say, it sounds as though your manuscript’s issues are ones of marketability. This gives you two pretty clear options: either find an agent who specializes in literary fiction AND is fond of a more 19th-century style OR go through your first chapter (to start with) and see where you can pick up the pace without sacrificing the voice.

      Sacrificing the voice, incidentally, is what anyone who suggests that the only way to write is to copy a famous author is urging you to do. I think it’s a poor idea, personally; the world does not need another Raymond Carver wanna-be, any more than it needs another Charles Dickens. It needs new and wonderful ORIGINAL voices.

      So you’re either going to need to find an agent who will respond to your particular voice OR modify your voice in minor ways so your work is more marketable. Neither is a small task, of course. The first is going to involve quite a bit of reading amid the literary fiction currently on the market — say, published within the last five years — to see who is representing a more elaborate style these days. Not a decade ago, but NOW — and if you write literary fiction, there’s no point in querying agents who do not represent it, right?

      On the second front, this particular series is not going to address how to modify one’s work per se, but I have planned to spend April and May on text-based issues, including pace. I’m looking forward to your chiming in early and often with comments throughout.

      In the meantime, as a good first step, you might want to check out some of the posts in the PICKING UP THE PACE and FIRST PAGES AGENTS AND EDITORS DISLIKE categories at right, if you haven’t already. I’m going to be revisiting both of these topics and expanding upon them over the next couple of months, but with any luck, these archived posts (and the great comments others have left) may trigger some AHA! moments.

      But however you choose to proceed, be gentle with yourself and your manuscript. Yes, the process is frustrating, but you’re approaching it in the right spirit — by remembering that the book’s best interests need always to be paramount in the revision process.

      Hang in there, Harvey — and I look forward to your hanging around here.

  2. Two days ago I received a professional edit covering some of my work. Upset, I immediately deleted my entire error -ridden novel — after checking that I had a complete backup. My ego told me how wrong she was, how my perfect prose was simplymisunderstood. The next morning common sense overrode ego and I started on the necessary revisions. This series of blogs is a much needed push for us to recognize the need for input, no matter how unsettling it may be. My most glaring fault is lack of conflict, is that because my nature is bent that way? I don’t find ‘conflict’ in your categories Anne – is it possible to address this in the future? Gordon

    1. Gordon,

      I am beginning to wonder if “lack of conflict” and “lack of tension” and “couldn’t get into the story” might be synonymous phrases. In which case I fear that it’s one of the most common reasons manuscripts are put down. Of course, looking at my own work, I don’t know how to deal with it or fix it, particularly if I don’t see the lack that others cited.

      I once had a professor tell me “you write so well, you’re the best writer I’ve ever had. But you have a lack of conflict and I don’t know why that is. Is your life lacking conflict?” This was my mentor in college. I asked him how to fix it. His reply? “I have no idea. Get yourself psychoanalyzed. Maybe that can help.”

      I thought he was wrong. (He was unpublished, after all.) So I kept on. I do have some publication credits, but the novel sits here.

      Most disconcerting. Most disturbing. I think I’ll go take a Maalox now.

      1. Your second comment made me chuckle, Harvey — coming from a family of writers, I’m amused at the notion that making your life more tumultuous might add conflict to your writing. In my experience, there isn’t any necessary connection between the two.

        But you’re right that “lack of conflict” and “lack of tension” are sometimes used interchangeably in the industry — and yes, they are rather common causes of manuscript rejection. Technically, they mean different things — conflict is about barriers that the protagonist must face in order to pursue his desires, and tension refers to pacing the writing so that the reader never stops wondering what is going to happen next.

        “I couldn’t get into the story,” though, can mean many things. It could mean that the tension flagged, certainly, but it could also mean that the speaker didn’t identify enough with the protagonist or his goals, the stakes didn’t seem high enough, the speaker has an invincible horror of heights and the first scene took place on the top of the Space Needle…you get the picture.

        Here’s a good exercise that might help both you and Gordon start ramping up the tension: set aside a day, print up a hard copy of your manuscript, and sit down to read it. Every time you find your attention wandering, dog-ear the upper-right corner of the page. Those are the spots where the tension is drooping.

        Every time you find a page that doesn’t have some version of conflict on it — anything from the protagonist’s thinking the opposite of what he’s saying to fisticuffs counts — dog-ear the bottom right corner of the page.

        After you’ve finished reading, set the manuscript aside for a week or two. Then go back to the pages you’ve marked: how many of them are dog-eared in two places? Start your revisions there.

    2. Oh, Gordon, what timing — don’t apply feedback immediately is one of the rules I was planning to include in today’s post! I wish I had thought to include it sooner, because your response was very human — and very understandable. Many, many, MANY writers’ first impulse upon realizing just how closely pros read manuscripts is to flee in terror.

      Given your first reaction — I was SO relieved to read that you hadn’t deleted your only copy of the file! — you might want to consider allowing yourself a few more days to absorb. Professional-level critique is almost invariably overwhelming the first time around — I always ask my editing clients to wait a full week after receiving feedback before either touching the manuscript or contacting me to discuss what does and doesn’t need to be changed. It takes real courage and humility to ask for and apply professional feedback — give the creative side of your brain time to play catch-up with the side that dictates common sense.

      As it happens, I’m going to be writing about revision over the next couple of months, and cranking up the conflict is very definitely on the agenda!

      You’re quite right that it isn’t currently a category, though — which surprised me as much as it did you, because I’ve written about it at great length over the years. I’ll create the category when I start getting into the topic next month, and when I have time, I’ll go back through the archives to add old posts to it.

      Do bear in mind, though, that just because I don’t yet have a category titled with precisely the phrase you are seeking doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve never addressed the topic. If memory serves, some posts in the PICKING UP THE PACE, PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY, and MANUSCRIPT MEGAPROBLEMS dealt with adding conflict pretty explicitly. Then, too, it’s always worth plugging a key word into the search engine in the upper right-hand corner of the site.

      In the meantime, remember that you’re not alone, by any means. If the e-mails I’ve been receiving are any indication, a LOT of folks in the Author! Author! community are planning to spend the spring revising. Heck, even I’m going to be revising one of my books. So let’s all support one another through what is genuinely a difficult and emotionally-trying undertaking.

  3. One of the best things I’ve done in my writing life thus far was sign up for a critique session at a conference. A very fine, well-known author read my first 20 pages beforehand and made notes, and then I had a twelve-minute session with her at the conference. Twelve minutes, timed to the second. When you’ve got that little time, I think there’s a subconscious instinct that keeps you from interrupting the critiquer, asking too many questions, yapping about stuff that happens on page 206, talking about your publication goals, etc. I went in with 2 or 3 specific questions — all of which I got answered — and the critiquer asked me several specific questions, but the rest of the time I just listened to what she had to say. She had written a summary of her thoughts on the last page of my submission so that I could fully process her critique later.

    When I’d walked into the session (having sweated through two shirts and a cardigan, and also with my knees noticeably knocking together), I’d had no idea what to expect. But the critiquer started off with several very high compliments of my work. A part of me wanted to just take those and run! It took a minute to get myself mentally composed and ready to accept suggestions, and to remember the questions I wanted to ask. Would have been the same thing had the critiquer started off with, “I just didn’t connect with this.” (And I’ve gotten that before, too — in critique groups, about some of my regrettably autobiographical short stories). Aiming for both a mental and physical poker face is, I think, the best way to absorb a face-to-face critique.

    1. I’m SO glad to hear that your meeting was with such a thoughtful and professional critiquer! I’m impressed that she was sharp enough to start with what you’d done RIGHT — most aspiring writers aren’t really sure — and to give you a written summary, just in case you were too stressed out to hear all of what she said.

      That’s rare enough in conference feedback (unfortunately) that I want to give that woman a medal. Maybe I should start a Writers’ Friend award and take nominations…

      Having been on both sides of the critiquing table, though, I do have to say that a poker face can be pretty dissuasive to a feedback-giver’s investing much energy in the session (as your critiquer clearly did). But I’m glad that it worked for you.

  4. Anne,

    More later, but I just want to say that in this brief exchange already you’ve changed my life, in a good and positive way. Yes, I was looking at agents who were too far out there — David Foster Wallace, for instance, is 1996. And the ICM agent, similarly, was a big name a dozen years back. I need to research more of what’s happening right NOW, as you say. I know this manuscript doesn’t fit in with what’s out there, but looking at lyric books and perhaps an agent interested in older prose — early 20th century is probably an accurate idea of where I’m at aesthetically, the Max Perkins authors. But anyway your blog is a treasure trove and with your posts you’ve given me hope. And a great technique with dog-eared pages.

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