Getting good at incorporating feedback: getting your revision moving in the right direction


Last time, I raised everyone’s blood pressure a little by talking about an issue that we writers seldom discuss openly except amongst our closest friends: receiving a forceful recommendation from an editor or agent to make manuscript revisions that the author feels are a bad idea. Heaven forefend that this should happen to you, of course, but it is a common enough occurrence that I did not feel right about concluding this series on incorporating feedback without discussing how to deal with it.

Before I do, however, let me share the saga of Mr. Fennel.

Mr. Fennel was my sixth-grade reading teacher — thankfully, in my middle school, different teachers taught reading and writing. Why thankfully, you ask? Because even to an eleven-year-old, it was pretty apparent that Mr. F should not be giving feedback to impressionable young writers.

And not merely because his sole comment on my book report on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO was, “Did you read it all?”

He was…well, distracted much of the time, to the extent that much of our classwork bordered on the surreal. Some days, he would simply stare into space whilst a child stumblingly read aloud, ignoring the mispronounced words, attempts to sound things out, and sometimes even questions from my little classmates. On others, he would bring stacks of mimeographed sheets containing lyrics to pop songs with strategic words left out, à la Mad Libs, then play records at us for an hour on end so we could fill in the missing lyrics.

Ostensibly, this exercise was supposed to develop our listening skills, but the songs all seemed to contain eerily similar lyrics: your eyes have a mist from the smoke of a different fire; the angel in your arms this morning is gonna be the devil in someone else’s arms tonight; your cheatin’ heart is gonna make you weep; you can go your own way; you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby, you’re no good.

Mr. Fennel had some problems at home, I’m guessing.

It wasn’t until years later, once I started teaching at the university level, that it occurred to me that perhaps he had imported this absurd busywork so that he would have fewer papers to grade. If you ship the class’ fastest readers off to the library for six weeks to design a floor plan for Toad Hall of a level of specificity that would make most architects weep with envy, you’re going to end up with fewer book reports to grade, after all. If you assign the class three straight weeks of poetry readings, followed by two weeks of filmstrips on such literary luminaries as Johnny Tremaine and Paul Revere, the paperwork would drop even more precipitously. And if you devote periods and periods of class time to the silent memorization of nonsense limericks…well, you get the picture.

I didn’t make up any of these examples, by the way. I can still reel off several of those silly limericks at the drop of the proverbial hat. I might have preferred to use my brain space for something ELSE, Mr. Fennel.

I’m not bringing this up to rag on someone who must now be collecting a well-earned teachers’ pension or ignoring schoolchildren in that great public middle school in the sky — okay, not ENTIRELY to rag on him — but because, in a way, Mr. Fennel made a wise strategic decision: when he was in no fit emotional state to be scrawling commentary in the margins of papers, he stopped doing it.

Unfortunately, most professional readers do not have that luxury. Come sleet, hail, dark of night, or break-up of marriage, they still need to plow through all of those manuscripts. Is it so surprising, then, that they might occasionally scrawl a comment or two that is a bit off the wall?

I mention this because writers very seldom stop to consider the possible mindset of the feedback-giver when contemplating requested revisions. We tend to treat every word — nay, every syllable! — an agent or editor says about our work as though it were as carefully thought-through as a doctoral dissertation, a perfect representation of what the commenter would think about the manuscript in question today, tomorrow, or fifty years hence.

Sometimes it is, of course — but agents and editors, like everyone else, are only human. Consider the possibility that a particularly outlandish suggestion may have been the result of a momentary abstraction. Or even (perish the thought) a non-writer’s vague idea about how to improve a manuscript.

Is the editorial mind-changing I mentioned a few days back starting to make more sense now?

But I digress; when I left off yesterday, I was going through a series of steps for dealing reasonably with a set of requested revisions that seems less than reasonable. Following these steps can help minimize the probability of hard feelings, botched revisions (oh, it happens), AND getting into a screaming fight over something a feedback-giver may have mentioned at a Mr. Fennel moment.

Let’s take another look at those first couple of steps:

(1) Go through the requested changes one more time, and make sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

(1a) Print up the editorial memo or letter from your agent and go through the requested changes one by one, highlighting those that seem reasonable enough to make without further discussion.

(1b) Go back through the revision request document again and highlight the requests about which your considered reaction is merely tepid, rather than raising your blood pressure to dangerous levels.

(2) Go through the manuscript and make every change you highlighted. Right away.

Everyone happy with those? Well, perhaps not happy per se, but at least clear on why they might be more productive than shooting off a vicious e-mail to the critiquer? Good. Let’s move on.

(3) Go through the suggestions you have not yet highlighted and make them into a I Don’t Wanna list, ranked in descending order of distastefulness.

This step is really for you. Ranking them will force you to reexamine just how much you actually object to each — and to consider each individually, rather than as part of an egregious whole. Are there some changes that you would be willing to make if you did not have to make others?

Yes, I am gearing up to say what you think I’m gearing up to say: often, a writer is able to negotiate on one or two specific points — but seldom the whole shebang. Basically, Step #3 is an exercise in figuring out which battles to pick.

(3a) Write down a few specific arguments for and against doing each of the suggestions on the I Don’t Wanna list — text-based arguments, rather than merely the fact that you hate the suggestion in question. Be as specific as you can.

Make realistic estimates about how long each would take, for instance, and what else in the book would have to change in order to accommodate each one. Remember, agents and editors are usually not writers themselves — what may appear to a reader to be a perfectly straightforward change may look to a writer as if it would require changing the running order of the entire book.

(3b) Go through the I Don’t Wanna list, concentrating particularly on the suggestions that you ranked low in noxiousness and the ones that you have determined would not require major manuscript overhauls. Could you see your way clear to making those changes now?

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? At most, you’re going to be able to debate 2-3 points productively — so the more of the other suggestions you can clear off the bargaining table, so to speak, the better.

If all appear equally distasteful to you, or if you find yourself getting resentful even considering them, STOP. Take a break; get some outside perspective. This is not an assessment a writer can make productively without a cool head.

(3c) Make as many of the changes on the list as you can bear, reserving a couple of particular bugbears for further discussion, if you must.

Yes, you really should make the changes you can live with before you discuss the rest. Believe me, your arguments will carry more weight if you can demonstrate you tried to comply before attempting to negotiate.

Also — and this is no small consideration — your manuscript will undoubtedly be different after these changes; it will no longer be precisely the same book it was when your agent or editor critiqued it. By muddling through the partial revision, you will make yourself intimately familiar with the new and improved version.

Who better, then, to discuss it?

(4) CALMLY and PROFESSIONALLY, ask your editor or agent for clarification of the 2-3 most distasteful points, mentioning first that you have already made the bulk of the requested changes.

Now that you have singled out a few specific points out of the array of suggested changes, it is time to double-check that you haven’t just misunderstood what you are being asked to do — and to give your feedback-giver the opportunity to clarify vague suggestions.

Make it non-confrontational, and do try, if at all possible, to single out one of the suggestions you already implemented for praise, as in, “Wow, I wouldn’t have thought that changing my protagonist’s lesbian sister to a straight brother would have worked so well.”

Note that I did NOT say to construct a long, impassioned e-mail, giving all of your reasons against implementing the last few suggestions. This is merely a request to for more information: simply say (POLITELY) that you do not understand the purpose of some of the suggested changes, and ask for clarification on these two or three specific points.

Then stop typing. Or talking.

Why stop? Because if you keep going, the urge to start making your case is going to become overwhelming — and that is not the purpose of this step. Right now, all you are doing is making sure that you understand what you are being asked to do.

Before you pooh-pooh the importance of this step, remember Mr. Fennel: it’s possible that the suggestion you hated most was not exactly what the critiquer meant to say. (You’d be surprised how often an editor miswrote a suggestion in the margins, asking for change A when he really wanted change H.)

One last thing: I ALWAYS advise making this request via e-mail, so you have a written record of the afterward. But if you are making this request of an editor, consider discussing the situation with your agent first, if you have one. Your agent may well want to handle this situation for you.

(5) After politely soliciting this further feedback, reassess.

Carefully note any changes in what you are being asked to do, and make any subsequent revisions that seem reasonable RIGHT AWAY. That way, you have demonstrated yet again that you are a reasonable author, willing to work with your editor or agent — which will place you in a stronger position in future negotiations on the remaining points.

Take another look at your list of unacceptable changes. Does anything on it still need to be addressed, or can you now finish revising your manuscript in peace? Have you won enough concessions that you could live with the rest of the changes?

Take a few days to linger on this step, deadlines permitting, because it is an extremely important one.

Why? Well, you are deciding whether your remaining objections are worth a fight with your agent or editor, two people whom you really do want to be fond of you and your work. If you have any suspicion that your objections to the remaining points are based in your pride being hurt, rather than fear that your BOOK will be hurt, make sure you understand your own motivations.

Incidentally, if pride is the issue, I think it is perfectly acceptable for you to go back to your agent and editor and say, “You know, I really appreciated your feedback on the book, but I noticed that I had a hard time with the way it was presented. It may just be my personal pet peeve, but I hear constructive criticism much better if it’s put as X, rather than as Y.”

This is not being whiny; it’s clarifying the conditions under which you work best. The more information you can give your agent and editor about how best to communicate with you, the less of everyone’s time and energy will be wasted on missed signals.

(6) If suggestions remain on the I Don’t Wanna list that you feel you absolutely cannot implement in good faith, THEN try to negotiate.

If you decide that the remaining point(s) are so detrimental to the book that they are worth a battle royale, now is the time to start the negotiation process. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll give some practical tips on that step.

Most of the time, however, it doesn’t need to come to that.

I have walked a lot of clients through this process, and I can tell you from experience that no matter whether you decide to push forward with your objections or not, if you have gone through the first five steps in a spirit of honesty, dedicated to the integrity of your manuscript, you will earn a reputation for being a level-headed, reasonable writer eager to revise.

That’s no mean feat, considering that you began the process in fundamental disagreement with your agent or editor. It’s a laudable goal, though, because a smart writer wants to remain on good terms with agent, editor, and everyone involved in the publication process.

As always, it’s in your best interest, ultimately, to right the urge to turn the feedback-giver into the enemy. Remember: no matter how misguided you feel the suggested revisions may be, the critiquer is on YOUR side — and your book’s. Or should be.

Keep up the good work!

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