Dealing With Writing Feedback and Making Sense of Writing Critique

One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of writing critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the writing feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following…

writing feedback
Getting varying writing feedback? How do you deal with writing critique that varies, or that you disagree with?

I have a question about writing feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third writing critique, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

Dealing With Diverse Writing Feedback

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent feedback.

However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher writing feedback because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable writing feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Considering the Source of the Writing Critique

Freelance fiction editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. (Opening up the great art vs business debate!) Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s writing feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working. (Advice for dealing with negative feedback.)

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (ideally an editor who has had publishing industry experience). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else.

Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding writing feedback and make it empowering instead.

I’m a book editor with thousands of freelance clients and ten years of experience in the publishing industry, including five years as a literary agent. I bring the best of both worlds–business and art–to your book project.

11 Replies to “Dealing With Writing Feedback and Making Sense of Writing Critique”

  1. Great advice! And oddly enough coincides perfectly with my own blog post today of how to receive criticism. I’m going to link this article on my post.

    The tags cracked me up! Despair!

  2. Great advice, indeed!

    But here’s a question: Mary, do you think a freelance editor, not wishing to alienate a paying customer who may use their services again, would be reluctant to give an honest “This is trash”, whereas an agent would feel more at ease in being bluntly honest?

  3. I’m sure there were tons of ‘legitimate’ agents and editors (in fact, I know this for a fact, because both authors have said this) who turned down Twilight and Harry Potter because they felt they weren’t marketable. I’m sorry, but editors and agents are wrong about these sorts of things all the time, so if I was that author I would go out with the project anyway while at the same time working on another project while it’s out on submission. (Fifty Shades of Gray is another example.)

  4. “There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else.Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. ”

    I was going through something similar, but this really refreshed my way of thinking.

  5. This question was also in my mind and i’m glad you replied to it.
    I work in a little french publishing house and sometimes, my boss says : if i was working alone, i would never publish anything. She always see something wrong in every manuscripts so I think that writers shouldn’t always listen to what publishers/agents say because they can be harsh. Don’t trash the hole thing for one comment. Even a valuable one.

    I’m sorry for my english mistakes, “pardon my french” like they said.

  6. Also, possibly consider that those first 10 pages are not where you should start the story. 🙂 And get a critique group, or a CP or two – someone unpaid who doesn’t have the conflict of interest, but knows the genre.
    There’s no way to tell what’s really wrong with that set of critiques. If there are some major issues with the storytelling, a freelance editor isn’t going to necessarily see it as a problem. If the story lacks the right sort of voice or any of a hundred other stylistic issues the freelancer might not be able to say ‘fix it.’ The agent also might not be able to explain the problem and think, well maybe if the author writes more she’ll sort it out for herself, which may or may not be true. If it is a problem with marketability, you’ll want someone to say that and tell you why it’s a problem before you start off on another project that falls at the same fence.

  7. I like this post. It’s so honest. Marketability matters and a writer can’t know what the market is going to do, so all we can do is write. It’s kind of sad.

  8. Thank you for lending valuable perspective. It is good to be reminded of what growth can be inspired through the recieving of some not so uplifting but nonetheless sobering feedback.

  9. Ultimately, feedback is always a single person’s opinion. In the case of editors and agents, it’s the educated opinion of a professional… but still a single person’s opinion in a very complex, subjective world.

    We can perfect the techniques of the craft (or hire someone to help with that), and we can try to achieve the pinnacle of marketability, but in the end the writer must tell the story the way the story must be told. There’s a not-so-fine line between confidence and arrogance; definitely seek feedback, but also be prepared to throw it away if it doesn’t feel right to you.

  10. Was the agent critique given during one of Writer’s Digest first ten pages bootcamps? I got an email for one of these recently and it looks great in theory– a fast professional opinion, before and after revision– but you have to consider the agents participating are reading and critiquing something close to 250 pages apiece in the space of 24 hours.

    Unless they didn’t sleep or eat or take potty breaks, I don’t imagine they had a lot of time to devote to each individual piece. Plus, I know this is all part of an agents job, but personally I would have been burnt out at about the 10th submission.

    I’m not in any way insulting the participating agent’s opinions but I’m also not sure I would be willing to trash my WIP on a relatively rushed critique of such a small portion of it.

    If it were my WIP I would:
    A.) Join a critique group. You’ll be likely meet great people, be able to help them out as well, and get more long term and in-depth feedback. Not to mention it’s cheaper!
    B.) Put the WIP aside for a while and come back to it with a fresh perspective.

  11. I’m in a similar spot after three conference critiques. One said work on voice, one said work on characterization, and one said make the characters younger and add some fantasy. Wah? So I’m working on the first two and ignoring the third.

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