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Mar 17, 2021

What Feedback to Implement

By: Rachel Hanley

When my first short story was accepted for publication, I knew to expect at least one round of revisions with the magazine’s editing team. No problem. I was even excited for my first professional editor letter. 

Then I got the letter. They made lots of small suggestions and even one larger suggestion that re-framed an entire scene. The team’s insight made complete sense to me, so I implemented everything without any complaints. Well, almost everything. Then there was the feedback for the ending. The editors wanted me to change the ending, and they had a specific idea of how the story should end… and I hated it. Their version just wasn’t a story I wanted to tell. If I made the change, I would no longer feel proud of publishing this work; it wouldn’t really feel like my work anymore.

As I was agonizing over this judgment call, I flashed back to a conversation years earlier with an editor I met at a literature conference. She told me most editors don’t expect the author to make every change they suggest. She also said that whenever egos hackle, it’s important to remember that both the editor and the writer have the same goal: to make the work the best it can be. Last, she urged that a writer shouldn’t make any changes that they will regret. 

I also recalled one of my favorite quotes about feedback from Neil Gaiman: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Bearing all that in mind, I decided that the editors asking me to change the ending was symptomatic of a weak ending. What did their alternative version seek to fix? I also asked myself why I disliked their suggestion so much. Between those two questions, I pinpointed why the current ending felt weak and how to fix it to my satisfaction. I did revise the ending, just not the way they asked me to. I was nervous when I submitted my revised draft, but they loved it. They said the new ending was so much better than both the original and what they had suggested.

Feedback is hard. Yes, emotionally, sometimes it’s hard to take in a lot of criticism, even constructive. However, that’s not the kind of hard I want to discuss here. Feedback is also hard because everyone brings their unique experiences and perspectives to reading your work. You simply cannot write something to the point of perfection because art is too subjective. That also means there’s often significant variation in feedback for the same work. So what feedback should you implement?

Of course, there are many circumstantial aspects to this topic, but I’ve developed a few helpful guidelines for myself: assessments of whether I’m tempted to dismiss feedback for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. First of all, most of us know that we aren’t going to make the best use of any feedback unless we can be really honest with ourselves. Keeping that in mind, ask yourself—really honestly—why are you resistant to implementing this feedback?

Is the criticism hurtful? Some people simply aren’t tactful, but being brutal and being insightful aren’t mutually exclusive. Whether or not you want to continue working with someone who batters your ego is a whole separate topic. As for whether to implement hurtful feedback, first try to take the sting out of the suggestions. Not everyone is good at constructive criticism. Feedback often feels hurtful when it’s lacking the constructive part. Instead of saying, “I think your beginning opens too early; consider starting at Chapter 3,” perhaps someone writes, “The first two chapters are AWFUL. I was soooo bored!!” The latter is not constructive, but if we remove the sting, both suggest the first two chapters could be cut. I would encourage you to avoid anyone whose input makes you feel bad about yourself, but if you already have some hurtful criticism on your hands, you might take a moment to see if there are any good points beneath the stings. 

Does the criticism hurt your pride? Yes, this is different than the question above. Let’s assume your CP was perfectly constructive and respectful, but the feedback still hurts. Perhaps you thought an element of your work was really strong, and yet that’s being called out as a weakness. Receiving feedback can be an emotional process. You don’t need to make every change everyone suggests, but it’s important to stay open to all input, especially the unexpected. The fact is that if we were all perfectly capable of pinpointing our own work’s flaws, we wouldn’t need feedback. Yes, sometimes your partner will confirm that something you suspected wasn’t working, well, you’re right, it’s not working. But when they point out something you didn’t see coming at all? Try to take a moment to be grateful. This is exactly what is amazing about critique partners. It’s easy for us to see our work as we want it to be, but not how it currently is. The best critique partners help us close that gap and, like editors, we have the same goal: we’re all trying to make the work the best it can be.

Did only one person among several readers suggest a particular change? Obviously, it means they’re outnumbered, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Don’t dismiss feedback for this reason, but instead ask yourself whether the suggestion resonates with you. Some of my best feedback gold came from one reader out of thirty. That said, there have also been times when someone really dislikes a certain aspect of my story, but I chose to listen to everyone else who thinks it’s working. Don’t make feedback all about polling: seven votes said change and two said keep so you feel obligated to change. Take everything in with an open mind, but make the call that feels right for you.

Is the suggested change going to be really hard and/or time-consuming to implement? Well, writing is hard. Giving and receiving critique is hard. Revision and submission are hard. If you’re pursuing a career as an author, you’ve chosen a hard path and I don’t think you should ever let yourself be deterred by the idea of hard work. Whenever I suspect this is my reason, even partially, for balking at certain criticism, I make myself do the work first, and then I decide if it helped. I write at least a portion of the revised version, and then I assess whether this change makes the work better than the original. This way, I can ensure I’m not simply resistant to a suggestion because it implies a lot of extra work. Commit to hard work either way and focus on what will make your story the best. 

Will implementing a change take you away from the story you want to tell? Always remember that art is subjective. Even when we’re discussing bestselling and award-winning novels, we aren’t all in agreement about “good” and “bad.” You will never be able to write something everyone adores, but you can easily torture yourself trying. It’s impossible to implement every piece of feedback you receive simply because the feedback sometimes conflicts. Instead, ask yourself whether the suggestion would help make your story a better version of itself or if it would make the work something else entirely— something you don’t want to write. 

There’s a repetitive theme to my advice: staying open to feedback while also staying true to the story you want to tell. Before even seeking critique, I recommend considering what exactly you are trying to write, what you want to accomplish with your writing. Do you have a core message, or is it all about entertaining the reader? What is most important to you about your story? What kinds of things would you be willing to change and what changes would make you feel like you’re selling out? I have had some critique partners who are highly critical, but their suggestions are invaluable in improving my work in the ways that I want. I have also had partners who heap on the praise, but most of their seemingly minor suggestions subtly push me to write something totally different. Your best CPs will be the ones who understand and support your ideal vision for the story.  

There is always a discrepancy between the incredible story in our minds and what we get onto a page, especially in early drafts. Feedback is intended to help close this gap as much as possible. When you’re sifting through criticism, don’t ask yourself what feedback was difficult to process or what changes seem too hard. Instead, ask: what feedback would help move you closer towards the story you’re trying to tell?


About the author

Rachel was born in Cambridge, England and raised in California. She has eclectic reading tastes, but mostly writes young adult fantasy. When not writing or reading, she can be found rock climbing, practicing aerial silks, baking, or cuddling her adorable corgi, Cerberus. She has also worked as a bookseller, published a short story, and contributed to Random House’s blog. Find out more at