This is the second of a three-part series on receiving valuable, critical feedback, and how to avoid “feedback overload.” (If you missed the first post, go back and read it here.)

Before we get into the meat of the post, I read something, just this morning, that I thought applied. It is from Julia Cameron’s book, Walking in This World. She said:

Think of your project as “the arrow of desire.” Imagine yourself eyeing the bull’s-eye, pulling back the bow—and then thinking about it. Worrying about it. Considering whether you are aiming exactly right or whether you should be a smidgen higher or lower. Your arm begins to get tired. Then your aim begins to get shaky. If you manage to finally shoot the arrow, it does not sail with confidence and strength.

This was such an appropriate illustration for what I am talking about when I mention “feedback overload” or “the paralysis of feedback.” I hope you found it as vivid and illustrative as I did. Now, on with the blog post…

How to Receive Feedback

Getting valuable feedback is certainly helpful, but if you don’t know how to receive it properly, it can also be dangerous.

One danger of feedback is what I call “Story By Committee Syndrome”. SBCS happens when a writer is given a large quantity of feedback—perhaps from several sources—and attempts to incorporate it all into his current story, even if the feedback is contradictory. Doing this often leads to a muddled mess which can quickly rob the story—and the writer—of momentum and creative energy.

As helpful as feedback can be, it can obscure the path forward and make revision more difficult.
As helpful as feedback can be, it can obscure the path forward and make revision more difficult.

The second danger is related to the first, but it can happen independently of SBCS: Paralysis. Paralysis can happen when the writer feels it is either unclear how she should proceed or the path forward seems too difficult to travel. This may manifest as a crisis of confidence in the writer’s talent or ability, or as a questioning of whether or not the writing life is really a worthwhile pursuit.

Or, it may bubble to the surface as the pervasive, low-grade fever we call “doubt.” Doubt of ability. Doubt of the story. Doubt that there is some intrinsic good in an artistic pursuit that makes it more valuable and worthwhile than, say, pounding two rocks together until you’ve reduced them to dust.

I know this happens to others, but let me share with you my own experience: I have some level of this sort of doubt almost every day. Most days, it is just a dull voice that I can easily dismiss. But, when I know a story needs to be improved and reworked in dramatic ways, that voice is bolstered to a critical point where I have to remind myself that the voice of this kind of resistance is just trying to rob me of the joy I find in writing.

In an effort to keep these doubts at bay—or to at least whack them on the head with a mallet when they pop up out of their hiding hole—I try to keep the following points in mind:

Four Tips For Properly Receiving Feedback

  1. First, be open to the reality that your story is not now—and likely never will be—perfect. If we hold perfection as an obtainable goal, rather than consider it to be an ideal, we will subconsciously give up before we even try to fix the problems in our work. Instead, I like to focus on writing the best story (or blog, or poem) that I can write today. I see feedback as a tool for making me a better writer tomorrow and the next day, but my writing doesn’t have to be perfect to be valuable.
  2. Remember that your story is your story, so focus on implementing feedback that fits with your vision of what you want to say. The more experience you have with receiving feedback, the better you will be at discerning which feedback will help illuminate your artistic vision, and which feedback is not relevant to you or your work. Developing this discernment muscle only comes through experience, knowledge, and repetition.
  3. As you learn to be more discerning about which feedback you will apply to your work, you will grow more confident in taking this step: Learn to reject, without malice, any feedback that doesn’t fit your vision. Feedback that is wrong for you or your story is not necessarily wrong advice. It just isn’t right for you. As long as you genuinely considered the feedback with an open mind, you are free to reject it. You do have to be sure you aren’t rejecting the advice out of pride or fear, but instead are doing the best thing for your work.
  4. Finally, don’t allow the feedback to overwhelm you. Becoming overloaded with feedback can be a scary and debilitating thing. It can have the opposite of its intended effect. Feedback is given (hopefully) in the spirit of helping you revise your work, but if we aren’t careful, it can discourage us. There are ways, though to avoid feedback overload, or to recover from it, if you are already overloaded.

In the final post of this three-part series, I will give some tips on avoiding (or recovering from) feedback overload—a condition that can paralyze your writing life.

Until then, happy writing!

Overwhelmed by Feedback, Part Two