Getting good feedback is one of the biggest challenges for a writer. First there's the awful vulnerability of opening yourself—your very heart—to judgment. And then, if you can manage to survive that, there is the challenge of getting good feedback that actually helps you grow as a writer.
Remember, the reason you write today is so that you can be a better writer in the future. I promise you that you will one day look back at your best work today and wonder how you thought it was good. That's not to say it isn't good. You might be a fantastic writer today, but you'll be a better one in the future.
Even Paul Newman, one of the greatest actors of his day says this about his early work:
"I cannot bear to look at a film that I made before 1990. Maybe 1985. There's no sense even trying to explain it. I really just can't stand watching myself. I see all the machinery at work and it just drives me nuts, so I don't look at anything."
If you keep growing you may feel the same way someday. Paul Newman's early work was still good, but he was even better later on. As you will be.
Feedback is one of the best ways to grow as a writer, but you must be careful. There are many types of feedback and some can be more harmful than helpful.
I have three rules for getting feedback.
1. Don't Ask Just Anyone for Feedback
The first rule is that you should be discriminating about who you ask for feedback. Don't just hand your work to the nearest warm body. You should only ask for feedback from someone you feel safe with and trust. Pay attention to your feelings. Learn to know the difference between a little anxiety and distrust. Mom can be a safe source of feedback because she tends to have your best interest at heart (I hope), but if you do get feedback from an encouraging Mom be sure to consider the next rule.
2. Always Consider the Source
There are four types of people who give feedback and you should always decide which type corresponds to the feedback you are receiving.
The first type loves you (or fears you) and will therefore always give a positive review. This type will always tell you what you long to hear. This is fine, after all, sometimes you need some encouragement, but it doesn't help you become a better writer. "Thanks Mom. Love you. I needed that." Now go talk to someone else.
The second type of person who gives feedback is indifferent. This type will say anything to make you go away or will find a way to make light of the exercise. The reviewer may hand your work back to you saying simply, "Nice job," or may obsess on one little oddity and tell you it's weird or funny—something like a typo where you wrote sha instead of she. Again, not that helpful. Whatever this type of person says, you can ignore it. Whatever the observations made, they are irrelevant because there was no thought put into the review.
The third type of person is always critical and focuses only on the negative. This type will find something to criticize while glossing over the good parts. If you can take it, this type of reviewer can provide some valuable feedback, but just remember to put it in context. The review may sound worse than it really is and there might be some good stuff in your work that wasn't mentioned. In my experience, this type of reviewer is often trying to be helpful rather than hurtful. It's a matter of perspective is it not? Critical reviewers may believe that criticism helps you grow--and they are correct—but a little encouragement would be nice, too, right?
Finally, the fourth type of person to get feedback from is the most desirable. This type may be a fellow writer, a comrade in arms, who understands the writer's journey. A writing teacher or a paid editor could also fall into this category of reviewer. But even with this type, you must be sure to evaluate the feedback yourself, run it through your own filters. For example, is the reviewer more critical, more supportive? How should you weigh the advice?
With all of this, my point is that you should never take feedback at face value. Over time you will learn to be more open and have less intense emotional reactions. This comes with confidence and is true in all aspects of life, not just writing.
I've been a professional software developer for many years. I've grown in confidence and I know I'm good at my profession. I welcome feedback and even enjoy it—whether it is good, bad or ugly. Truly. It doesn't phase me. It only helps because I know in the end that I'll produce a better product.
Alright, let's recap. Rule #1: only ask for feedback from people you feel safe with and trust. Rule #2: always evaluate the type of reviewer so that you know how seriously to take the feedback.
3. Communicate What Kind of Feedback You Want to Receive
My third feedback rule says that you must tell the reviewer what you expect. People are usually concerned about hurting your feelings so why not make it easier for them. If you're anxious, you could say, "I'm new to this and I'd like you to tell me only what you think is good." There's no reason you can't say this. You'll still get some constructive feedback this way.
As you get more comfortable with feedback, you could give the reviewer permission to be as critical as he wants. You could even say that you love direct, detailed feedback because it really helps you grow.
In the end, you must remember that feedback is not black and white or absolute. If you think about the writers, artists or celebrities you know, I'm sure you could think of a criticism for each of them. In spite of having flaws, and often because of their flaws, they are extremely successful.
Receiving feedback can be difficult, but it is one of your best tools for growing as a writer.
Remember, be selective about the people you ask to review your work. Assess what type of person they are so you can put their feedback into perspective and finally, be sure to tell them ahead of time exactly what you want to hear from them so they don't have to worry about whether it's alright to be direct or whether they should offer more encouragement.
Ultimately, of course, you want honest feedback from knowledgeable people who you trust. Despite your best efforts, the feedback will sometimes be less than you hoped for. Eventually, however, you will come to enjoy feedback of all types as you see how it ultimately builds your confidence and grows you as a writer.
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