How to Evaluate and Use Feedback From Agents, Editors, and Other Writers

Written by A Guest Author

Adele Annesi

Among the most agonizing aspects of being a writer is getting feedback, especially if it’s unexpected or negative. Equally difficult is analyzing comments in order to decide which to use, how to implement what we accept (when we can choose), and what to do with what we put aside. To use feedback from agents, editors and other writers effectively, we must also understand what their comments mean for our work, because even harsh advice, when accurate, can help writers grow and flourish.

As a founder of the craft-based Ridgefield Writers Conference, I work with agents, editors and writers, and their critiques. I’m also an instructor at the Westport Writers’ Workshop. Moreover, I’m a writer and have the same sensibilities as everyone else. I find the most effective frontline approach to feedback, whatever the source, is to view it as a learning opportunity.

Even in today’s varied and variable publishing climate, many writers still explore the prospect of working with literary agents, whose primary goal is to match the writer and his or her work with the right editor and publisher.

To that end, agents help prepare the writer’s project for publication by recommending changes and even helping with edits. Changes can include adding or removing a prologue or introduction, strengthening early chapters, seeking greater clarity and detail, reducing some sections while augmenting others, and fleshing out narratives. These changes are generally intended to make the writer’s work salable.

The key to this process, and a way for the writer to benefit beyond just increased marketability, is understanding the agent’s rationale regarding changes so that writer and agent can work well together. To reach this objective, writers need to know why the agent is requesting or making the changes. If the rationale isn’t clear, ask questions, respectfully, as this will foster a long-term, professional relationship. Yes, writing is creative and personal, but it’s also work.

Editors at traditional and independent publishers also help prepare a writer’s work for publication. But editors have an even clearer sense of the writer’s audience than agents because editors know the intricacies of their particular market segment, as well as the competition. When an editor makes a change, look carefully at the before and after to understand why. If you still don’t know, ask. When you’re tasked with making a change, make sure you understand upfront the editor’s reasoning and the impact of the change on the overall project so that you can effectively implement the modification. If the editor’s recommendations differ from the agent’s, ask why. When dealing with agents and editors, an open mind is essential, but so is clarity.

Clarity and objectivity are also helpful when receiving feedback from other writers. So is emotional distance. Feedback is most disconcerting when it sneaks in and challenges our self-perceptions or hopes; but even apparently unconstructive feedback is, at its heart, just a different perspective. To effectively use written feedback from other writers, read and annotate their notes, including with questions, as you would a homework assignment. If you’re in workshop, listen carefully to the critiques and take notes. This academic-style approach helps protect us from internalizing others’ opinions before we filter them. It also helps us differentiate useful from detrimental advice so that we can better decide what to implement and how.

So which feedback do we use? How do we implement what we accept? And what do we do with what we put aside? One way to analyze and evaluate feedback is to put it into two categories: comments that resonate with our concerns and project vision and comments that don’t. We can then prioritize the useful comments from most to least relevant. Next to each item we can jot down ways to address the point. Prioritization is key because tackling a more crucial issue often resolves a lesser one. And before implementing any feedback, put it aside to let the emotional fog clear so that you can better visualize the implementation. Since even harsh critiques can contain a kernel of truth, save apparently valueless observations in a separate file where you’re not continually reminded of them but can review them if you later think they could be helpful.

Feedback, even negative or unexpected, doesn’t have to unnerve us, if we remember that the use of feedback is a process that can make us better writers and wiser humans. To this end, I often remind my workshop writers and writers who use beta readers (usually chosen by writers to read full manuscripts) that the critiques writers receive are merely other options. And no writer is obligated to accept advice, even mine, if it doesn’t fit their vision of the project. We may never feel great about the feedback process, but with a strategy in place we can minimize the pain and maximize the benefits.


Adele Annesi is an award-winning writer and editor, and co-author of Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA. A founder of the Ridgefield Writers Conference, book editor and former development editor for Scholastic, Adele has published work in 34th Parallel, Midway Journal, the Washington Independent Review of Books and Southern Literary Review, where she was managing editor. Her work has been anthologized for Chatter House Press and Essays About Life Transitions by Women Writers. Adele teaches at Westport Writers’ Workshop.

 

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