Responding to bad advice

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series bad advice

When we get bad advice, there’s usually some obligation to respond in some way, to acknowledge the feedback. No matter how bad the advice is, it’s important to remain professional—and not do something you’ll regret later.

Don’t react

The initial slap-in-the-face sting will fade. Okay, it may not—but the first minute you read something that’s just prima facie all wrong isn’t the best time to jump on it. Give it a few minutes; go have some chocolate if necessary.

If this is an in-person setting, now is a good time to nod. Narrow your eyes a little if you want, but anything more than that is probably a little rude. (The eye narrowing nod can look like either disbelief or sage acceptance.)

Weigh it out

This phrasing comes from Josi Kilpack. She points out that no matter how off-base a comment may seem, there may be a kernel of truth in it. Somewhere. And who knows, maybe—just maybe—they were right after all.

I should add here that fortunately I’ve been a victim of this one, too. My favorite example here is when a critique partner suggested I add a scene near the beginning of the book. I hemmed and hawed over this privately—until the scene started playing out in my mind. It was so entertaining—and just like she said, solved so many problems—that I just had to write it, just to see what it’d look like. (And when I still liked the finished product, I stuck it in there.)

Be gracious

Finally, no matter whether you got a hundred great ideas to revolutionize and revitalize your story—or just got the general idea that this person is clueless—be sure to thank them. This person didn’t have to take time out to read your work and try to help you, albeit unsuccessfully.

Thank them. If possible, tell them how their comments helped you. If that’s not possible (and sometimes it’s just not), still thank them. Sometimes, that’s all you’ll be able to do—while in some settings, it’s appropriate to discuss and clarify feedback (while not arguing), in others, that’s just not appropriate or even possible. So thank them and move on.

What’s your biggest challenge in reacting to feedback?

Photo credit: Neils van Kampenhout

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6 thoughts on “Responding to bad advice”

  1. I just don’t respond to any feedback except to thank people.
    I take it FWIW.
    The worst possible thing is to turn it into an argument. People either love or hate my feedback…some have gotten so pissed off my by feedback that they’ve called me names. Whatevs. It’s just my opinion, not the Word of the Lord.
    I think I’ve helped myself a bit by backing off on critiques of style and just focusing on the story.

  2. I like to thank them generally, and again specifically for any thoughts that may really help. I always ignore the unhelpful parts. Some people sound rude when they are honestly trying to help.

    My biggest challenge comes when I get a critique that essentially says: “It’s fine” with no explanation. I need to know both the parts that worked and the places I failed. It’s hard to thank someone for a “no comment” critique.

  3. Hi, I lurk since your guest post on Nathan’s blog.

    The greatest challenge in responding to bad feedback for me is not being gracious. It’s finding the real problem. I see instantly that the advice doesn’t apply to me. I also see what the reader “didn’t get”. But, for me, both of it doesn’t really show me how to make the story better. To say I need to take a step back would be wild understatement. I need to walk miles away from the story to be able to fix it.

    Being gracious is a piece of cake. You just keep in mind that writers want to be read more desperately than readers want to read. And you can always thank them for their unique perspective.

  4. I agree with Deb that it’s difficult to thank someone who essentially hasn’t said anything helpful. It’s also difficult when a suggestion is given, offering wording for something that isn’t the way I would ever say it. I try to glean the reason for the suggestion, see why the original section isn’t working for that person, but I struggle over how to deal with it. Most often I nod in agreement and then rework the section in my own words if I think there’s a legitimate reason to make a change. In any case, I always appreciate that someone has taken the time to go through my work thoughtfully and I’m happy to thank them for reading it.

  5. @Andrew—I’ve found myself backing off style critiques, unless it’s a readability issue. I have different styles than my CPs—and that’s great—and there’s no reason to try to change theirs.

    @Deb—I’ve had the same problem. I’ve gotten “critiques” of 20+ pages with a five word response. My standard thank you email is longer than that.

    @Phyllis—Welcome! Please, chime in any time! Thanking someone for their unique perspective is exactly what I did the last time I received an extensive, completely wrong headed critique.

    @Carol—With some CPs, I can take their wording suggestions because it doesn’t sound foreign to my style. With others, I just look for ways to rephrase myself—if it’s genuinely confusing. Sometimes, I’ll have someone say they got confused in a section (3 lines or so) without any other explanation, so then I’m more confused than they are 😉 .

  6. Note that if some says they’re “ready for submission” and needs a line-edit, then it’s open season on style, voice, sentence structure, etc. I can usually make a comment about every single sentence. Word choices, POV, etc.
    But for the “drop in” critique group I go to, it’s usually a bit too much and turns people off.
    Unless they want a critique on a paragraph-length piece. Then what else can I do?

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