There is a lot of advice about how to give advice but not so much on how to receive it. This seems wrong to me. Giving advice is something we all know how to do (or we think we do); receiving advice is a skill that is not so easy to master.
Being given advice is a mixed bag and no mistake. You need to be tough enough not to let the criticism get you down and yet open enough to let the advice of others guide you.
Realise that all people will sometimes be wrong
I am pretty sure it was Stephen King who said something like, if one person says something is wrong with your work then they are mistaken but if several people say there is something wrong with the same part of your work then they are probably right.
From this, I take that you should apply a pinch of salt to any feedback you get. At least half of the advice you get is going to be wrong or at least wrong for you.
People will say you need to do this or you need to change that. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong.
It is even harder when you really respect the advice giver’s work. If King, Rowling, or Gaiman came to a Thanet Creative Writers event, (after they were done signing autographs), I would probably follow every correction and advice they offered me, without question. The chances are, though, they would be wrong (at least once).
Everyone who gives you advice is to some degree wrong. It is up to you to figure out what they are wrong about. A big clue, as King says, is if lots of people tell you a passage is broken, then it might be worth fixing that passage.
Not all advice should be followed
Another writer I admire, Neil Gaiman said something to the tune of, if someone says there is a problem with a passage you wrote then they are probably right but if they tell you how to fix it then they are certainly wrong.
Other writers will often tell you how they think you should write your work. This is because we writers often offer advice as if we were applying our own techniques to our own work. There is nothing wrong with that as such. However, it does mean that some writers will give you advice that does not fit, for your style.
Just like all advice is wrong about something, all advice does not apply to you. Learn how to silently discard advice that is wrong for you.
Don’t defend you work
Your work is your baby. It might be an ugly baby but it is your baby. I covered a similar point in the article about giving advice.
If your work was published, you would not be able to go to the home of every reader and explain it to them. Even so, the temptation can be to try and defend you work, to explain what you were doing, or to show the other fellow how they are wrong. This is rarely helpful but it eats up time that could be used for getting or giving more advice.
If the other person is wrong or does not “get” your work, thank them, make a note that you might need to help some readers “get it”, and move on to the next thing.
The best place your answer or clarification can go is in the writing itself. That need to explain your writing after the fact only goes to show that you have a bit more work to do. That inner voice is simply your internal writer getting ready to do more work. Don’t waste that muse on just one person, share it with us all via your writing.
Active listening is a skill. I am not sure if I have mastered it yet, if I am honest. When getting advice or feedback, the best thing I can do is shut up. The same probably goes for you too. Planning on not saying anything gives maximum chance for your brain to take on board what you are being told.
That said, if you don’t understand the advice then ask the person to clarify. Remember you are here to listen to other people talking to you so the shorter your question the sooner you can go back to getting feedback.
I would love to say this is easy to do. Frankly, when I am excited about a topic I can talk forever about it. I know full well that shutting my mouth so my ears can listen takes effort. If you know of a way to make this super easy, please tell me.
Learn how to ignore destructive criticism
Sooner or later you will get advice from someone that is four parts spite to three parts rubbish. Worse, is the critique that simply says
this sucks. This sort of advice is all about how you suck and not a lot of advice on how you can stop sucking.
My own mother, who is as sarcastic as I am, once gave me feedback on a short story which went something like
it has been done before by other people and they did it better.
I laughed because normally mums say
it was very good dear, but my mum was being a bit more honest. Sadly, this was also advice with just as little value in it for me. I love my mum but I also know that this was not advice I could do anything with.
Don’t let praise go to your head
Recently I have received feedback on a chapter from a draft novel. More than one person made a positive comparison to Douglas Adams’ work. This did wonders for my ego and for a few days after I felt like I had made it and was about to be very rich.
I had made the mistake of letting praise go to my head.
I have no advice on how to do it but don’t let praise go to your head. Praise is nice. It builds confidence and feels wonderful but it rarely helps you figure out how to make a good work even better.
Over to you
Do you have any tips to add? Have you been given feedback that changed everything? Have you been given criticism that crushed you? Tell us about it in the comments below.