Writers shouldn’t fear feedback – and why people shouldn’t feel awkward about providing it honestly. Feedback is what makes us all better.

What helps you become better at something?

Having a passion for the thing you’re doing? Yes, that sure helps.

Doing that thing as much as possible? Of course, practice makes perfect.

Listening and responding to feedback? Ugh.

To some of us, feedback might sound like a negative word. But how you interpret and implement feedback is essential to our progress as writers and our long-term careers. Every piece of feedback we receive is an opportunity to get better – sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a big way.

Managing feedback is a super power

These are some common thoughts that enter our heads when we’ve given feedback:

“I’ve done something wrong.”

“I’m in trouble.”

“I’ll be up late amending this.”

“What has this person got against me?”

“I’m no good at this.”

If we respond to feedback like this, it just ends up worse for us in every way. We’ll feel bad, we won’t be good to work with, and, crucially, we won’t get better as writers.

Of course, no one likes to feel criticised – especially if it’s creative. But it’s much more rewarding to think of feedback as a gift.

It’s an invitation to progress as a writer and consider new points of view. This could be in an objective way – pointing out that something we’ve written is incorrect (grammatically, factually or otherwise). Or it could be in a subjective way, which at the very least may still give us another take on something or lead to an engaging debate (such as “where should the apostrophe go in ‘farmers’ market’?”).

Either way, feedback is a win-win.

A career in feedback

When I think back to specific improvements I’ve made as a writer and progressions in my career so far, they’ve always come as a direct result of taking on board feedback.

The first bit of feedback I got was when I was four years old. I wrote the words ‘Steven Si 4’ in biro on a piece of paper. My mum said the ‘si’ needed to be spelled ‘is’ as I’d got the letters the wrong way round. I stubbornly said it didn’t matter – the right letters were there, surely it didn’t matter which order they were written in. After a bit of a tantrum and a sulk, I eventually learned my lesson.

I’ve had some pretty God-awful feedback since.

Sometimes it’s been about going OTT on flowery language.

Sometimes it’s been about trying to rhyme my headlines.

Sometimes editors have sat down next to me and said: “is this the best you can do?”

I used to work with a guy who’d been a reporter on Fleet Street. He used to write his stories on a typewriter and drop them in his editor’s in-tray. The editor would sometimes scrunch the paper up and throw it back at him, shouting “absolute rubbish – what am I paying you for?!” in front of an office of ruthless hacks.

Of course, that’s not feedback – that’s bullying.

What’s equally important to the value of taking on feedback is the ability to deliver it respectfully.

Why we should always want amends

Recently, I was in a meeting with other writers. We were talking about our goals for the year. One writer said their goal was to “receive zero amends” on a piece they’d written.

That might seem fair enough. After all, it’s sometimes nice to not receive feedback – it means your work was satisfactory for the person checking it.

However, given the choice of having a person actively reviewing my content and shooting holes in it, and a person who’s giving it a skim read and a quick thumbs up, I know which person I would rather have check my work. I know which person would make me a better writer.

If you’d rather your work checked by the other person, remember that one or both of these two scenarios will be true of them:

  • If the person didn’t give feedback and just made the editorial changes themselves – they’re denying you progress. Without their feedback, you would never know anything you did needed to be improved, so you would never improve. And when you’re working with a living organism that’s always growing and evolving – i.e. language – you keep moving with the times. If they don’t give you feedback, they are holding back your progress and potentially your career.
  • If the person didn’t give feedback even though they knew the work could be better, they’re doing an injustice to your account, your client, and the organisation you work for. They’re basically accepting that they’re happy with an average, or worse, below average, piece of work – and I’m not sure that’s the kind of person you want to work with if you want a good career full of achievements.

6 things to remember the next time you receive feedback

  1. The person who gave it spent their own time communicating it to you. This is because they want to help you improve as a writer and they care about the quality of the work on the account.
  2. They get feedback, too. In fact, one of the reasons they’re in a position of reviewing your work is because they’ve learned from the feedback they received when they were in your position.
  3. You’re not perfect – nor have you done anything wrong.
  4. It’s always better to get a second pair of eyes on something. This is the case with any decision, including buying a suit. Sometimes only another person can spot when you need a jacket with longer sleeves.
  5. You can absolutely contest the feedback. If you feel strongly that something is right for the client, push back on it – with solid reasoning. It might be awkward, but if you care enough, have the conversation. Writing is not a black and white subject.
  6. It’s not your work. Your role is to create the table legs. Someone else will build the surface, someone else will fit it together, and someone else will varnish it. The content you are producing represents a brand rather than yourself. While your role in writing it is a hugely important one, the overall piece of work doesn’t belong to you – so learn to let go.

A huge part of developing as a writer is the ability to take feedback on board. If someone is telling you your sentences are too long, or that you’re over-using commas or dashes – learn from it.

You should ideally take these learnings and apply them to all of your work, current and future, rather than taking it piece by piece. Write it down, memorise it, save yourself time by noting down dos and don’ts – have something where you can record your feedback and develop from it.

Remember, feedback is a gift.