No. 113 | By Christine Carron
Getting your work critiqued is an important part of the writing adventure. It might also be a harrowing process. You have to navigate your own hopes and vulnerabilities, along with your critique givers’ opinions, feedback styles, and intentions. When, however, you have the critique receiving chops to flow through critiques in a connected, empowered way, they can be lovely experiences and extraordinarily impactful to the evolution of your work.
Unfortunately, writers are usually not taught effective strategies and tactics for receiving feedback. The most common advice writers get is to get a thick skin, which not so subtly sets the expectation that every feedback situation will be antagonistic and must be guarded against.
I do not find that expectation useful, nor the advice helpful. First of all, no one has ever successfully explained to me how to get a thick skin. I have nothing against metaphors, but when it comes to helping writers navigate critiques, I prefer clear, actionable steps.
Second, a thick skin implies dulling and desensitizing. But when we receive feedback, in my opinion, it is useful to tune into our responses, our questions, and our understanding of what the critique giver or givers are saying to us. I’m not suggesting that protection is not important. It is. But receiving feedback well requires more than protection. It is a paradoxical process.
Ideally, we are both protected and open.
That requires a protocol for receiving feedback that provides you with strong but permeable boundaries. One that allows you to be present to the feedback without feeling intolerably vulnerable. One that doesn’t assume dire, worst case scenarios are inevitable, and even allows you to enjoy and be energized by the critique receiving process. Huzzah!
If that all sounds intriguing, the Goodjelly S.A.V.O.R. protocol will help you get started on a new empowered critique-receiving adventure. Let’s dive in.
Our emotions might rev up and adrenaline might surge when we receive feedback. If you catch that happening (before, during, or after) your critique, tune into your breathing. Reconnect to slow, deep breaths. This is a simple tip, but not always easy to execute, especially if we are really revved up.
Sometimes, it’s not even the tough and/or poorly delivered feedback that will send our heart rate over the edge. I’ve definitely had my share of stressful, awful, and even catastrophically unpleasant critiques, but none of those resulted in car damage.
That happened when I was at a conference and had booked a 20-minute feedback session with an editor. In a room filled with other writer and editor/agent pairings, my V.I.I.P. (very important industry professional) for the session started off the conversation saying she wanted to cut to the chase.
Here was the chase: she loved the pages! One of the best submissions she’d received.
My brain short-circuited. I somehow happy babbled my way through the rest of the conversation, barely able to focus, then went out to the parking garage and proceeded to back my car into a concrete column.
Some deep breathing to slow down and really be present with all those happy, excited, and what-just-happened? feelings would likely have helped me avoid the dent.
(That all said, I still have and love that dent. No one was hurt, the damage was minimal, and every time I see it, it is a boost of encouragement to keep going. So not all bad. Still, breathing is a good thing. Slow down. Inhale. Exhale. Take it all in, which is actually the next tip in the protocol.)
Once you’ve given yourself permission to slow down, you can practice the next part of the protocol, actually attending to what is happening in the critique—by being present to yourself, to the critique giver(s), and to the feedback offered. Taking notes can be a useful way to ensure you are attending. So is reconnecting to your curiosity. Curiosity about what is being said, how it is being delivered, etc.
That level of attention will give the feedback a richer context. It also requires calm and presence on your part. It invites you to take charge of yourself differently than you might have in the past when receiving a critique.
Yes, you are in receiving mode. Yes, it might seem on the surface that the other person has all the power. They don’t. You are co-responsible for the dynamic, the relationship, between you and the critique giver(s). When you acknowledge (and take action on) that truth by practicing the Attending step, you become a more empowered, conscientious participant in the critique process.
Validating is about confirming your understanding of the feedback. Not defensively, but with (again) curiosity. Here are examples of validating questions and statements:
Note #1: I realize there is a common school of thought that says that you should be silent during a critique. Not engage at all. I believe that school of thought is an attempt to avoid any possibility of defensiveness on the receiver’s part by shutting off all conversation.
The S.A.V.O.R. protocol obviously takes a different tack, believing that we writers are capable of handling feedback with curiosity and calm most of the time. In cases where defensiveness or upset slips through (been there, done that), the protocol trusts that we have the skills and courage to own our defensiveness and make amends as needed.
Perhaps this is an aspirational approach—but why not focus on where we want to be rather than constantly assuming the worst case scenario about ourselves?
Note #2: There will be situations where the facilitator or context will not allow you to do the validation part of the protocol. In that case, take notes as best you can and indicate with a question mark or a “v?” any places where you would have validated a comment had it been acceptable to do so. That will at least help you when you are reviewing your notes, reminding you that you might not have fully understood those points.
Note #3: If you are unsure if the validation step will be welcomed by your critique giver(s), an easy solution is to check before the feedback process starts: Would you be open to having more of a feedback conversation, where I could ask questions to clarify your feedback or perhaps repeat back to you what I heard, as we go? That would help me ensure I am really understanding your feedback.
Then receive whatever they say with aplomb. If it’s a “yes,” awesome. You can do the validation step. If it’s a “no,” you have a plan for that situation, too—see Note #2 directly above.
Orient is about you setting the tone, the direction of the conversation. Even though you are the one in receiving mode, you can still orient your energy, your thoughts, your part of the conversation toward:
Gratitude: this person has taken the time to review your pages and give you feedback to the best of their ability at this time.
Generosity: Critique giving is an art that takes skill, as well, and we are all on our own journeys to get more effective at it, so be willing to give the person some slack, even if they're a published author or other V.I.I.P. (Positional authority does not guarantee feedback giving prowess.) Generosity helps you stay in flow and out of frustration during the feedback session.
Graciousness: Be the type of writer that other writers WANT to give feedback to. Kindness, courteousness, and professionalism are graciousness super powers.
When you orient yourself toward gratitude, generosity, and graciousness it is easier to stay grounded in the moment. It is also a form of protection—on that doesn’t require that elusive thick skin.
I will add that another layer of protection is to hold the expectation that your critique givers are orienting in this same way. If you realize they are not, it is perfectly reasonable to choose not to be critiqued by them in the future. (Been there, done that, too.)
Revel is about celebrating. This step is done after the critique finishes. I add it because so often we let the feedback dictate if we celebrate or not. If we decide it was "good" feedback, we'll celebrate. If not, no party time allowed. That gives away your power to someone else’s opinion of your work.
Revel is about standing firm in the knowing that it is a big deal—and a courageous deal—to put yourself and your work out there. Even if things go badly, the feedback was harsh or poorly delivered, or you lost your cool and got defensive—those things are separate from the act of you getting critiqued. You can handle them separately.
But the act of getting critiqued is what you celebrate and revel in, no matter what, each and every time you get a critique. When you do so, you build more and more confidence in your critique-receiving prowess. It is a reminder that you can do it, because you just did it once again.
Last week, I wrote about Goodjelly’s three pillars of writerly progress: Smart Process, Grounded Power, and Inner Kindness. The S.A.V.O.R. protocol embodies all three. It invites you to add Smart Process—and process-thinking—to the way you receive critiques. To build in Grounded Power by taking charge of your experience. And to infuse the entire critique process with Inner (and outer) Kindness and generosity.
When you do so, you will be able to access a new level of calm and confidence. Instead of stressing about receiving critiques, you will be able to truly savor them, trusting that no matter how they unfold that you’ve got this!