Feedback is an enormously complex topic, for everyone, everywhere, in every role in life. Some people understand that it's complex. Others do not. Avoid feedback from people who think feedback is simple.
Here are some (perhaps too many) of my thoughts.
The Briefcase Method
Charlie Seashore offers this technique: When someone gives feedback, put it in a mental briefcase. Then thank the person, close the briefcase, and leave. Later, if you want to, open the briefcase and take a closer look at the feedback. If you want to, do something with the feedback.
At all times, you get to decide what to do with feedback, or whether to do anything at all with it.
Tasting and Swallowing
Family therapist Virginia Satir said, "Taste everything. Swallow only what nourishes." I think this lovely guideline works well for receiving feedback about writing. If someone's feedback fits for you, apply it. If not, don't.
Of course, this means you have to have some way of deciding whether a given bit of feedback nourishes.
This is difficult to do when you are unsure of yourself. And if you're seeking feedback, you are to some extent unsure of something. So receiving feedback always poses that challenge. If you knew for sure how to evaluate the feedback, you wouldn't have needed the feedback.
But here's the thing. The more your default reaction to feedback is to change your stories, the less of you there is in your stories.
Only you can decide what nourishes you.
My first rule: When in doubt, trust yourself.
My second rule: Doubt.
Your Responsibility to Respond to Feedback
What responsibility do you have to respond to feedback?
You are under no obligation to respond in any way to feedback, much less to apply it.
Taste everything. Swallow only what nourishes.
The Giver's Rule
The Giver's Rule says:
Ninety percent of feedback is about the giver.
Feedback you get from online writing communities comes from other writers. Writers in those communities mostly know no more than you do about writing. Feedback from writers is heavily distorted toward "rules" that they have picked up from somewhere.
One way to detect such rule-bound feedback is phrases like "you can't" and "you must." Another way: Any "feedback" about how to "fix" your story. Readers don't tell you how to fix your story. They tell you how they reacted to it.
That isn't to say that feedback from readers is unbiased. Of course it is. Reader feedback is biased by each reader's tastes.
No matter where you get feedback, you will have to sort out for yourself which parts of the feedback are about your story, and which parts are about the giver.
For more about The Giver's Rule, see my favorite book about feedback: What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback, by Charlie and Edie Seashore and Jerry Weinberg.
Look for feedback that focuses on how the reader reacted to the story, and less on feedback that purports to be the truth your story.
Here are two statements, each feedback about the same movie:
- Chappie was an awful movie.
- I hated Chappie.
Both statements express judgments. The first statement is phrased as a judgment of the movie. The second is phrased as the viewer's reaction to the movie.
Prefer feedback that is more clearly about the reader's reaction.
Distrust feedback phrased as the truth about your story.
If someone gives even the slightest indication that their feedback is brutally honest, run. Honesty is not brutal. Brutality is not honest.
How to Fix Your Story
Never accept feedback about how to fix your story. Fixing the story (if you think it needs fixing) is your job, not theirs. Anyone who tells you how to fix a story is telling you their story, not yours.
Writers tend to evaluate using writing myths, not reader sensibilities.
Prefer feedback about how the reader reacted. Especially look feedback about clarity, significance, and believability. Prime yoursel to look for the answers to three questions: Huh? So what? Oh, really?
- Huh? "I didn't understand what was happening..." This is about clarity.
- So what? "I didn't care." Or, "I was bored." This is about significance. What makes this matter to the characters, or to the reader?
- Oh, really? "I didn't believe..." This is about believability.
And of course, look for (and ask for) feedback about what the reader loved. This helps to make sure you don't damage the good stuff while you fix the stuff that needs fixing.
Feedback can sometimes be more useful if you focus on a specific aspect of your work, rather than general "whatever feedback you can give me."
Pick a single, specific aspect of craft to work on. Maybe dialogue, or scene openings, or pacing, or viewpoint, or description. For your next story or two or five, focus on practicing that aspect of your writing. Then ask for feedback about that specific aspect.
Feedback About Your Work In Progress
Never, ever seek or accept feedback about a story you are writing. See my answer elsewhere.
The Next Story
Do not use feedback to fix this story, unless the feedback points out a clear error.
Use feedback about this story to write better stories in the future.