Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.51: Feedback—When to Listen, and When to Ignore, with special guest Mahtab Narsimhan

Your Hosts: Dan, Howard, Mahtab, and Brandon

We’re often taught that the best critique group feedback is reactions to the writing, rather than  advice for fixing it. But prescriptive feedback—critiques that include suggestions for you how to might rewrite something—is an important part of the process.

In this episode we discuss how we curate our critique groups and filter their feedback to improve our writing, and our experiences with these groups.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

The Random Critique Exercise: 

1) You and a writer friend each prepare a critique of a different thing.
2) File the serial numbers off (character names, locations, etc) and swap critiques.
3) Treat this critique from your friend as if it was for your manuscript. Discover what wrong advice looks like, and how often a broken watch might actually be correct.

Thing of the week: What Unites Us, by Dan Rather.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Prescriptive advice, suggestions about how to do it, are going to come your way. But when do you look for it? Until you show me you can articulate your reactions in a way I understand, I may not accept your advice on how to rewrite a scene. Tell me how you feel, then tell me how to rewrite the scene. Arrange your readers by the type of advice you want. Subject matter experts, sensitivity readers, tell me what’s wrong and how to fix it. Most readers, just tell me your reaction. Editors, suggest how to fix a problem. When you get feedback, you decide whether to accept it or not. Follow your vision. How do you find people you trust to tell you what to do? Professionals. Agent, editor, writing group. Organizations can help, but you have to pick and choose. Audition, or vetting, process. Start with media you both consume, and see what they think of that. Reactions, fresh perspectives, the feedback echo chamber… stay true to your vision. You know how to fix your story better than anybody else. But be open to brilliant ideas from someone. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 51.

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Feedback — When to Listen, and When to Ignore, with Mahtab Narsimhan.

[Howard] 15 minutes long.

[Mahtab] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Brandon] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] And I’m Brandon. Which I keep telling you and I’d like you to take that feedback.


[Dan] So, we talk all the time about how to give feedback, how to construct a good writing group, how to train your alpha and beta readers, and one of the points we hit on a lot is that what you’re looking for in that feedback stage is reactions rather than specific prescriptive advice. But, as one of our listeners pointed out in an email, asking this question, “Prescriptive advice is incredibly valuable and we all do it and we all get it.” So, we’re clearly not saying ignore every suggestion that comes to you. What we need to talk about now, then, is how do you decide which pieces of advice you’re going to listen to and which ones you’re going to discard. When should you actively seek out that kind of specifically prescriptive feedback? So, first ideas, like, when do you seek it out? At what point do you say, “Hey, I need you to answer this question for me?”

[Howard] Approaching it from a different angle, until I have gotten reader reactions from someone and they been able to articulate their reaction to me in a way that I understand, I’m not going to accept feedback from them. If someone hasn’t yet told me that this scene made them feel a certain way, I’m not ready to accept their feedback on how to rewrite the scene. I want to know that you can tell me how you feel before you tell me how to rewrite the scene so that you feel what you’re supposed to.

[Brandon] Yeah. That’s a good piece of advice. Although one thing I do is I kind of arrange my readers by what type of advice I want them to give me. For example, when I use a subject matter expert… I recently wrote a story about someone who’s paraplegic. I went and I hired several people to read this story. To them, I said… They were paraplegic and I said, “I want you to tell me what I’m doing wrong and how to fix it, specifically, how this differs from your life experience in the life experience that you know other disabled people have. I want you to tell me.” For other readers, though, I say I just want to know your reaction. I want to know if my characters are working and my story’s working. The way you help me with that is by telling me your just feedback emotionally. I’m looking for different things from different people. From my editor, I want them to tell me what they suggest I do to fix a problem when they’ve noticed it, because I might not take that, but there’s a much better chance that I will take it when it comes from an editor who really knows what they’re doing.

[Dan] Let me follow up on that subject matter expert thing. When you’ve got feedback from them, how much of that feedback was just kind of the mechanics of daily life of a para… Someone who is paraplegic and how much of that was the story or the characterization are broken, and here’s how you can fix those? Because that seems like it kind of straddles that line between subject matter and storytelling.

[Brandon] It was actually weighted toward the latter. I would have thought it would be weighted toward the former. But those things are very easy to fix. When someone says, “I usually keep a pole next to me so I reach things and pull them across the desk to me,” that’s like, “Oh, that’s really handy. I will do that. That’s an easy fix.” But when they say something along the lines of… A piece of feedback I got on this piece which was really helpful was all of them noticed… They say, “We work in a community. We talk to other people.” A lot of people write… When they write a story like I had done, they talk about this person in isolation, which is not how we do it. It makes it seem like this person is the only person who is paraplegic in the whole world. That’s very common. I hadn’t realized that’s what you do, but of course, you’re part of a community. I’m part of a community of writers. I’m part of a community of people who share a faith with me. I’m part of a community of people who are parenting. We look for people who have a shared life experience so we can help each other. This is something that I had done flat-out wrong that required a really big revisitation of how I was viewing the character and the story because it was just… It was flat-out wrong. That sort of thing was a harder revision, but it was also more surprising to me, and it’s the sort of thing that needed a subject matter expert to explain to me.

[Mahtab] Okay. I would call those instead sensitivity readers. I mean, that’s what happens when you’re writing a piece, middle grade YA fiction, and your writing someone with whom you don’t share the identity or a marginalized status or what have you. I mean, you just… You do not have a similar background. That’s when you get someone who we call like a sensitivity reader, who’s going to look at your story and tell you, “Okay. This is what it is,” or “This is what you need to think about as you write.” You said, Brandon, they’re not in isolation, but sometimes when we’re writing from an outsider’s perspective, we almost make that kind of an issue story or the issue with that character is their disability or whatever. Sometimes having someone with that background read it often gives you a whole different perspective because they do not see it as an issue, because they’re part of a community where this is not the center stage. You can get other feedback from it, but just coming back to your point, Dan, as to when do you seek feedback. When I’ve taken a story to a certain level and I do no more with it, is when I would actually send it out to my critique group. One of the good things is I have a group that has different strengths. Someone is really good with the big picture perspective. So they would like really look at the forest. There are some who actually look at the trees, and they go down to the bush level, and they will absolutely look at the pacing and the plot and the characterization. So that’s when you take the feedback from these people which is… Each one gives you a different idea or a different facet of what your story is. Then once it comes back to you, I think the onus is on you, and it goes with your gut feel of should I accept this feedback or shouldn’t I. If it does not fit with your vision, no matter who’s given it to me, I would probably not follow it.

[Dan] Okay. I want to pause now for the book of the week, which we get from Howard.

[Howard] Yes. It’s not really related to the topic, but I really, really enjoyed Dan Rather’s book What Unites Us. Dan Rather has been a fixture in American and, let’s be honest, world news broadcasts for… I want to say 50 years, at least 40 years. His experiences… It’s kind of a retrospective of the way he sees the American nation and the people who are in it. I really loved it. I needed it when I listened to it. I don’t know if you do, but the audiobook was quite good, and that was the way I experienced it. So I can’t speak to reading the words on the paper with my own eyeballs and brain.


[Howard] That’s for other people to discover. But the book is called What Unites Us by Dan Rather.

[Dan] Thank you.

[Dan] Now, the common thread between all of your comments in the first half of the episode were heavily kind of focused around this idea that you have curated your groups of people that you get feedback from and that you… When you look for specific feedback, you are trying to get it from specific people and for specific reasons. So let’s talk just really quick about that. How do you find these people that you trust… Not talking about specifically subject matter experts or sensitivity readers, but just, in general, how do you find those people and how do you decide, yes, I trust what this person is going to tell me to do?

[Brandon] Well, with beta readers in particular, them, it doesn’t matter, right? Because I’m not asking them to tell me what to do. So, people who tell me what to do, that I let… That I’m looking for, are professionals. Right? Which is a different sort of thing. I find my beta readers, generally, they are people who have been long-term friends, people who are active in fandom, or people that other beta readers have recommended. We do that a lot. We try to add a few new people every book that I do and not have everyone do every book, right? So we shake it up. It’s just a process of watching who makes astute comments on forum posts about the books, who are active on our Facebook posts, those are the people I look for. But for alpha readers, they’re giving me direct, fix this, I’m generally only looking at like my agent, my editor, or my writing group for that.

[Mahtab] I think, for me, I join a lot of organizations, and again, we’ve got forums, so you can connect with people on the forums and say, “Okay, I’m looking for… I’m looking for a critique partner,” and everyone kind of just exchanges emails and then goes for it. In case… That’s how I started with, but then, over the years, I kind of got closer to a group of people because they write similar stuff that I do, and I like their work and they like my work. So we kind of broke off and formed our own groups. But if you’re looking at the children’s section, SCBWI, CANSCAIP, these are the… I guess for the US, it’s SCBWI, you join those groups, there are areas where you can exchange information and find critique partners. I would say, start out with maybe a chapter or two, see what the feedback is like, see if they’re on the same wavelength as you are, before you go deeper down the rabbit hole, and then become good critique partners, because sometimes… What if you’re not at a similar level or if the level of feedback that you’re getting is not what you’re looking for? Then that relationship or that critique is not really helping you. So you also have to pick and choose. Don’t just say yes to anyone who says they’re going to give you feedback.

[Dan] That kind of audition process, so to speak, I think is really important. Because, we’ve talked before about how to find fellow writers and form your little groups and things, but going through that kind of vetting process, of saying, “Okay. You know what, I really like your feedback,” or “You’re giving me feedback that I don’t think is valuable,” that’s a big step. It can be difficult to say, “You know what, this relationship isn’t working. I think we should break up.”

[Howard] There is… To my mind, there is an easier and much lower pressure way to get to that point. That is to socialize… And I guess Zoom may be the way that we’re doing this for the foreseeable future… Socialize with people right and who consume media that you consume, and talk about the things that you’re consuming. If Dan and I both sit down and talk about The Mandalorian, and I say, “Oh, my gosh, it’s my favorite Star Wars ever, because it’s like a cowboy movie Star Wars,” and I don’t know what Dan’s going to say about it. But if Dan’s feedback about Mandalorian makes me feel like the two of us watched a completely different show, he’s out of my group.


[Howard] Because… Not because he’s wrong, but because connecting might be so very, very difficult. Initially, for seeking feedback, I want to get feedback from people whose critiques I’m able to understand. We both watched a movie and we both agreed, “Wow. The protagonist fails to protag for the entire first act, and by the time the second showed up, we were… We didn’t like him anymore,” and we both get that. Oh, yes, this is someone I… Because when they critique my work, I’ll be like, “Oh. Oh, yes. You’re right.” And when you prescribe something to me, I’m more likely to get it. Now that, that initially is going to create kind of a bubble, and you want to branch out from that. But start friendly first, I think.

[Mahtab] Yes.

[Dan] Yeah. It is a very tricky line to walk, because you don’t want to get into that feedback echo chamber. I always really value opinions that are different from my own. Because that, I think, is going to help me look for new solutions and new answers. But on the other hand, someone who is constantly suggesting ideas that don’t fit with my style at all, that’s not going to be valuable to me. So, it all comes back to this idea of just very carefully deciding who you’re going to talk to. Well, I guess, who you’re going to get that prescriptive feedback from. The person whose ideas are super different from mine, yes, give me all your reactions. Please. But when it comes to how am I actually going to change this, that’s when I do tend rely on people who have similar sensibilities to mine.

[Brandon] Or, I would add, the further someone gets in the professional field of writing and storytelling, the more it seems they are able to help a story become a better version of itself, rather than trying to push it one direction or another. That’s not to say that all agents and editors are perfect at this, or even all writing group members, but I’ve noticed that people who write a lot… For instance, Dan tends to be better at looking at one of my books and saying, “Here’s what I think you’re trying to do. Here’s how to make it better.” Where there are other people who are longtime writing group members of mine who like my books, who often give good feedback. But if you give them a book that’s outside their normal reading comfort level, they’ll give bad feedback on it. Where I’ve never gotten bad feedback from Dan, because as an industry professional, he reads a lot of things and even things he doesn’t like, he can say, “Here’s how I think you can make a better version of this thing that I don’t necessarily like.” Which is a really great skill for a storyteller to learn, I think. But it is not something you can expect from your average even writing group member, I think.

[Dan] I want to print up business cards that say, “Dan Wells. I will help you make a better version of a thing that you’re doing that I don’t like, even though you’re doing a thing that I don’t like.”

[Mahtab] Where do I sign up?


[Mahtab] But just very quickly to say something about what you said, Dan, was sometimes you can get that same feedback from the same group that you’re with. So getting a totally fresh perspective, even if it does not gel with your own thinking, I think is very valuable. But at the end of the day, you have to decide am I taking it or leaving it, and that decision rests entirely with you. So you just stay true to your vision. No matter who gives you feedback.

[Dan] Yeah, well and…

[Howard] One of… Sorry. One of the things that Brandon said, the ability to say… As a critiquer, the ability to say, for instance, it feels like in this scene you are presenting me with a red herring and you want me to feel doubt about this and you want me to become convinced of this. If that’s the case, you need to punch this bit up more and punch that bit down a little bit in order to adjust the balance. But if this isn’t meant for a red herring, whatever, then ignore everything that I said. I will give feedback like that to Bob all the time, because I don’t know where Bob’s book is going. But I will tell him this is my response and this is where I think maybe your levels need to be set. Bob will smile and nod, and I have no idea if he’s going to take my advice or not. But he knows what to do with it.

[Dan] So, as a final word, I suppose more than anything else, I just want to give you as a writer permission to get prescriptive feedback, to take suggestions from other people. Don’t feel like we have told you you’re not allowed to. I do believe that at the end of the day, you know how to fix your story better than anybody else. But that doesn’t mean that someone is not going to come along with a brilliant idea that will solve your problems for you. That does happen, and absolutely be open to those experiences.

[Dan] So, let’s end with some homework from Howard.

[Howard] Okay. Bear with me.


[Howard] You’re going to want to do this with a friend. Okay? Step one. Each of you prepare a quick written critique of a movie. Maybe one… I mean, they can be different movies, but something that you’ve watched and has problems that you’re willing to critique. Now. Share your critiques with each other, swap them. Now you take the critique that your friend gave of this movie… Oh, and when you wrote the critiques, you anonymized it, you didn’t say like character name, you just say like protagonist or antagonist. Anyway. So you get this feedback from this movie. Now. File as many of the serial numbers off as you can. Set it down next to your manuscript and treat this bit of random, utterly random, feedback as if it was aimed at your manuscript. Why are you doing this? So that you can see what absolute nonsense looks like with regard to your manuscript AND so that you can have the broken watch is right twice a day experience of “Oh, my gosh. That thing that you said about the phantom menace applies to my book.”


[Howard] Oh, no. It may seem really weird, but by doing this, what you’re going to do is refine your filters for the sort of feedback you receive and it’s going to knock you out of the box and maybe make some of your writing better.

[Dan] I really like this homework. I think it is a cool idea to teach you how to sort through the value of a bunch of feedback. So, cool. Anyway, that’s our show for today. Thank you so much for listening. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go write.