Being a Better Writer: Applying Writing Advice and Feedback

Welcome back readers! Another Monday is upon us, and I’m diving right in today. by picking up a request topic from Topic List X!

So, you’ve done it at last and found a like-minded group of people who’ve come together in a pleasantly pleasing—yet still critical—writing group (more on that topic another time). You’ve met, discussed one another’s work, and as expected, they’ve found some areas you can polish with your work. But then, as you sit down the next day to look over what the group had discussed and the fixes you want to make, you come to a sobering realization.

You have no idea how to actually apply the advice they gave you. You know where the problems lie, sure, and what didn’t work. You’ve even got a few suggestions that they gave you. But as to how to put that advice to work in your writing? Suddenly, you’re drawing a blank.

And to be fair, this isn’t easy. Sands, that’s why the question was asked! Getting feedback on what needs to be fixed and then figuring out how? It’s a challenge, especially if it’s your first time having received such. You might even feel a little overwhelmed!

But first step—and this is key—is not to worry. Feeling overwhelmed is often one of the first reactions when faced with the thought of apply writing advice or sticking it into your story. And once you’re overwhelmed, it’s hard not to focus on that feeling.

So first, let’s break things down, shall we?

Actually, to put it in a more accurate context, you should break things down. And one of the best ways you can do this is to take notes.

I’m serious. Regardless of whether your feedback was digital, verbal, or whatever, when you’re sitting there getting it, write down each point as it comes up. Just jot down a few lines. On a computer or on a notepad, it doesn’t matter. But keep a running tally of each criticism as well as each compliment. If something is brought up more than once, then make a little tick by the first occurrence to let you know that this came up again. Keep adding ticks, as this will be important later. Continue as you would, but make sure you’ve got your list. Ask questions and clarify as needed, but keep this list going.

Have you guessed why yet? This list you’re making will keep you from becoming overwhelmed. Better yet, it will help you clarify and clean-up some of your own feedback. Once you have this list, and you’re back at your own desk, there are two things that you can do with it. The first is use it to fix what you’ve already written (assuming you want to spend time doing that or have the need). The second is to clean up your own writing habits moving forward.

Right, now we’re into that stubborn application process, right? Well, sort of. Because despite what you may be tempted to do, and what a lot of young writers do do, you should not just jump in and start working your way down the list.

Let me repeat that. Do not just start going down the list and fixing things as they came up. If you do that, you’re only going to create more work for yourself, trust me. Crud, you might end up creating new problems altogether!

So, first thing? Run your eyes down the list of feedback and advice you were given and start sorting it. For example, what feedback is largely grammatical (such as “its/it’s” issues) and what’s structural (pacing issues or character problems)? Both are problems, yes, but different kinds of problems. For example, grammatical problems are going to likely be persistent through everything that you write, as they’re common typos and errors.

Structural problems, however are problems that crop up from time to time, and—here’s the important part—fixing some of them may fix other structural problems. For example, you may have two people address pacing in your story, while only one of them brings up a character’s motivation feeling off. However, if you fix the pacing, the second issue may disappear entirely! And suddenly, that’s a problem you don’t have to worry about anymore!

This is in part why it’s worth noting how many times a particular issue was brought up or mentioned by someone. But there’s another part to this as well. Simply put, if you try to fix everything at once, you’ll likely fail. But if you sit there and look at the feedback you’ve gotten, say something like “This character’s actions didn’t make much sense to me” and decide “Well, six people brought this up, and only three brought up issues with the desctiptions” you can identify what areas were weakest—and thereby, which ones will improve the quality most.

This isn’t always true. Sometimes fixing something that’s less criticized may help clean up the larger issues as well. But this is why making a list, along with organizing it, can be so helpful. Because you’ll be able to look at the feedback you’ve gathered and categorize it inside your head. You can look down at it and ask yourself “Okay, what if I made this change? Would that help fix this as well?” Thus cutting down your workload and making fixing up your creation a lot less intense.

Even then, if you don’t find any case where you can kill two birds with one stone, making such a list and working through it can help you determine which problems are more important than others. Six people noting one thing, and two noting another, for example,  is a good indicator that more people are going to have an issue with the former than the latter, and so focusing your effort there will do more to lift a story than elsewhere.

And once that’s done and you’ve gone and made your first changes? Go back down the list again … but just to be sure, check to see which issues may no longer be present because of your solutions. Again, you may find yourself lucky and wipe out a few with your first or second fix!

Really though, for applying advice to something you’ve already created, that’s what there is to it: Make a list and prioritize! Focus on the bits that will be the most helpful in making your work a better read, and work upward from there.

Okay, now normally this would be the “end,” but we’ve really only discussed half of what this work entails. Everything said so far? Focused on going back over work we’ve already completed. What about taking this same advice (or other writing advice) and moving forward with it, applying it to what we’re working on next?

Well, again, here we run into a case of “don’t do too much.” Rather than trying to fix everything at once, acknowledge the existence of later editing, look at that list you’ve put together, and then pick the few that you most want to focus on instead. And it doesn’t even have to be a few. Pick one if you think you’re going to have a struggle fixing it. Then, as you start writing and keep writing, keep that flaw in mind and watch for it in what you’re writing. If it helps, put a sticky-note on your monitor or in eyesight reminding you to focus on that particular thing.

And then write. Get going! Start typing! Put that story down! Just keep what you’re trying to focus on in the back of your mind, and make corrections as necessary.

At first, it might slow you down a bit, much like hiking a familiar path with a new set of shoes or carrying a pack would. But as you continue on, that conscious focus will switch to being a subconscious focus … and then cease being a focus altogether. At which point you can look at the next item on your list choose to make it your new focus, and so on.

It’ll take some practice. After all, no new talent is learned immediately. And you’ll never find yourself perfectly utilizing something—there will always be an upward path, after all. But you’ll get better. And then you’ll see some new advice, focus on that instead, and continue to improve your talents.

So, the ultimate takeaway? Don’t try to do everything at once. Organize and categorize your feedback, and then prioritize what you need to work on to accomplish as much as possible while still keeping your workload manageable. And when you move from editing what’s been written to what you’re now writing, pick something you want to improve at and focus on doing that as you move forward.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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