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Feedback is CRITICAL to Your Writing

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WRITING is RE-WRITING. Get as Many Eyes on Your Writing as Possible.

Every year (except for the years of the pandemic), I’ve attended a small writing group/meetup of published novelists in Taos, New Mexico, led by John Dufresne, a prolific writer and professor of creative writing at Florida International University (FIU). The workshop started out as part of the University of New Mexico’s creative writing program, and it was called Taos Summer Writers' Conference. Like most writer’s conferences, it was attended by a lot of writers, but also by literary agents, editors, professors of creative writing, poets, and so on. But after many years of that great conference, the program lost funding, and the conference was no more. It was initially led by Sharon Oard Warner, with her husband Teddy making sure everything went just right for all in attendance. While the conference is no more, a core group of us continued the tradition of going to Taos to work on our most recent novel manuscripts.

While many (probably most) conferences deal with short stories or excepts from longer works, our Taos group focuses strictly on novels (though we’ve done story cycles and novellas, when one of our regulars decides that’s what they want to work on). For me (and my fellow attendees), it is our Super Bowl. It’s the one place where, each year, we get to work on a novel, which is, for us, our sweet spot. If you’re a novelist, you know how difficult it is to find a workshop where you can have your entire work read and critiqued by other published novelists, as well as someone of Dufresne’s caliber. Not only is he an incredible novelist and short story writer, he is also a screenwriter, excellent teacher of writing, and one of the best teachers of writing out there, with a number of “how to write fiction” books out there. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to review my work.

If you’re a writer of fiction, whether just starting out or an experienced pro, you know (or should learn very quickly) that feedback is critical to your writing. As writers, we’re an odd lot. We fall into the category of “artists,” and, well, artists tend to be a little . . . out of the norm, let’s say. We often have giant egos, believe there’s much more to life than sitting on an ergonomic chair in front of a computer screen for eight hours of the day working for someone doing something we’d rather not be doing. We tend to dream about our characters, the lives they live while we’re not with them, the trouble they may be getting into while we’re punching numbers into Excel spreadsheets, recommending books to bookstore patrons, teaching ENG 1101 to eighteen-year-old kids who’ve just graduated from high school. While we may have different jobs, we all have one thing in common: we write, and writing requires other people besides the writer to improve the writing.

While I’m in my 50s now, I was once a teenager myself, and a twenty-something, a thirty-something, and so on. In my younger years, I mimicked other writers’ styles, because that’s what we do when we’re learning—we try to do what our literary heroes have done, and we think if we just do what they did we’ll achieve what they’ve achieved. But mimicking is just the beginning of the process (not for everyone, but for a lot of us). As we mature as writers, we learn that writing is not only about telling a great story, it’s about developing our own style, our own voice, our own competence in the craft of writing—and make no mistake, writing is a craft. And like any craft, writing requires a lot of practice, a lot of patience, and a lot of persistence. And the icing on that alliterative cake I’ve just mentioned is the feedback you receive from your peers, your writing colleagues, and from the editors you already work with or that you hire prior to submitting or publishing your work.

Back to when I was a beginning writer. When I first started writing, I wrote poems. I was sixteen or seventeen and had no clue what I was doing. I just knew I liked to write them, so I did. Later, I started writing short stories, and, eventually, novels, which became my preferred thing to write. While these days I workshop my novels with my writer friends in Taos to make sure I get constructive criticism, this wasn’t always the case. When I was in my early twenties, I wrote novels, and I thought my first or second drafts were the final product. I didn’t have anyone reading them like a writer or providing me feedback that I then took or discarded while doing my editing and rewriting so as to improve the next draft. In short, I didn’t know what I was doing.


As you can guess, I didn’t like anyone criticizing what, to me, was my latest masterpiece. I thought, What do these people know? They aren’t writers, or they’re not good writers, so why should I listen to anything they have to say? When they spoke about plot or dialogue or scenes or exposition or story, I blew them off. When they told me that things were happening but nothing was really happening (which I later learned meant I was being episodic), I brushed it off to them just not understanding my “style.” Not everything has to be wrapped up in a tight bow, right? It’s me being clever—who wants to be told what to think?

Of course, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Writers need eyes on their manuscripts, their short stories, their screenplays, their poems. Hopefully the feedback is helpful; sometimes it isn’t, and that’s fine. If you’re confident in what you’re doing, you’ll know what makes sense and what doesn’t when it comes to revising your work. You’ll revisit where the story loses your reader. You’ll listen to where people point out that maybe you should get rid of that character, that subplot, that scene. You’ll start listening to the people taking the time to read your work when they tell you something’s mundane, or a cliché, or confusing. And there’s a reason you’ll do all these things. That reason? You want to make your writing the best it can be, and while you may be an introvert and think everything you write is perfect, the truth is that it isn’t. There’s no such thing as a perfect short story or novel or whatever. As Paul Kalanithi, the late neurosurgeon and author of When Breath Becomes Air, which was published posthumously, said, “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving

--Paul Kalanithi

But you can try. And that’s what experienced writers do—they try to write the best thing they can. And that means being open to criticism. It means seeking out opinions and feedback from other writers (and even non-writers) so you, the writer, can improve what you’ve written, even if you never reach perfection. It means being open and not defensive when it comes to hearing something you don’t want to hear. Because let’s be honest, our writing, whatever it is, is something we’ve created because it means something to us. We put a little bit (or a lot) of ourselves in everything we write. Our writing may be a product, but it’s also our baby. It’s the medium we use to convey what we’re thinking, what bothers us, what keeps us awake at night, what thrills us, and what, hopefully, we can, if we’re lucky, share with others so that they can see and feel and experience what we felt so deeply within ourselves that we had to let it out for the world to see. And the only way to make that happen is if we get rid of all of the things that make our readers stop reading. That’s where, even if we’re introverts, the help comes in.

I remember some early writing groups I participated in that didn’t work out for me for one reason or another. Mostly, it was because the writers in those writing groups weren’t their to improve their writing—they were there to be praised. They wrote what they wrote because they wanted someone to think them brilliant. To pat them on the back. To socialize. While none of those things are bad in and of themselves, they aren’t writing. Writers have to be tough-skinned. They have to want to hear the “bad,” even when it’s nice to hear the good. Of course no one wants to hear their work sucks, but sometimes, like it or not, it does. Not everything you write is going to be worth finishing. Some things you think are crap, others may devour. Writing is subjective, but there’s still a base level of not only competence but excellence that you should strive for, and part of that process requires outside help. Seeking that help isn’t a weakness—it’s a strength, and you’ll hopefully come to understand that as early as possible in your writing career. You must allow yourself to be vulnerable. To let your guard down. To convince yourself that the people reading your work may not be the nincompoops you think they are when they tell you something you may not want to hear. Listen to them. They may not always be right, but there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to take some of their advice to improve your work.

These days, while I do have a lot of experience under my belt, I still go to my writer’s workshop in Taos. For one, it ensures I’m writing a novel a year, because I have a deadline I need to meet. But it also ensures I gather feedback from six other experienced writers who know the craft and pick up on the things I’ve missed, or haven’t done as well as I thought I had, or even just catch typos or historical/procedural inaccuracies when it comes to subject matter. And you should do the same. Let your guard down. Be open-minded. Allow yourself to feel vulnerable and to appreciate someone else’s perspective. Reach out to your writer friends, or attend conferences, taking writing classes, hell, go get a degree in creative writing even if you think that’ll benefit you. Whatever you have to do to improve your writing, do it. Don’t waste your time in a black hole where you won’t know if what you’re doing is any good. And remember, write daily. Write your heart out. As W. Somerset Maugham said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”


Cully Perlman is an author, blogger, and Substantive Editor. Have a completed novel you need edited? He can be reached at 



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