When studying our own work, it’s difficult to be objective. Most of the time we’re either too easy on ourselves or too hard on ourselves. While the latter may be more preferable in some cases, it can still be counter-productive.
This is when it’s time to seek an outside opinion.
In riding a motorcycle, I simply have someone follow me. It may be my wife following in a car, or I may take a short trip with a more experienced rider. When I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s riding class, our instructors watched us ride around the course and told us what we were doing right and what we could improve.
In karate, my instructors watch us in class and offer pointers. Even when they say nothing and move on to the next person, it tells us we’re doing just fine (for the moment). It’s also not uncommon for us to ask our fellow students to watch for something specific as we perform a kata.
Then we have writing, where feedback gets a lot messier.
First and foremost, we have to understand who we are seeking feedback from. Your mom, for example, is probably not going to give you an objective opinion. If that writers circle at the local coffee shop is full of romance writers and you ask for a critique on your splatterpunk opus, you’re not going to get an objective opinion.
Second, fans and reviewers are great, but don’t take their feedback individually. Know up front that no matter what you write, your work is not going to please everyone. You won’t even please all of your fans all the time! Don’t let a glowing, five-star review inflate your ego (too much), and don’t let a mean-spirited, one-star review shatter your hopes and dreams. Look instead for trends. There’s a big difference between one reader saying your protagonist is an unlikeable prick and half your reviewers saying they just didn’t care about your characters.
Third, not every editor is truly an editor. Examine their track record. Take a good look at what they’re asking you to change or what questions they’re asking about your work. Pay special attention if you’re getting the same feedback from several editors or agents during the submission process. I’m not just talking about laziness or inability, either. Some editors simply want to rewrite your manuscript the way they would have written it. This is your work and they should be helping you develop your voice, not molding you into their clone.
Fourth, stay out of the comments section on news and review websites. Seriously. It will save your sanity. Forums can be iffy, too, with their frequent circle jerk and sympathy threads. There’s a fine line between participating in a community and drinking their Kool-Aid.
Finally, it’s okay to pay an editor or book doctor. Not every rejection letter is going to come with comments and suggestions, so you may need to find an objective third party to help you out. Just be sure to get references first, and don’t be afraid to talk to their other clients. Just as anyone can claim to be an editor, any hack will be happy to cash your check in exchange for reading your manuscript.
Practice is critical, but nobody thrives in a vacuum. Seek feedback, but learn to separate the good from the bad.