Are you afraid to seek feedback from beta readers and editors? Does the mere idea of sharing a work in progress make your stomach hurt, yet you still dream of becoming a published author?
When you’re a sensitive person, it’s natural to dread asking for feedback, take critical feedback personally, and react to it defensively. Yet no revision process is truly complete without feedback, and the only way to get better at taking it is to solicit more of it. So how do you grow that “thick skin” artists are supposed to need?
Well, I’m not going to tell you to grow thick skin. Those of us who are extra-anxious tend to be extra-perceptive in ways that deepen our insecurities but enhance our creativity. Besides, anxiety and insecurity aren’t signs of failure. They’re part of the human condition. Most people care about what other people think of them (including most people who insist they don’t care). Growing thick skin will not necessarily lessen your insecurities; it might just encase them in thicker layers of defensiveness.
To develop a healthier relationship with feedback, I had to start by developing a healthier relationship with myself. I had to develop a growth mindset, which “creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval” (Source: Brain Pickings article on psychologist Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). Frankly, I’m still an anxious person with trust issues and a perfectionistic streak, but I no longer tie my self-worth to the purity of my prose. And that has made all the difference!
How to Reduce Feedback Anxiety
If you are an anxious writer like me, there is hope! I have five tips for renovating your mindset in order to reduce feedback anxiety:
- Be ready for feedback
- Value passion and polish over perfection
- Find supportive readers
- Be receptive
- Assert yourself
Read on to find out how to use these tips to make the feedback process less agonizing and more productive.
1. Be ready for feedback
Unless you have a deadline, don’t bow to pressure to show your work to anyone until you’re ready. Let your first draft be for your eyes only, if that’s what it takes for you to enjoy the creative process and finish your drafts!
I wish I could give my younger self this advice. When I was a kid, I knew that my earliest novel drafts were as rough as they come. I knew, in other words, that they were practice. I couldn’t care less because I was having so much fun writing them. They had vast casts of trash-talking characters and messy plots inspired by my dreams. These stories were my sandboxes; I had no intention of publishing them.
But my family and friends were extremely curious about what I was doing with all my free time, and I was extremely impressionable. “When will you let me read it?” they would ask. I knew I wasn’t ready for feedback, but I caved to the pressure.
My friends let people I didn’t know borrow my book, some of whom laughed at it. Adults admired the effort but disapproved of the humor and violence. I was eleven and my sandbox was now a stage. Writing stopped being fun for me and started being yet another reason for an awkward, bullied child to worry about what other people were going to think.
Shame crept into my creative process. When I decided to “get serious” about my writing at age seventeen, I read as much writing advice as I could find. I became increasingly doubtful of my skills and ideas with each don’t and should I encountered. Most writing advice encourages us to worry about how others (overwhelmed acquisitions editors, the oversaturated market, discerning readers) will judge our work. This type of advice plays on the innate fears of rejection and ridicule most humans share—fears that already tend to be stronger for anxious writers.
I figured I could make up for my thin skin with excessive preparation, so I shifted my focus to planning stories instead of writing them. If I outlined everything and perfected my craft before showing anyone anything, then nothing could go wrong and no one could break my heart ever again, right? Nope, that was delusional. Though it was wonderful training for becoming an editor and writing coach, it was terrible for my creative process and attitude toward feedback. My inner critic amassed a lifetime supply of food and ammunition.
Obsessing over the reception of your draft before it’s finished is a great way to never finish your draft. It was true for me back then, and it is true for most struggling writers I’ve worked with. For ten miserable years, I lost touch with what made writing fun for me because I was so afraid of being judged. I trashed or abandoned almost every project I started.
I didn’t enjoy writing again until I started doing NaNoWriMo. Writing to a word-count quota forced me to silence my inner critic long enough to get (and keep) words on the page. NaNoWriMo taught me that I write most freely, regularly, and happily when I keep my creative process private. I admire authors who can write while people are watching, but I’m just not one of them. And that’s OK!
Being serious about writing and being serious about getting published are two different things. You do not have to write for an audience unless you want to. You do not have to talk about or share your writing unless you feel like it. You can write just to have fun and/or develop your skills.
Seek feedback when you’re ready for an audience besides yourself.
2. Value passion and polish over perfection
Drafts are allowed to be imperfect, and so are you. Yet perfectionism is as attractive as it is abusive, convincing us that faultless work can protect us from pain and disappointment. In truth, perfectionism is a prison built and funded by fear. It forces you to tether your self-worth to other people’s judgment, an arrangement that creates much more pain than it prevents.
If you let perfectionism keep you from completing or sharing your work, you’ll never find readers who will cherish your stories. Besides, there is no such thing as a perfect (or perfectly awful) narrative. Art is subjective. When there are billions of people in the world, you cannot write a story that will please all of them, but you can’t write a story that will disappoint all of them, either! I dare you to prove me wrong. Every “perfect” story has haters and every “worthless” story has devoted fans. No matter what you write about or how hard you work, there will always be people who will misunderstand, dislike, or make fun of you. Many of them will present their personal opinions as the objective truth. Do not chase their approval.
Strive to write stories that excite and delight you rather than ones that will please others. Talk back to the little voice in your head (i.e., your inner critic) demanding perfection and the approval of jerks. Train your inner critic to ask “Are you having fun?” instead of “Will anyone else want to read this?” (Recommended viewing: The Critical Inner Voice – Whiteboard Animation.) Your passion for your ideas will carry your creative career much further than perfectionism will.
Then, when you’re ready for feedback, aim to polish your draft rather than perfect it. A polished story provides a smooth, engaging reading experience. Smooth writing features clean, clear prose and formatting. Engaging narratives have intriguing, well-developed settings, characters, and storylines. A polish-focused mindset is a growth mindset. If you aspire to be perfect, every rough spot a reader points out will feel like a personal failure. If you aspire to be polished, critical feedback is just an indication that you have more learning and polishing to do.
3. Find supportive readers
Seeking feedback is like taking your story to a doctor for a checkup. Every doctor is unique. Some doctors treat their patients with dignity; others try to shame their patients into obedience. Finding a doctor whose bedside manner makes you feel safe can be life-changing. You will be much more likely to be honest with that doctor, trust their advice, and seek more of it without fear, keeping you healthier in the long run. Beta readers, editors, and writing teachers/coaches are equally diverse in their, um, word-side manners. (I call my editorial philosophy Compassionate Critique.)
If you are an anxious writer with a brutal inner critic, it is crucial that you find beta readers and editors who are respectful, honest, encouraging, and knowledgeable:
- Respectful readers treat you and your ideas with respect.
- Honest readers are willing to tell you what they disliked and/or didn’t understand in your story, and why.
- Encouraging readers will recognize (and be eager to help you develop) your story’s potential and rave about what you did well. Their advice leaves you feeling inspired.
- Knowledgeable readers will provide appropriate, specific suggestions for improvement and insights into your audience’s expectations.
It is much easier to develop a growth mindset when you surround yourself with people like this. Their rational, supportive voices will counteract your inner critic’s abuse. They will provide a safe space for you to become a stronger, more confident writer. As a result, you will have an easier time navigating your creative process and the publishing industry. You might even start looking forward to feedback!
How do you find supportive readers? This Reedsy article on beta readers links to various writing communities where you can begin your search. I recommend putting your wary nature to good use and screening prospective readers before you send them a full draft:
- Ask them about their approach to giving feedback.
- Admit that you tend to be nervous about seeking feedback—their reaction will give you a taste of their communication style.
- Give them a portion of your draft (the first 1–3 chapters) so you can see their approach in action before working with them further.
As you practice taking these steps, your courage and confidence will grow.
4. Be receptive
To benefit from feedback, you must be receptive to it (i.e., willing to make changes based on other people’s input). Being receptive is the opposite of being defensive. We behave defensively when we feel misunderstood, threatened, or attacked. As you develop a growth mindset, you’ll have to replace defensive reactions to feedback with receptive ones. Here are some examples:
|Feedback||Defensive Reaction||Receptive Reaction|
|A reader has trouble telling which character is speaking during dialogue.||“There are only two characters in that scene, so it should have been easy to follow.”||“Thank you for letting me know. I’ll try adding more tags (‘Milton said’/‘Mallie whispered’).”|
|A reader has trouble remembering what a major character looks like.||“I already described him in detail when I introduced him on page 5.”||“That’s good to know. Maybe I can mention the color of his hair and eyes again on page 65.”|
|A reader says your purposefully tragic story needs to be more lighthearted.||“Lighthearted stories are for emptyheaded people.”||“That doesn’t fit my vision for this story, but out of curiosity, can you tell me where it seemed too bleak to you?”|
If you tend to react defensively to critical feedback, remember this: a well-intentioned suggestion is not an attack on your personal character or condemnation of your writing skills. A poorly worded paragraph doesn’t make you a bad person; an underdeveloped character doesn’t make you an unworthy writer. Paragraphs can be rewritten, character arcs can be fleshed out, and you can learn to be more patient with yourself and others.
Imagine your beta readers and editors working with you rather than against you. Their goal is not to put you down, but to make your story stronger. So cut them some slack. Give critical feedback time to sink in before you respond to it. If you get vague or confusing feedback, ask for clarification. And if you receive snarky feedback, try to separate the point being made from its ugly wrapping paper.
Some readers—especially developmental editors—might propose extensive revisions with the goal of satisfying and expanding your target audience. (Your target audience consists of the people most likely to love and recommend your stories.) The more time and effort you’ve poured into your draft, the more torturous or infuriating this advice might seem. But if you reject all feedback, you may end up torturing or infuriating audiences with typos, plot holes, and other preventable oversights.
Once your work is published, you will not be able to explain your ideas or intentions to the strangers who buy your book. Your words will need to stand on their own. If one reader struggles to understand a sentence or plot device, chances are good that other readers will struggle with it too. The more you look out for your future readers before you publish a piece, the more satisfied readers you’ll have later.
To prevent my own defensiveness, I like to overestimate the amount of revision I will need to do after I receive feedback. Instead of imagining my draft as, say, 90 percent polished when I send it off for feedback, I imagine it as 40–50 percent polished—no matter how long I’ve spent rereading and self-editing my work up to that point. Then I can feel pleasantly surprised when readers only suggest minor revisions and prepared if they suggest major changes.
5. Assert yourself
Being receptive will not prevent you from being assertive. It’s OK to stick up for your creative vision! Unless there is a contract at risk, you get to choose which feedback you accept and how you implement it. You get to decide what changes and what must stay the same. It is your story, after all, making you the most important member of your target audience.
Of course, when you deal with anxiety and self-doubt, being assertive is much easier said than done. But practice makes powerful. When you are ready for feedback—passionate rather than perfectionistic, supported by trustworthy readers, and receptive to new ideas—being assertive is a cakewalk. Whereas anxiety puts you at the mercy of the feedback process, assertiveness puts you in control of it.
There are many ways to practice assertiveness during the feedback process, even when your anxiety is high. Let your beta readers and editors know upfront what type of feedback you find most helpful. Be prepared to answer tough questions, ask follow-up questions, get second (and more) opinions, and take risks. Remember what excited you about your initial story idea, trust your instincts, and set boundaries with naysayers—including your inner critic.
Finally, understand that one reader’s proposed solution to a problem is not necessarily the best or only option. I love offering my clients wild ideas to stoke their imaginations when they’re feeling stuck, but I also love when they come back with wilder, stronger ideas of their own.
Don’t give up on your story or yourself! You’ve got this.
Tell me about your experiences with feedback anxiety in the comments! And click here to learn more about my supportive, compassionate editorial services and rates!