Dealing with peer review feedback can be absolutely brutal. It’s painful enough that many people shy away from the process time and again even if they know the feedback would help them. No matter how much you love and respect your critique partners, it hurts sometimes.
Knowing they’re competent editors can even make it worse, especially if they disagree. You don’t want to become one of those people who seemingly ignores feedback or deletes problematic lines because you can’t figure out how to fix it. If you add in a contest or prompt deadline, an emotionally intense story, or a pile of rejections, you might just feel like giving up and going to bed to cry.
I’m not talking in theory here. I’m talking from personal experience and I refuse to be ashamed to admit it. Wanting to do the best by your story and to learn everything you can from your feedback should never be shameful. I know in my heart that all the editing decisions are ultimately mine, but that puts a huge burden of stress on me when I want to do the right thing. And I don’t generally cope well with stress. Which thing is right? Am I making it worse?
You know what my biggest fear is? That my crit team will see me struggling and be afraid to be honest in their feedback next time because they don’t want to hurt me or break me.
I’m a leader in my peer review group and some members may look up to me. So although I kept my recent breakdown pretty private, I’m outing myself to the world in the hope that it gives just one person the strength to ask for help when they need it and to find a path out of the confusion that doesn’t involve a trash can or giving up.
I have a potential solution to offer, thanks to Andrew Savage, Damian Jay Clay, and Jasmine Arch. They talked me through the emotional breakdown and, even better, together we found a solution that got my story ready to go on time.
Recruit a Lead Editor
What I needed was a lead editor–one person I trusted to walk through the story and all the confusing feedback with me and talk it out and help me make the right choices. In this case, Andrew took on the monstrous job (a 4500 word story that ended up needing a pretty extensive rewrite and doing it all in less than a day).
The lead editor should go through the feedback with you and help weigh options for if and how to apply it. In some cases, they need to step in and say they believe option A or option B is better to cut out some of the input that is confusing you and help you move forward. Or to say, “Yeah, I don’t agree with this at all. Skip it.”
But the biggest thing a lead editor does is calm you down, remind you you can do this, and talk you through your decision process to help you make the choice that’s right for you and your story. Instead of leaving you lost in a sea of words with conflicting currents, they throw you a life ring, haul you aboard their rescue ship, and weather the storm with you. Things are so much easier when you aren’t alone.
The two key points in choosing your lead editor are your trust level and their availability.
You have to be comfortable handing your baby over to this person and know they’ll do their best to help you meet your goals. You have to trust their ability to see beyond the feedback to consider the causes of the issues people are trying to fix. And you have to trust them to leave the story as your story in the voice you think is right and not remake it in their own vision when you give them the power to guide you through the tough calls.
The other thing is they have to be willing and available to do it. If you’re fighting a deadline, it doesn’t help if they’re overwhelmed with work and don’t have time until next week.
Depending on your time frame and the complexity and size of your project, this can be a really big time investment for them. It is far more intense than a regular peer review critique.
What you need is a live editing partner, at least long enough to create a plan to tackle the most stressful feedback. One clear voice out of the maelstrom to focus on.
Clarify Your Vision and Goals
Figuring out what was important to me with the story was a necessary first step. Sometimes reviewers have advice that seems great but changes the shape of the story. If you’re working on a deadline, how important it is to you as an author to meet that deadline can have a huge impact on your options.
My primary goal was making a solid, potentially saleable story that I’d be proud of having my pen name on. Part of my insecurity was working outside my usual genre and fearing there were genre norms I wasn’t familiar with. Yes, a great story transcends genre labels but when you add the saleable aspect of my goal, it does matter what publications I want to have consider it are likely to expect and want.
I also was terrified of being “that person” and not taking feedback my story really needed or making it worse by haphazardly cutting things. I’m told I have the opposite problem–I tend to take on too much feedback when sometimes it isn’t right for me or the story.
My role in my community is important to me and I don’t believe any of us should be above seriously considering the feedback of other members. Not just their concrete suggestions, but what underlying issue they might be trying to solve with them yet be unable to express.
I also really wanted to finish in time for a certain submission call, because I’d planned on it for a month. I’d been failing a lot of goals lately, so failing that too was going to hurt.
The whole situation was making me question my ability to be a writer at all. I really was close to saying “I’m an editor and that’s all I’ll ever be.” Actually, I’m pretty sure I did actually say that, probably stubbornly and repeatedly.
For other people, the primary goal might be adhering to a vision they have for the story, maintaining a particular theme, or keeping character B if there is any reasonable way to do so.
Be honest about what your goal really is with your lead editor. They have to know to help you meet it.
Identify Backup Options
A particular cause of stress is often a deadline for a particular contest or market. There is never a guarantee you’ll win or be accepted anyway. Rejection is the norm in a writer’s life. So figure out a backup plan. If nothing else, it’s what you would do if the story loses or is rejected.
Sometimes the consequences of failing aren’t as dire as we think they’ll be. I looked into the next submission period for my intended market and discussed some alternative markets that also would be a good fit. Yes, I felt like I’d have a better shot at acceptance with this special submission call, but sending out a story I didn’t have confidence in also had consequences–I’d have no second shot at this market for this story if they rejected it.
If your situation involves a prompt, you might need to consider how well your story could function independently of the prompt. If the contest-specific aspects are essential to the story so options are limited outside it, you have less to lose by skipping feedback requiring more complicated resolution.
For me getting a backup plan eased my stress. If I failed, I’d still have to deal with the emotional impacts of failing my goals. I’d have to face my chronic health issues again thwarting something important to me. Trying as hard as I could and knowing I’d done my best eased that pain, but if either of us burnt out and we had to quit, the work wasn’t wasted, because I was one step closer next month.
Our plan became to finish it for this market if possible. If we failed or they rejected it, I’d do more thorough peer review at a relaxed pace before submitting elsewhere. When I say more thorough, I mean of the rewrite. It had actually had two rounds of review in my full group, as well as feedback on sections multiple times from a few people when I was struggling. But sometimes stories need five or six rounds before they’re ready.
Maybe your best choice is to put the story aside for a while until things calm down. Never underestimate the benefit of rest for a story. There is nothing wrong with putting your peer reviewed story on a shelf for a week or two or a month or even longer before processing their feedback. Wait until you’re less stressed and emotional and not panicking. I seriously considered that option and resting is still in my “if it gets rejected” plan.
Backup all the feedback you can and your original text. This is especially important if you might make some expedient choices. Sadly I’d already panic-resolved some feedback without a copy, so we had to run off my memory of what I changed and why. Some lines got dug out of a two-revision-old backup for comparison or restoration.
If you backup things and your revision with your lead editor doesn’t work out for any reason, you can later compare copies and feedback and make different choices without wasting more of your crit partners’ time.
This article is part one of a three part series. Part 2 is available now. Tune in on Thursday for Part 3. These parts will continue the process for working with your lead editor and making sense of the overwhelming feedback.
Cover art is by geralt on Pixabay.