22nd December 2023

Get Notes and Fix Problems

Getting notes and feedback is vital to making sure that your writing is great, but to get the most from them you have to know yourself as a writer, what you are trying to achieve, so that you can make sure that you solve genuine problems with solutions that fit you.

At some point in your writing career, you will get notes. These might be from an editor, an agent, or any number of other people involved in making a piece of writing the best it can be. If you are writing and doing it for an audience, it’s inevitable, and it’s vital. They can completely transform your work, but that transformation can be for the better or for the worse. The difference is how you handle them.

Know what you were aiming for

Every note you get must be weighed against what you were intending. If a note confirms that you have done what you intended, don’t make changes. If it says that you have not achieved your intent, address it.

Ok, lets back up just a little…

Everything you do on the page is done for effect. In fiction, you are using words, plot and imagination to produce an effect in the mind of the reader. Even if you have not considered that intent specifically, you will have it. You will want a passage of action to create a sense of pace, for events to come like bullets out of a gun, for the reader to feel each instant, each detail. In a dialogue you will want the reader to feel the words a character says. You want that reader to be pleading, silently, that the character is not going to say what they are going to say. You want them to feel the words as a prickle in their eyes and skin. That’s what you want. That’s the effect you are aiming to create. That’s your intent.

“the first question when you are looking at a note is ‘does this tell me that I have achieved my intent?'”

So, the first question when you are looking at a note is ‘does this tell me that I have achieved my intent?’ Say you have created a character who lives a wealthy life that they drift through with vague indifference. This part of their character is echoed in prose using  description that is soft, vague, lacking crisp details, but also sumptuous. Now you get a note saying that the reader is struggling with sections, that things are too vague, too unresolved. They suggest sharpening it all up. They maybe offer some examples of exactly how to do this.

What do you do with this note?

Do you go in and take the suggestion for sharpening things up? No, you don’t. You don’t because the note confirms that you have achieved what you were intending to. Success! The person who gave the note does not like the effect, but that’s alright. You are looking for effectiveness, not applause.

Likewise, if you have doubts about the effectiveness of a piece of writing and a note confirms that it’s not having the effect you intended, then it means you have work to do. If you were hoping to create a feeling of tension, threat and suspense, but you think that what you have written is dragging, and then you get a note saying ‘This feels slow even though there’s lots of important stuff going on’ then you know that your feeling was accurate.

Listen to the problem, be suspicious of suggested solutions

When you get a note that points out a problem, you will often get a suggestion of how to fix that problem. You might get a lot of them.

What do you do with these suggestions?


You do nothing.

Instead, you think about how you are going to solve the problem that has been pointed out.

“What do you do with these suggestions?
You do nothing.”

Why? Because you are the person whose creation this is. A solution that you come up with and make is likely to be better than someone else’s suggestion. It will fit more naturally, and balance with what is already there. It will work with your skills, craft, and style – it will be a solution that works with the writing and with you as a writer. All writers are different. We have different styles, different skills, and ways of approaching and understanding our work. A suggested solution to a problem might be perfect for another writer, but not for you, and by trying to execute it you are going to create more problems.

As an example, imagine that you are working on a novel. You have a complete manuscript and are happy with a lot of it, but not with the middle chapters. It’s not quite working, and you aren’t sure why*. So, you send it off to a friend who is also a writer and ask for notes. They read it and say that the problem is with the pacing of events in the middle of the book; they are sluggish and lack momentum.

A note suggests that the issue might be solved by taking each of the chapters and intercutting between the events that happen in them. This could work for them; it’s an accurate diagnosis, and the suggestion would likely fix the the problem if they were writing the same story in their own style.

Except to make it work you need to cut up your chapters into a series of small scenes, each of which has punch and ends on uncertainty. You need to create chains of scenes that plait together so that a reader exits each scene and enters the next knowing exactly what is happening. And maybe that’s just not the sweet spot of your writing. You are an experienced writer, but your best work has been expressed where you hold with one character and one set of events, where you stick close to both the character and the action and don’t jump away. So, the suggested solution is likely not going to be an easy fit for you, and it’s not going to get the best from you. If you try and apply it, you might fix the pacing problems but break the quality and tone of the book.

Of course, if a suggestion fits you, and you like the solution do it. If it doesn’t fit, take the problem seriously and come up with your own solution. Ultimately this is the way to deal with all notes; know yourself and accept what someone else has seen but you have not,while remembering that it is your work and therefore any fixes have to be done your way, playing to your strengths.

*Being able to sense the flaws in your work but not being able to identify the cause is a common feature of creative endeavours, and it is the primary reason that you need other people’s insight and feedback. They can see what you cannot.

If you have any questions on notes and writing, drop them in the comments.

John French

December 2023

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Edited by Greg Smith

Written without AI

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