Using a Growth Mindset to Make the Most of Feedback on Your Writing

In the second grade, I got a perfect score on my greater than and less than test. A perfect zero. I had mixed up the way the alligator was supposed to open his mouth. In true writer fashion, I’d created a narrative to help me remember and, according to my reasoning, the alligator ATE the smaller number. How else did get bigger? Whoops. From that moment on, I created a second narrative–the narrative that I wasn’t good at math. Symbols and word problems and goodness me, calculus, all intimidated me before the teacher even opened their mouth to explain a lesson. Looking back, I was still in aggressively paced math classes in high school and did relatively okay with the help of tutors and even managed to place out of entry level math classes in college based on my AP scores. But the narrative that I am not good at math stuck.

When we moved to North Carolina in 2016 and my children started at their new elementary school, I was introduced to the concept of growth mindset. The principal led with this at the center of the school’s culture. It permeated the building. From quotes on the wall to quarterly awards to students for effort not just academic success to reiterating in classrooms that FAIL was nothing but a First Attempt In Learning to encouraging parents to read Carol Dweck’s incredible book, it was EVERYWHERE. And I ate it up. I read it all, watched the Ted talks, and applied it to the kids when talking about school or new challenges.

Until I was grumbling while trying to cook dinner one night, unable to get the lid off a jar. Getting frustrated, I threw my hands up in the air and said, “I just can’t do it.” My then first grader piped up from the table where he was having a snack, “No, mom. You just can’t do it YET!” 


It was a lot harder to internalize a growth mindset in my own writing life and mental outlook than I thought. Fixed mindset had been entrenched in my own schooling. I was praised for my writing. Less than stellar math grades were swept aside since it just wasn’t my thing. I skated by in band with enough talent to score decently on chair tests, but watched a few really talented members of our band soar. What I didn’t see was their commitment to at home practice. I just figured they had “it” and I had nice posture (this was the only compliment I received from one of my band directors).

I do this with my writing sometimes. Surely, I have some talent. A natural affinity for stories and words and expressing myself through them. But that doesn’t mean I have an innate talent for structure or grammar or how to use a subplot to enhance a protagonist’s journey.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work–brains and talent are just the starting point.”

Carol Dweck

How many writers give up once they receive feedback erroneously thinking that if they didn’t get it right on the first try they must not have the talent for it? I have to admit to a little of this thinking in the early days of my attempts to write long-form fiction. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially for those of us who were told when we were younger (or just last week) that we are such great writers. If we’re so great, why are we only getting compliments on our posture while so-and-so just hit the best seller list? They must just be better at this.

Spoiler alert: Not necessarily.

Feedback is best used when you can employ a growth mindset. Admit that talent and desire got you to this point, then settle in for the hard work. This may be the first time that someone has pushed back on your skills or pointed out a weakness. It can be hard to hear, but I encourage writers to be open. As long as the feedback is constructive and kind, give it a look and see where you can use it to grow your craft.

What does that mean practically?

  • Read through all the feedback. Before making any changes, read through all your feedback. Make sure you understand it all first. A book coach will definitely go over feedback with you and any beta reader or editor should be willing to answer questions to clarify anything that seems confusing. Read any summary notes then scan your document for any inline comments or questions. Don’t skip anything.
  • Analyze the feedback and look for patterns. Categorize the feedback so you can look for patterns. For example, if you are getting lots of notes about your protagonist, is your character the problem (voice, perhaps) or are their stakes unclear (this may show up in pacing, trajectory, and/or emotional resonance). Group issues where you can. Also, check for feedback overlap. If you received feedback from multiple sources and they all point to one question, character issue, or structure problem, take a good hard look at those issues. Everyone’s opinion is subjective, but if several folks are mentioning the same problem, it’s worth a second look.
  • Look for the truth behind the comment. When I took up this massive rewrite on my own manuscript, it was after receiving some very tough feedback. The book coach I was working with saw the message I was trying to convey and held up a mirror showing me where I was falling short. I looked underneath all her questions and suggestions and realized it was my story point that had gotten muddled, which trickled into character motivation, and therefore meant my ending wasn’t the right one. The changes I ended up making didn’t pertain exactly to changes she suggested or issues she pointed out, but they were a direct result of a new way of thinking about my story that I would not have gotten to without her observations.
  • Look for opportunities to learn. Once you have an understanding of what needs fixing, take an honest look at your tool box. If you are struggling somewhere, now is the time to augment those skills. Read some articles on dialogue or multi-POV stories. Grab your favorite book on structure and see if you executed the scenes effectively in the right places. Take a class or workshop. Use this moment to learn. It won’t be wasted. You’ll take these new skills with you into your next manuscript and the one after that.
  • Brainstorm. Editing after feedback is an opportunity to try new things with your manuscript. Brainstorm ideas with a mind map or grab your critique partner (mine often gets texts from me when I’m noodling ways to solve a problem) or draft a new beginning. Think of this as play time. I like to copy and paste my manuscript into a new document that way I always have the previous version to go back to if I end up hating whatever I’ve done. A cut file also works if your changes aren’t as drastic. Then, experiment. Try a different perspective or write out a scene of what happened on the walk home instead of just “She arrived on foot at her usual time.” I bet you’ll be amazed at what you come up with.

Ultimately, feedback is our opportunity to grow as writers. Even when we disagree with it, understanding why helps us to clarify our own thoughts. Even when we get cruel or hurtful feedback, we learn how to be compassionate feedback givers (a tough way to learn a lesson, though, for sure). Without feedback, we will be stuck in the same writer’s rut. And my wish for you is that you continue to hone your skills, grow, challenge yourself, and finish those stories burning inside of you.

“You don’t know what your abilities are until you make a full commitment to developing them..”

Carol Dweck

Use your feedback to inspire you. To motivate. To excel.

Make the commitment.

Published by Monica Cox

Monica is a writer and book coach who helps writers get unstuck so they can reach their writing goals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: