Feedback is a Grieving Process

I’ve read that there are five stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I think these apply to the many forms of death we encounter in life. Not just the physical, but the emotional and psychological deaths.ย  The death of one’s hopes, one’s beliefs, one’s dreams.

But today, I want to talk about the death of one’s perceptions. Specifically as they relate to a novel.

We are all told once we finish and polish our manuscript we should put it through critique groups and get feedback on it.

But most of us are not ready yet. And even when we are ready, it’s a painful process.

We think this manuscript is perfect. We’ve improved it as much as we can, so in our eyes it is.

Then the feedback comes. People telling us what is wrong, not working, confusing, what needs to be better developed, what should be cut.

And that is when the grieving process kicks in.

It’s the death of our initial perception of our work. Our belief that the book is ready to be published.

Every time I get feedback, I go through these stages. Even when I know the book is a draft and needs work. It’s still my best draft.

Denial: This is where I decide the other person’s opinion doesn’t matter. That they are wrong. This usually lasts 3-24 hours.

Anger: This is where I look at the feedback again and feel like they are picking on me. This is usually 4-12 hours.

Bargaining: This is where I think maybe this feedback has some validity. Okay, I’ll try some of these changes, but I still think half of them are dead wrong. 10-24 hours.

Depression: This is where I realizeย  many of the comments are valid and I see how much work is in front of me. This can last a day to a week.

Acceptance: This is where I remind myself I want to write the best book I can. And this feedback will get me there. I start making the changes and I see how much they help. And I accept the death of my belief that the manuscript was good as I work to make it better.

How do you feel about feedback? How do you process it?


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59 Responses to Feedback is a Grieving Process

  1. bonaru says:

    I just got feedback on the first draft of my first novel – and I totally relate to what you’re saying. My denial phase usually lasts a day, the anger phase can be amusing…but when you get to acceptance, it’s kinda exciting. It’s the next step. Thanks for sharing these insights. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • It’s kinda funny when you realize your grieving. Not over a loved one, but over the death of your perception of your book. I’ve gotten to the point where I can laugh at my reactions because I know what’s coming but I can’t quite stop them. I can move through them pretty quickly though. I also found a critique partner who is the most tactful and thoughtful person in the world. I trust her and that really speeds up the entire process for me. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for stopping by!

  2. 4amWriter says:

    I like your perception, although my experiences in revisions haven’t been so streamlined. For instance, I wish I was as quick with my turn-around/acceptance! My depression (at least in my earlier drafts) lasted much, much longer than a week. And many times, I never reached full acceptance after the depression. I know that I reverted back to the denial stage or even the bargaining stage.

    Then through more drafts and as I grew both as a person and as a writer, my attitude changed. But it was a slow, daunting process. I really had a lot to come to terms with–not just in that book, but in my writing in general.

    Now, my depression doesn’t even last a day. I think I realized how badly my depression hurt my chance to learn and grow. Of course I will be disappointed and frustrated, but I know if I sit with those feelings too long I will make myself sick. Instead, I tell myself to get back to work.

    Really cool post, thanks for making me think a little bit differently about this process.

    • LOL. It’s taken a few years and many rounds of feedback to reach this point. The most important part was realizing my novel needed help. Agent rejections helped me see there was something wrong. I wanted to identify what. That’s when I was most able to process feedback. Before that realization, it was a slow, muddy half-hearted process. On early feedback, there were times acceptance didn’t come. Times I walked away from the manuscript because I couldn’t see what the reader saw. And if I couldn’t see it, I couldn’t fix it.

      The depression can be quick or slow depending on my ability to see the potential fixes. If it feels overwhelmed or impossible, I get blue for a few days. I try to remind myself I will come out of this, but it’s hard to see it at that time. ๐Ÿ™‚

      You’re smart to keep pushing forward. It is imperative not to get taken down by our emotions. I feel them, but I keep working. Trying to find a way to fix the manuscript.

      Glad you liked the post. I get these weird realizations and think hmm that might be an interesting post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Marc Schuster says:

    I think that’s a really great way of looking at feedback — especially since it reminds us all that it’s only human to initially feel a little defensive about criticism. As your post suggests, the more we write, the more we realize that criticism is ultimately good for what we’re working on. And the more we engage in this process, the better we get at stifling the gut reaction to react defensively and moving on to the more constructive stage of acceptance.

    • Marc, it’s been a long road. I used to take so long to move through each stage and sometimes I never got to acceptance. I stopped at bargaining many times over the years. It took me a long time to become practical enough to get to acceptance. ๐Ÿ™‚ Querying and getting rejections was the best way to see that the manuscript needed work. And once I accepted that, the feedback could be properly processed and implemented. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I always get defensive–at least in my head. But I have managed to shorten the duration of each phase to acceptance.

  4. Dorothea Brande (‘Becoming a Writer’) suggests becoming two people; a sensitive creative one who writes the novel, and a hardnosed one who touts the work around and takes on feedback – it’s probably good advice!

    I think the key to receiving feedback is not to consider work to be finished until it’s been put in front of other people and their suggestions taken on board – and if there are no suggestions, it’s the wrong audience.

    I’ve recently joined a writing group where members are quite critical, and I’ve found I actually enjoy getting feedback. I have a clear visualisation of the story in my head, but it’s impossible to tell whether I’m conveying that until I test it out. It’s inevitable that there will be ways to improve my manuscript, but I’m so close to it that other people are necessary to show me where those improvements can be made.

    I’ve noticed that other members of the group bring in pieces of writing to share that are quite early conceptualisations, so that their writing is developed with regular feedback rather than having others’ input at a much later stage when they have invested so much more time in it.

  5. Novel Girl says:

    What a true breakdown of the grieving process. I was freaked out by how similar my “stages” are. Awesome post!

    P.S. I still think the negative comments on my MS are rubbish until I get over my denial. True stuff.

    • It’s funny because the more feedback I received, the more I noticed my pattern of reaction. And it reminded me of my psych class in college. OMG, was I grieving?! And then I realized, grief isn’t just about physical death, it’s about loss and even psychological deaths. Endings are painful. LOL. Glad to know we process our feedback in a similar way. I always thought I was a bit over the top in my emotions. Even if I never shared them with my betas.

  6. While I personally don’t follow your stages of grieving process (with my writing, anyway!) I think it’s wonderfully astute of you to recognize this method in yourself. Often, it’s so difficult to separate one’s emotions from their written work, to see it as others do, and then to revise or completely edit that “baby”! That you know this sort of grieving process is, to some extent, a part of your creative process, can only serve to improve your craft overall. Super post, super insight…very honest. Love it!

    • Thanks Zen and Genki! It’s funny because it took me a while to figure out that I had a format to reacting to feedback. And then I realized that written feedback was the best way to work with my reactions. That way I get the feedback and I never let my betas see the internal reactions going on. ๐Ÿ™‚ In person, I take tons of notes to keep myself from reacting or saying anything to the critiquer. But inside, all this is going on. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • I totally understand! I am also my husband’s beta reader and when I’m going through whatever piece is o the table, he verbally takes it really well…but I can see that his “internal process” is very much like yours by his facial expressions ๐Ÿ™‚

        • LOL. Those darned facial expressions. I used to think I was so good at hiding what I thought, but evidently it all plays across my face. Though people do appreciate the effort I make to not verbalize it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Yes! I am going through this right now with my current ms. It can be hard, but I try to look at it as a learning experience and grow from it. So glad to know I’m not the only one who experiences this! ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Traci, it helps to focus on the end goal–a better manuscript. ๐Ÿ™‚ But the grieving process still creeps in when I get feedback. I’ve just gotten faster at moving through the stages. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And the cool thing is you do learn. You see those mistakes in your work now and you move on to more advanced mistakes. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. STupid people! How dare they! Can’t they see the true greatness that is MY NOVEL!!! (then a year later – yeah you’re right it was crap really)

    • LOL. I had feedback from 2010 that finally made sense this year. Sometimes it takes a while to see what someone is saying. Othertimes, it’s faster. Once I’ve decided the novel needs work I can process feedback much faster. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. Cat Forsley says:

    HEY MISS K …..



    WELL DONE ……………AS ALWAYS ………….
    CAT XX

    • Thanks Catherine!

      It’s a weird thing to have to request feedback to make your novel better when you truly believe it is the best it could be. I think it creates a bit of a mental disconnect. I want to write the best novel I can, but I think I did. And then the feedback rolls in. The problem is you have to sort through the comments and figure out what is useful and what shouldn’t be changed and you have this terrible urge to dismiss it all. It just seemed like a form of grieving to me. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Glad you liked the post!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      Take care,


  10. crubin says:

    So perfectly said, Kourtney. I have gone through all of those feedback stages, and just to make the process more painful, I even have an additional stage (well, it probably coincides with denial and anger): defensiveness. Like a momma bear for her cub, I will protect my baby. Until reality sets it ๐Ÿ™‚

    • LOL. Yup defensiveness is definitely in there. That’s part of denial and anger for me. And it’s so counterproductive, but I can’t help reacting (at least in my head). That’s why I love feedback via track changes instead of in person. It allows me to slowly pass through my stages of grief without spewing venom at anyone. ๐Ÿ™‚

      When it’s a face to face critique, I have to lock my jaw and just nod.

  11. kford2007 says:

    I remember the first time I ever put my work ‘out there’ for others to read. My hands sweated and I stared at that enter key for a long time. I’d wait patiently to see if anyone responded, only to sweat when I saw a response. Some initial comments were good and encouraging. Others left me feeling like I was the worst writer who ever lived. It’s those ones, those harsh, nitty-gritty ones, that have transformed my writing into what it is today. I’m in no way saying I’m great, but I’m so much better than I was.

    My palms still sweat when I send a WIP to my betas, but I know my writing will be made stronger because of their candidness and honesty. With all the competition out there, I wouldn’t expect anything less, even if their opinions sting. I’d rather it come from them than an agent or publisher.

    • It doesn’t get easier, but at least we know that the ends justify the means. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s hard to concentrate on the big picture though. It’s the feedback that bothers me the most that always ends up transforming my writing too. ๐Ÿ™‚ Very true–rather have a beta catch an issue than an agent.

  12. Emmie Mears says:

    I remember the first time I brought chapters to a critique group…and they ripped it to shreds. I don’t think anyone said anything good about it. Then I watched them praise any “literary” work and rip anything sci-fi/fantasy to tiny bleeding chunks, and I lost all respect for the group after that. It took founding a new group for the paranormal/sci-fi/fantasy people to get back a modicum of confidence in what others said about my work.

    Now I welcome feedback. I went a couple years trying to polish up my novel by myself, and it wasted so much time that when I first got new critiques in, I almost cried from the joy of someone seeing things I became blind to a long time ago.

    • There is a definite double edged sword to writing groups. Find the right group and your writing soars. Join the wrong group and it takes a nosedive. I think it’s important to write that first draft alone. No one getting in your head or your story but your characters and you. Maybe take one crack at revision. But then get it in front of people. Stephen King talks about the need to write alone and revise with others in his book On Writing. And I really take it to heart. I had people giving input on my half-finished novel and my synopsis, trying to be helpful but actually turning it into something they would write.

      I appreciate feedback. It helps me see what I can’t see. For example, I tend to have a mental image of places that I don’t always translate well to the page. I know what the beach in San Diego looks like, but I forget my reader isn’t in my head.

      Emmie, I don’t think that time you spent writing was wasted. You learned so much about how to write and you spent time developing your characters and your plot. Maybe you couldn’t see things as you do now, unless you did that then? Now you are switching gears and going into revision time. It only gets better. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. I think you said it pretty well. It is important to remember you “live” with the book the whole time it was written(so of course it seems perfect) – and sometimes your brain “fills in” missing pieces or overlooks stuff that a first-time reader can see.
    Another thing to remember a publisher is reading with an eye towards marketing and selling (a different purpose than most writers). The book just may not be a fit to what they think they can sell – but they might risk it with changes ( Then you have to decide whether to change or try to see if your book will fit better elsewhere)
    Don’t get discourage, just try to stay open minded and balanced.
    Another great post and discussion! THanks

    • Two very good points! Your brain does fill in the blanks. It’s also why you have so much trouble catching your own typos. Stupid smarty pants brain! ๐Ÿ™‚
      And you know what you know. The reader only knows what’s on the page.

      True, I think the feedback that most disturbs me is the stuff I really have to dissect. Is it because deep down I know the feedback is true, but it requires massive reworking of the story? Or is it because it changes the story so much it is no longer my own? I’ve grappled with that a few times. Whatever I’m digging my heels about has to be examined the most thoroughly.

      Thanks for reminding us how important it is to stay true to your story while still being receptive to feedback. Definitely a tough balancing act. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. CC MacKenzie says:

    Having been a member of various writers groups and a crit group.
    I don’t ask for feedback until the work is finished. Or as finished as I can possibly make it and that’s because I cannot write by committee.

    Experience has taught me that even then the work isn’t finished when I think it is because it needs to be put aside for a time – anything up to a month and then read with my head in a different perspective. Nine times out of ten I start to layer through the story working from the end to the beginning. Which sounds weird but it helps me drip-feed events at the right time and in the right place (I hope).

    That’s when the story is sent out to three beta readers who don’t know each other and they’re not writers either. They’re voracious readers of my genre.

    This time last year I rec’d a very nice R from an editor who took the time to tell me why a story didn’t work for them and asked me to resubmit. It took me a while to work out what her comments actually meant. But I do remember feeling gutted and heartsick because I thought I’d written the very best story I could. I had to let go of a theme that was very dear to my heart. A year later that story is fixed and the suggestions implemented and expanded. If I’d never received that R there’s no way I’d have improved as a writer.

    Now I love revisions, letting go and moving forward is the only way we can improve as writers even though at the time it’s like losing a limb.

    Great post, Kourtney.

    • CC, I agree. I need to write the first draft alone to get out what I want. Otherwise I might get sidelined or write what someone else wants.

      I’m also one who puts it aside. I have different people involved in reviewing different drafts. A few get to see my first draft. Some only see my polished draft. Put it goes through multiple layers of critique before it gets queried. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I find as I edit everything ripples forward and back. I write Post-its to keep track of all the changes that need to be made before and after.

      Congrats on that super nice rejection with a request to resubmit!!! Wow. That’s big. I have had the same problem–adjusting my vision take a a bit of time before I see the problem and figure out exactly what the feedback requires.

      Despite how hard they are, I do enjoy seeing the manuscript get sleeker, faster paced, and the characters become more 3-D. Revisions are tough but it’s like sanding down a beautiful piece of furniture.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments CC!

  15. Debra Kristi says:

    I think you pegged it. The grieving process does apply to the novel as well. It’s not as dramatic, at least not for me, but it is there. I currently have mine out so I’m on pins and needles.

    • Thanks! It definitely isn’t on par with the loss of a loved one or a beloved pet. But it seems to fit the pattern on a smaller scale. ๐Ÿ™‚ I remind myself the point of putting it out there is to get someone to poke around and point things out. I’m always grateful for their feedback…three to five days after the fact. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  16. K. Lyn Wurth says:

    Kourtney, this is sooooo true that you made me laugh. Great description (and warning). I’m knee deep in revision and the associated euphoria of “this is awesome!” and “I’m awesome.” Yeah. Writerly delusions of grandeur are my drug of choice… Great post and insights! Thanks.

    • Kelly, I’m glad I could make you laugh at this process. It’s rough. But if you can find some humor in things, you can survive anything. ๐Ÿ™‚ OMG, I had that on my last revision. I sent it to my critique partner thinking it was so clear and so fast paced and so amazing. She liked it and she praised the good points, but she also pointed out things I’d missed. So very glad I have her. But ugh that initial gut reaction hurts.

      • klynwurth says:

        Looking back at my comment, I hope I didn’t seem dismissive. There’s an unexpected delight in self-recognition and you moved my painful critique experiences into an interesting and useful perspective. The gut reaction is powerful. I hope I can still laugh, next time my turn for good news/ bad news comes around! Thanks again.

        • Kelly, not at all! I thought you were joining in the commiseration with me over the stages of grief associated with revisions! ๐Ÿ™‚ I was also poking a bit of fun at myself. Is it over the top that I grieve a manuscript? Probably. It’s definitely a tad embarrassing. But that’s the only comparison that fit the emotions and phases I go through during feedback. It’s so visceral. Every emotion comes through at 110%. But I’ve learned to just ride them out. And not do anything or say anything until I’ve really processed the feedback.

  17. What a creative take on processing feedback, Kourtney. It takes guts to write honest posts like these. Thanks!

    I’ve found that the way I feel about feedback varies greatly, depending on the source, my current mood (and hormone levels LOL) and my opinion of any suggested changes. So far I’ve dug, and got giddy excited, over most of my agent’s recommended changes. Or, hmm… Maybe that’s denial! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Thanks August. ๐Ÿ™‚ I pretty much have the same reaction to feedback every time. Though my rate of movement through the stages has speed up greatly. How long I stay in a stage definitely varies by my mood, if I’m sick, etc. I don’t have an agent yet, so I’m not sure how I would react to his/her feedback. But pretty much this has been my reaction to feedback so far! ๐Ÿ™‚ LOL. or you just raced right to acceptance–which is very mature and bodes for a happy future!

  18. Wonderful post. Coincidentally, just last night I read “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life” by Ann Patchett (available as a Kindle Single on Amazon). One of the things she said she had to learn early on was which critics to listen to. If you listen to everyone, you end up responding with changes that tie you up like a game of Twister. Conversely, if you listen to no one, you miss that valuable ousdie feedback. It sounds as if you have found a good critique partner, which seems to be one of the most valuable assets to a writer.

    • Thanks Audrey! Sounds like an interesting book to read. ๐Ÿ™‚ You raise excellent points. It is very hard to sort out feedback. I went through the first situation with my YA story, I got too much conflicting feedback and changed the story too much. It took me a while to learn how to hear people’s feedback and determine which comments were useful and which wouldn’t necessary help my manuscript in the long run. I am so happy I found my critique partner. She and my betas are really really essential to my writing process. I’ve also developed such trust with them. I know they want the story to be the best it can be while still staying true to my voice. ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Samir says:

    So true… I know exactly what you mean ๐Ÿ˜‰

  20. jmmcdowell says:

    Yes, I recognize these stages in my own reactions. And I’m sitting here with two manuscripts out with two readers, so I may get a double dose of this very soonโ€”LOL! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Even though I’m now experienced enough to recognize that I sent DRAFTS to the readers, I know it’ll still be hard to absorb the comments at first. But, like you, I’m hoping I’ll move through the stages more quickly this time around.

    But it’s such an important thing for us to do. We have to make that submission to agents be the best it really can be. And very few people can do that alone. Actually, I doubt anyone can do it alone.

    • I agree. Feedback is absolutely essential to our evolution as a writer. But it’s a growth process. And growing is painful.

      That’s pretty courageous to put both books out there for critique. Go JM!

      It’s like eating veggies. We need them. They’re good for us, but sometimes it’s a struggle to get them down. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. The trick is always how to tell if the criticism is really valid for the particular work and for the intended audience. It’s natural to feel hurt by criticism, so you have to take that into account. But if it really feels wrong to you, might you just be right? How to know? I think you have a good point about letting your feelings work their way out – giving yourself time to come to that “acceptance” stage, or to the point where you have enough perspecive to tell whether acceptance is warranted. It’s also important to find readers who are either from your intended audience or understand that audience well. My experience from being in a critique group is that I have trouble giving feedback on works that are in sub-genre’s that I don’t like or don’t read by choice. I can tell these writers what I honestly think (which can be pretty negative), but I’m not sure how helpful that will be for them.

    • Sometimes feedback comes in the form of what to change instead of what isn’t working. That is problematic too. Because sometimes the solution doesn’t work for the manuscript. But the problem they identified may be valid.

      I agree that it is important to mull over all feedback and weigh what works and doesn’t work for your manuscript.

      It is hard to give feedback on writing you don’t enjoy. I try to focus on basic stuff like pacing, character development, flow. There are genre specifics I am not equipped to advise on, so I steer clear of them.

      With feedback, I use the sandwich method. State what the writer did well, list a few things that need work, and end with a few more compliments.

  22. timkeen40 says:

    If I am processing critical review that tells me that the work was unclear or confusing to the reader, then I take that very seriously. As a writer, I must first formulate then communicate. If my reader is confused, then I must pay attention.

    If I am processing critical review that tells me my writing is not liked fo reasons A, B, or C, then I pat myself on the back, for if someone is going to the trouble of reading what I write and giving me feedback, then I have captured their attention. Whether they intend to destroy my writing with scathing reviews or ramble on forever about how awesome it is, they are taking the time to read what I have written. I have captured their attention if only for a brief time. I will never be a success at what I am doing unless I can capture someone’s attention.

    If I am processing no critical review, then we are not even having this conversation.


    • Tim, wherever the reader is confused or lost–that’s something that I will look at closely too. It means I didn’t do my job as a writer.
      If the reader doesn’t like someone or something, I wait for a few responses. I’ve had betas love and hate the exact same character. I realized the important thing was that they reacted to the character and kept reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  23. Love this post, it’s sooo true! It took me a long time to ask for feedback and when I did, I was put out, rejected it but a few hours later,nodded and knew they were right.

    • Thanks Victoria. ๐Ÿ™‚ It took me a while to realize what was going on internally and why feedback was so hard to process. Once I realized what was going on, it made it easier to understand my feedback process.

  24. Ottabelle says:

    I don’t know if I ever really get proper acceptance. It’s usually something like this isnt very good ever was it? I should listen because they know more than me and I want to make people proud. Which is some more can o’ worms psycho screw ups with me.

    • Usually after I finish revisions, I can see the improvements in my manuscript. And accept how useful the feedback was. I think it takes time to develop that inner compass that tells you what feedback to accept and what won’t be helpful to your manuscript. And to also quiet that inner critic that tells you your work is never good enough. ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. Pingback: I CAN Do This « jmmcdowell

  26. val says:

    Kourtney, This is an excellent analogy of feedback on our writing (our babies). The sign of a “real” writer, I think, is one who can take the feedback (criticism) in stride and “take what we need and leave the rest” as they say in AA. Some criticism is sound and some just doesn’t make sense. Some enhances the work, some diminishes it, or shows that the feedbacker doesn’t get it. We have to decide what to take and what to leave. But the stages are a good way to break it down for ourselves so we can then move on, eventually. :- )

    • Val, you make great points here! I tend to be more emotional in how I process feedback so a grieving process seemed appropriate to what I was experiencing. I envy anyone who can be completely zen about it. ๐Ÿ™‚ Eventually, I get to that point where I sort it all out and use what is useful and disregard what is not resonating with me. I think each writer has their way of dealing with feedback. But the goal is always the same to improve the manuscript. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • val says:

        Hi Kourtney, I doubt most of us are completely Zen about it (or any other kind of grief). I guess I was referring to the “acceptance” part of the steps of grieving. As, I believe, the first commenter here said, it’s nice when (and if)we can reach that stage.

        I think having a few choice words for those who would malign our work helps, even if under our breath :- ) and then, most important is believing in our writing no matter what others think.

        They say Gone With the Wind was rejected 17 times before it “took.” Whether that’s really true or not doesn’t really matter. Lots of great work out there would not exist in the public realm had the author not believed in it despite some uninspired rumblings against it and kept pushing to have it published or produced so others could share in his/her vision.

        i.e., feedback is ALL RELATIVE.
        Take care.

        • Val, ah now i understand. I thought you meant you immediately process feedback rationally. I was very envious. ๐Ÿ™‚ The acceptance part is indeed the closest I get to zen. ๐Ÿ™‚ I know it is immature and silly to rage against the feedback which is why I never do it openly. I might talk to my mom or friend, but never ever to the giver of the feedback. That’s my issue so I go through it without involving the critiquer.

          Feedback is relative. It’s hard to figure out what changes need to be made and what changes alter the manuscript into something you don’t want it to be.

          All my best,

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