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What to Do With Contradictory Feedback (And 2 Star Reviews)

At some point every author will get contradictory feedback—from contest judges, critique partners, editors, readers, etc. It’s inevitable. Someone will say something completely opposite of someone else. And we can only scratch our heads and say, “Huh?”

I’m always fascinated to compare those contradictions. I browsed through the 90 Amazon reviews on The Doctor’s Lady (released Sept. 1) and picked out just a few of the more obvious contradictions: (emphasis is mine)

About the romance:

“The scenes where the husband and wife are falling in love with each other are a little intense. Nothing vulgar or across any lines, but enough to make me blush at times.”

“I soured on inspirational romance in part because I didn't feel it dealt realistically with the physical attraction between men and women. The tension and desire between Priscilla and Eli in The Doctor's Lady, however, is tangible. Jody handles it so tastefully that even people accustomed to the hand-holding-only atmosphere of other inspirational romances won't be offended by it.”

About the hero:

At first, I didn't particularly care for Eli. I thought him crass and kind of a jerk.”

It didn't take me long to fall in love with Eli's strong, but gentle ways. Wow, he sure sounded like a hunk.”

About the story development:

“I was bit disappointed. Not completely, because I was very impressed with Jody's writing, and I will definitely pick up more from her. The Doctor's Lady isn't about the Whitman's mission with the Nez Perce. It's completely about their journey to the Nez Perce . . . I was just hoping there was more of the plot actually involving Native Americans.

I love every part of this book: the adventurous journey, the interaction with the natives, the beautiful description of nature, the struggle and courage of the characters, everything!”

About the ending:

“Although the end is predictable, the journey there is heart-wrenching and engaging - never flat.”

“By the end of this book you feel things coming together and I felt like I could just explode in emotions and tears of joy and I was sad that it had to come to an end. This is one of those books that although you are satisfied with the ending, you are disappointed that you are done reading about the characters that moved your life!”

Comparing my first two books:

“After disliking Jody's first book, The Preacher's Bride, I was pleasantly surprised by Jody's second book, The Doctor's Lady, and I enjoyed reading it very much.”

“This is a good traditional romance, and while it lacks the power of Hedlund's first novel The Preacher's Bride, it will keep readers hooked to finally see Eli and Priscilla admit their love for each other.”

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So what do I take away from contradictions? (And there are plenty more in the Amazon reviews!) Here are several things I tell myself:

1. There will always be contradictory reviews. Always. Expect them. Accept them. And don’t worry about them.

2. Everyone will view a book through his or her own worldview glasses. Our religious beliefs, values, expectations, personalities, likes/dislikes—all of that will come into play for how we experience a story.

Thus what is acceptable and enjoyable for one person, may be completely opposite for another. That’s just the way it is. And there’s nothing we can do to change that. What that means is that as writers, we need to stay true to ourselves and know what’s important to us, even if that’s not going to please every single reader.

3. Give the most credence to industry experts when weighing contradictions. I look to my agent and my editors for advice. They have their fingers on the pulse of what my genre readers like through feedback and sales statistics. Over time, they’ve developed an expertise and an innate feel for what will resonate with readers and what won’t.

My point is that when we face contradictions, we may need to involve those more experienced than our readers to help give us the bigger picture of what works and what doesn’t.

4. Writers have to develop a thick skin. When I read reviews, I try to stay in the middle of the road. I don’t let the really high praise flatter me, and I don’t let two star reviews crush me. Because yes, the two stars DO eventually come.

One of my two star reviews on The Preacher’s Bride says “Not my cup of tea.” And I just had to laugh and realize the truth in the statement—my book just won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s okay.

In other words, let the negatives add new callouses, so that eventually we can take the pricks to our ego without letting them deflate us altogether.

How about you? Have you gotten contradictory feedback on your writing? How do you handle it?

41 comments:

  1. This is so true. I remember getting feedback from three judges after entering a contest. I didn't place - didn't really expect to, but hoped to get some much needed feedback. The scoring ranged from 1 (very poor) to 9 (ready for publishing. My scores were 5, 7 & 8.1. Weird. While it was great to see the 8.1 I knew for my entry that it was not a realistic score. The 5 was actually more appropriate AND that's the judge who gave me the best feedback and suggestions. I was lucky enough to realize that the reason there are so many genres is that there are such diverse interests and tastes. Even within a genre that is true.

    I think your comment that writers should "stay true to ourselves and know what's important to us" is so important. That's when we write from our hearts and I think that's when we write the best.

    Hope things are going well for you. I know you're busy!

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  2. Hi Sherri, Things are going well for me! Thanks for asking! I'm i the process of finishing up writing a first draft of a book which is making the holiday season a little hectic! But I guess deadlines don't wait! :-)

    I'm in the middle of reading contest entries too. And I can't help but wonder what the other judges are telling the entrants, if my feedback is consistent or if I'm contradicting them! Hopefully, I'm staying objective, but still there's so much room for variance!

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  3. Two thoughts I had while I read this fantastic post, Jody.

    1. When I received a 96 and a 54 (out of 100) on my Geneses contest entry last year, I immediately read the comments and knew one thing... "I'm on to something good here." When you get that kind of contradiction, I think you're hitting deep. You're hitting peoples emotions and beliefs.

    2. The most difficult aspect of the publishing industry for me has been getting expert/unbiased feedback on my writing. It's one of those hurdles you have to leap by finding respected critique partners and frelance editors. I mean, you can get plenty of feedback that your first two pages aren't working or your pitch/query isn't working, but to actually get feedback on your full, executed story? Near impossible.

    But not impossible. Feedback in this industry is hard to come by, so when you get it... hold onto it.

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  4. I think we often forget that no one reads anything we write without bringing to it a filter of all their own past experiences--hurts, successes, beliefs, prejudices, etc. No words on the page will ever be read in exactly the same way with exactly the same thought processes as anyone else, including the author! As I've realized this, it has helped me process contradictory and bad reviews, because as Heather said, even viciously negative reactions by a reader might actually mean not that your story is bad, but that you have struck a place in them where they don't want to go or that challenges their belief system.

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  5. I got some widely different feedback from my beta readers on my first two novels, to the point where one was completely sympathetic to a character almost everyone else hated. It's hard to judge what's best overall.

    I think another point to add is that you just can't please everybody. Someone, somewhere, is going to hate what you write.

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  6. Wow! Great thoughts, you guys! Anne, I think you summed it up well with this: "even viciously negative reactions by a reader might actually mean not that your story is bad, but that you have struck a place in them where they don't want to go or that challenges their belief system."

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  7. Oh Jody, lol, I LOVE that you posted the contradictions. I'm looking forward to my first bad review because then I know my book will have reached a circle beyond me (if that makes sense?). Also, you def. can't let it bother you because everyone is SO different. Not everyone likes the same books and it's unrealistic for us to expect everyone to like ours.
    I like contradictory feedback (to a point, lol) because someone once told me it means you have a strong voice and to me it also means I'm not sitting in the middle.
    Most contradictory feedback for me came with my heroine.
    One agent didn't like her. Said she was naive and annoying. Another said she was a strong, likeable heroine. :-)

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  8. I am printing this post out and pasting it ... somewhere. Maybe multiple somewheres.
    Thank you for writing such a "here are practical examples of what I'm talking about" and now "here is what you do with it" post.
    And I agree, writers have to develop a thick skin. I often say we have to have the hide of an armadillo.
    But, the truth is, some day my skin is thicker than others.

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  9. Great post Jody! I'm not published but I am getting feedback and I've had folks love a certain line, and another strike it through and say 'take out this line'. Turns out the latter actually just didn't like my voice at all and was rewriting everything, sucking out the uniqueness. That's when I realized I can't play it safe and please everyone. The 30-40-30 rule my uncle uses then popped to mind and I wrote a post about how to use it when judging critiques: http://angelaquarles.com/2011/10/01/dealing-with-critiques-the-30-40-30-rule/ -- essentially it's 30% of people are going to like what you're doing no matter what you do, 30% will not, and it's the 40% in the middle you need to worry about. I'm going to dare writing in a way that hopefully at least 30% will hate it :)

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  10. Another great post, Jody! I agree with Anne--people will always bring their own experiences to something. In terms of feedback on the writing itself, your advice to ask the experts (agents, editors) is a good one.

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  11. First of 'not my cup of tea' must have written by an English person, therefore perhaps the setting and details into the history were a bit lost on them.

    I find myself giggling at these contradictory statements. And you are right not to let others affect you.

    The one about the first book being rubbish and vice versa was so funny! I hope you agree. Let's just laugh at them and rejoice when they are kind.

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  12. Great post, Jody! I agree with you. Don't let the positives inflate our egos, and don't let the negatives crush us.

    When I get a negative review, I try to remind myself that I have more positive reviews than negative. My book is nonfiction, so I remind myself of the lives it has touched, rather than the ones it hasn't.

    In my opinion, no one should ever leave a 2 unless it's absolutely horrible. I think some people try to be rude to tear you down because you are a great writer. You have two great books that are successful. Some people don't like that.

    May God continue to bless you and your writings:)

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  13. Jody, I love your willingness to show both sides! I laughed at a few of the reviews. In the end, like you said, it all comes down to a matter of taste. :)

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  14. I'm so impressed by the way you've embraced your reviews, Jody. Not every writer would put them on their blog and be so gracious.

    And I think you're doing the right thing with the differing views. Remembering that everyone is different, and that so much of writing is subjective, is very key.

    Thanks for sharing with us.

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  15. Wow! That is amazing! I had better develop a thick skin fast since I plan to get a book out this next year. Thanks for sharing this!

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  16. Great topic! When I first started writing, the contradiction in contest comments really threw me. I would spend way too much time trying to figure out what I was doing wrong because one judge out of three hated what the other two loved. Then I realized that there are many stories I cherish that another reader will set aside unfinished. We all have different tastes and that's okay. I compare judges comments. If more than one person brings up the same problem, I focus on improving that area.

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  17. Jody, I'm with Beth. I need to copy and paste this somewhere. Or print it and tape it to my bathroom mirror!

    Such a good point. Our books won't be everyone's cup of tea.

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  18. I think my biggest challenge is not getting bogged down and thinking I have to change because of one or two negative comments. I may have nine positive reviews and one negative, and suddenly I'm focusing on the negative, thinking I need to go out of my way to please that one. Yet, like has already been said, it's impossible to please everyone. And that's a fact of life, whether in writing or ministry or most anything else God has called us to do.

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  19. Jody, I think it would be so hard to read this sort of stuff, but you're handling it beautifully. I've had contradictory comments on critiques, but that's it.

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  20. Good post, Jody. This is so true, and something that writers of all genres need to remember. It's unrealistic to think that everyone will like what we write, whether a blog post, article, book or whatever. Great advice!

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  21. You are so right, Jody. Most of my reviews say my book is a page turner, they couldn't put it down. They were so sad when it ended, will there be a sequel? Then I got a review yesterday that said it was very slow moving for this person and they just couldn't connect with the characters because of the narrative style. I just have to believe my book won't appeal to everyone and leave it at that.

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  22. I'm still learning! I'm new enough in this and haven't gotten a great deal of feedback, but the feedback that I have gotten back has been contridicatory in nature.

    What makes it hard is WHICH advice do you follow? It's enough for me to want to pull my hair out, but it's true. If you ignore one advice because you don't like how it sounds, you might do your work harm--it could have really helped! And sometimes the advice that sounds right is completely wrong for your voice.

    And of course you don't want to not put something into effect that was suggested to you by a "professional". I don't want to get stuck in a rut and not make my writing better in the process.

    It must be a learning thing. :)

    I have to get there SOMETIME!

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  23. Good post, Jody. I blogged about this a couple of weeks ago. I think it's important to remember that some people who write the truly nasty reviews have a personal agenda that has nothing to do with our work. Oftentimes they are frustrated with their own efforts to get published. I try to remember why I am writing and to keep it all in perspective. But I won't deny that those barbs hurt.

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  24. Hi everyone!! Thank you all for your input today! I've really appreciated hearing your perspectives and how you handle feedback.

    Casey, I think that it is very hard to figure out which feedback to take to heart and which to let go. The more professional the person, the more weight I would give. And also, I'd give more weight to experienced writers who are experts in your genre.

    Obviously, we're not talking about line edit type of things--which pretty much any writer can do (i.e. "Your scene needs more sensory details" or "You have too much backstory here.")

    Rather, we're talking about bigger things, like the resonance of a hero or heroine, or the development of the romance, etc. Those are the kinds of things you really need more of an "expert" to help you with.They're the kinds of issues my in-house editors are really good at helping me polish.

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  25. I think the same thing when I read reviews of books or movies: did I read or see the same book or movie THEY did?!? I wonder, sometimes, how people can have such different reactions to the same thing!

    That's why I don't always go by reviews; I find that I like things that other people don't like. I think some of the BEST stories have a decent mixture of good & bad reviews. I agree that the stories with such different reviews must have struck a nerve with people!

    Great article.

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  26. What interesting and eye opening comparisons. It just goes to show that not every one is going to like the same things. I appreciate your openness in sharing this and also your sage advice at the end about becoming 'thick skinned'. Well done.

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  27. Honest approach.

    I like to tell myself I have #4 but I still bleed easily. Working on it. I like feedback when I can do something about it, but it will be interesting to see how I handle it when my book is already out and edits are done.

    ~ Wendy

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  28. Thank you for your honesty. Your real world experience and the openness with which you share it are real boons to us, your fans.

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  29. Which is why I won't read reviews because I don't want to wallow in the bad ones or pump up a big head over the great ones *laugh*

    We just write the best books we can and that's about all we have control over!

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  30. Thank you for this article. I found it really encouraging. I have my first novel on a peer review site and at first I changed everything according to what was suggested. Eventually I realised that I had completely lost my voice and the first chapters had been stripped of their heart.

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  31. You are brave to read your reviews! (I always wonder if I will once I get a book published.) But yes, laughable--so incredibly contradictory! I hope you don't focus on the negative ones and let them deflate you!! It's impossible to please everyone.

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  32. I have had the same review say, "I flew through this book in one night" and "It was overly bogged down in detail". Hmmm. It couldn't have been too boggy if you flew through in one night! ;)! I got really sucked into reading every single review for awhile, but I finally decided that I needed to stop obsessing over opinions and get to writing my next book. Thank you so much for sharing so honestly! It's so wonderful to be able to go through these new writing challenges together!

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  33. Everyone has their own take, their own perceptions on things so it is kind of expected. The best news is that recent marketing surveys find that customers/readers will trust reviews more if they are a mixed bag (obviously if more in the positive though). So that's something at least.

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  34. Such a good post. Its so true, not everyone will like our writing. Not everyone will connect with it or even understand it. As you so aptly put it, it wont be everyones 'cup of tea'. In the feedback/reviews, I look for what can be constructive for me. I appreciate when someone emails me to point out that ONE typo on pg 415.... And even the positive feedback can help give me pointers on what may be useful to do more of...or what character to keep in the next book or not.

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  35. Jody, this is why we're all such fans of yours, no matter what genre we write or read. The transparency and practical advice you provide to fellow writers is simply invaluable.

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  36. Aw, thanks Sophia! I appreciate the kind words! :-)

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  37. Hi Jody .. now more than ever I want to read both books - to see the differences .. fascinating post.

    Fun - and interesting to hear about .. cheers Hilary

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  38. Great post, Jody! I grew some callouses while doing mostly research/academical writing, but obviously fiction writing is a lot more personal (your own ideas! in your own words! ah!) so I'm trying to build those new callouses.

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  39. I loved this post, Jody. I too find the contradictions fascinating, but I'm grappling with them at the moment as I try to decide what to take on board from my beta readers. So tricky! :-)

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