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2 Tests That Can Help Writers Sort Through Feedback

Tuesday, April 24, 2012



One of the biggest problems we writers encounter is knowing how to sift through feedback we receive from contest judges, critique partners, or beta readers.

Writers often fall into one of several camps when it comes to dealing with feedback. 

The first camp consists of those who look at every comment, criticism, and comma and rush off to make each change—even if they don’t agree with everything—because they’ve been told over and over that writers are too subjective with their own work. So they bite their tongues and trust the feedback will help them improve.

A second camp comprises those who glance at feedback with (over) confident eyes. They walk away from it, tossing out every piece of advice they don’t like, determining not to let anyone else mess with their voice. They get angry, defensive, or hurt when the feedback becomes too challenging.

There is a third camp of writers. The writers in this group are humble enough to know they need help polishing their stories. They realize the benefit of the right kind of feedback, and they’re willing to accept it. But they’re also strong enough not to bend to every whim of every piece of advice they get.

How do we find that middle ground?  How can we move to a place of humble confidence as we sort through feedback?

Here are two tests we can use:

  1. Determine if the feedback is objective or subjective.

We often assume that all feedback is subjective. But I’m going to say that’s not true—even if doing so stirs up controversy. I believe there are basic fiction-writing techniques that are NOT subjective. These are the kinds of principles every aspiring writer should spend some time learning (here’s my Pinterest board of the writing books I’ve found most helpful).

Yes, I believe there are some objective basics. And those objective techniques are generally smaller scale issues. If you’re getting feedback that says you have stilted dialog, lack of setting details, problems showing versus telling, issues with head-hopping, or any other 101 basic fiction-writing techniques, then you should pay attention, because those techniques aren’t usually negotiable. We’ll need to take that feedback to heart and look at how we can improve.

On the other hand, macro-level or bigger story issues tend to be more subjective. If the feedback questions your plot development, character arcs, conflict, opening hook, message, etc., then I suggest evaluating the feedback much more carefully. Every reader (contest judge, agent, editor, etc.) will view the bigger picture elements with varying degrees of subjectivity. When we get this kind of feedback we need to be careful about rushing off to make changes and instead use the next test:

  2. Determine the knowledge level of the person giving the feedback.

I give the most weight to my editors at Bethany House (my publisher). Not only are they top-notch editors who excel in their editing skills, but they also make it their job to know what pleases my readers. When they give me their advice on subjective changes I should make within my stories, I realize they’re trying to help me shape my book into something my readers will love. Therefore I make most of their recommended macro-level changes.

I also give a great deal of weight to what my agent says since she has her pulse on the industry (and my agent also happens to be a skillful editor).

How much weight should we give feedback from contest judges? This will depend upon the qualifications of the judges. If most are multi-published, award-winning authors who write in our genre, then they’ll probably offer good subjective feedback. But if they’re a mixture of types of writers or we don’t know their qualifications, then we should evaluate their big picture suggestions more carefully.

How much weight should we give the feedback coming from critique partners/groups? Again, this will depend on how much writing experience the partners have. How intimately do they know our genre specifications? How in tune are they with readers? The more skilled they are, and the more they know about our genre, then the more helpful their feedback will be.

How much weight should we give beta readers (who I usually classify as non-writing readers)? Obviously, we don’t want to ignore our readers. If we’re consistently disappointing them, getting lots of poor to mediocre reviews, or we’re finding that the story doesn’t resonate with multiple readers, then we’d be wise to evaluate the feedback.

Summary: Most writers with a minimal amount of writing skill can offer suggestions on technique—on the objective basics. But it takes much more knowledge of genre, reader needs, and story elements to make suggestions for those larger, more subjective changes.

In any case, before accepting subjective feedback, I recommend looking for similarities among multiple critiques. If we start to see common threads emerging, then we have a clue that we may need to place more emphasis on that particular feedback.

How about you? Have you ever had trouble sorting through feedback? Do you have any tests or methods for deciding what feedback to accept and what to reject?

30 comments:

  1. Oh goodness! I just got feedback on the beginning of my sequel story to Sanctuary for a Lady. My crit partner hated my chapter and said I needed to dump about half of what I had. I also happened to send my opening to a writer friend just to see what she thought, and she said she loved it and would only tweak a couple of sentences.

    Needless to say, ever since last Thursday when I got my critique back, my brain has been screaming, "What am I going to do?????"

    I'm hoping to have it figured out by the end of the week. But as of this morning, I still don't have any brilliant ideas. :-(

    Great post, Jody! Super timely with all the contests and feedback going on right now.

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  2. Feedback is a bizarre beast at the best of times.

    Friends and family seem to tell you what you want to hear, fellow writers often tell you what you need to hear, and after that, well, you don't want to hear at all.

    What I have done is to ask someone who does not read the genre you are writing in to read over your work. That way I feel if they like it, then at least you know for sure your writing has that hook to hold a reader. The problem with asking those who write in the same genre, or read it to death is that they look at it with thoughts of the last book fresh in their mind. Your work is then compared with and analysed against whatever author that previous book was written by.

    Objectivity in a feedback session can be difficult to find if you look in the wrong places, as Naomi has discovered. But it's most likely best to have several or more folks reading over the same work at once. Then when the feedback does come back and there are common points mentioned by all, well, then you know for sure those are the areas that are working or not.

    But I am a fledgling novice scribbler, so my words are just derived from my limited experience and ramblings. Just wanted to share :)

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  3. Thanks for the thoughts today, Mark and Naomi! Naomi, in your case, I think you may just want to wait and see what your in-house editor says about your opening. My crit. partner has pointed out more major story issues that she hasn't liked at times too. If I haven't necessarily agreed with her thoughts, then I wait and see what my in-house editors report back to me. They usually have a team of readers who analyze the bigger story issuest before sending me requested changes. And so, I figure if that particular talented team notices the same thing as my critique partner, then I'll need to change. But if they don't, then I won't I likely won't make that change based on one person's feedback alone, especially when my gut hesitates.

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  4. Good advice here. Thanks! I look for commonalities in feedback. If 25%+ cite something as a potential problem then it probably is--even if it's "my voice" or a technique that I thought might work, etc.

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  5. You know, it's crossed my mind to just leave the chapter alone (or mostly so) and then see what my agent and editor think, as both have yet to see the proposal. As for right now, I'm finishing the next two chapters and then I thought I'd go back and look at everything together. Then I'd have a better idea of whether I agree with my crit partner or not. But you're right in that my gut hesitates to change too much.

    On the flip side, this IS the beginning, which will be available on ebook samples and posted places around the internet. I don't want the beginning to turn people like my crit partner off. I want it to suck them in. So that makes me want to put in some extra effort and write a beginning that will attract as wide a readership as possible.

    And sometimes writing just makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Thanks for the advice Jody and Mark!

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  6. Jody, what a timely post! I had trouble sorting through feedback just yesterday. I got back my Genesis scores and received both a lot of great advice and tips and some subjective and very contradictory feedback as well! So, I did what you said and looked for comments that were similar in more than one critique.

    In-house editors sound amazing! Definitely people whose feedback should be trusted.

    And Naomi, I tend to obsess over beginnings too and wonder whether or not they will work, being as they are generally what the reader looks at first. Hoping you get everything sorted out with your first chapter!

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  7. Great post Jody! I'm definitely in the 3rd camp. I love getting constructive feedback. I want to know where I can improve and to see issues I might not have thought of. I value my pilot readers who are not writers on this - as well as my developmental editor. I love the different view points and taking from it what I believe will work. Not all will, but much does. Then my publisher's editor can solidify if the changes work or not. I love having all my bases covered.

    For me,the keys to success with critiques I think are: accepting criticism well, be willing to do the hard work to make improvements if major changes, validating the changes, confidence and intuition to decide to make the recommended changes or not.

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  8. Such a timely post, what with so many writers wading through feedback, post Genesis, Jody.

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  9. What timing, Jody! I just received a slew of feedback from beta readers and contest judges...and I've been a bit overwhelmed with all the suggestions. I'm trying to just read the suggestions, mull them over in my own mind, and see which ones resonate with me or which are repeated by more than one person.

    Great tips!

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  10. I'm definitely of the first camp. I tend to believe every negative response I receive to any of my work. I never thought to question it, but you've given me pause. It reminds me of feedback I received from a fairly well known agent. At the time I just felt deflated and embarrassed that I'd even sent it to her, but thinking about her comments, they were mostly subjective and based on her opinion rather than the value of my story. I had no idea how to edit based on her comments. I'm going to have to find a way to get to the middle ground and not let negative opinions cripple me.

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  11. I *try* to be part of the third camp. But I often find myself slipping into one of the others - based on my mood.

    One thing that helps me sort through feedback is every time I come across something subjective I stop and think about it. Do I agree with the response? Do I dismiss it out of hand because of pride? Then after mulling it over for I while I decide whether or not to make the change.

    Another way I sort through feedback is I try to read books that my critique partners love. To see what they find important in a book. Some people think technical perfection is important - others character development. I then lend more credit to the subject opinions of that critique partner accordingly.

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  12. Thank you so much for this insight, Jody. I've spent quite a bit of time in the first and second camps, but feel I'm finally creeping into the third. The problem is that I've re-written my first chapter so many times, trying to please so many different crits, that it's a mess. I'm considering starting with a clean slate, or going back to the original draft and reworking it again, using the knowledge I've picked up along the way.

    To sum it up: My writing knowledge increased exponentially with every painful critique, but my poor first chapter has too many battle scars. Plastic surgery may not even help!

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  13. Someone (can't remember who) once said, 'when someone tells you something is wrong with your story, they're ALWAYS right. When they tell you how to fix it, they're ALWAYS wrong.'
    I find that pretty useful.

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  14. Great post, Jody. I know it will help all of those who are struggling through their comment sheets from Genesis! :)

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  15. Nice post! I take the consensus approach - individual comments, I take as they come. If I like the idea and it makes good sense, I might incorporate it, but if the comments doesn't speak to me, I ignore it. If I'm hearing the same feedback from several readers, then I know I have to fix something. My editor's word is almost gospel to me - she's so on point with her feedback and always makes my books better.

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  16. One thing that helps me is evaluating whether the respondent is reacting to the story I'm trying to tell and noting where it is or isn't successful - rather then offering me the version they would choose to tell. One of my earliest works for the theater was a musical based on the Arabian Nights. A very well-known writer said, 'I think it needs to be spoofier." And I remember thinking, "Well, when you write your Arabian Nights musical, you can make it a spoof. We're going for something different." Usually if you take the time to try on every idea, you know instinctively whether it fits.

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  17. This is a helpful post, Jody. Thank you.

    I prefer to share my drafts with someone who “likes” the same voice I use, but I also tap into those who are more skilled/experienced than I am. I’d love to find someone who writes in my genre, but I haven’t met that person yet.

    I do have a good beta reader, a wonderful critique buddy, and I’ve tapped into a local writers group with members ranging from the published to the hopeful. I believe in casting a wide net, but trusting your own inner compass when something doesn’t resonate with you.

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  18. One more item... I wanted to let you know that your "retweet" buttons at the bottom of your recent posts haven't been working properly! The message says: "fatal error."

    I can copy and paste your link into Twitter - no problem - but I wasn't sure if you were aware of the bug!

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  19. I like to receive feedback and I'll always consider whether or not agree with it before I make a change. If I strongly disagree with it, I will put it aside, but if my disagreement isn't so strong or if I am uncertain of my stance, I like to ask more people what they think, so that I hear from beyond myself and the person who originally gave me the feedback. I recently did this in a blog entry myself.

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  20. I'm just working through my scoresheets for my unsuccessful entry. They range from 49 to 95!

    I've learned that, for some reason, my "voice" often seems to provoke this kind of extreme reaction.

    That's not to say that the low scoring judge/s don't have some valid points to make because they do. However, I've had to work really hard to recognize which comments are objective and point out places that I can clarify/strengthen and which are subjective and the truth is that my style simply didn't connect with that judge.

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  21. I think it takes time to get to know your cps and develop that line of trust. To know their strengths and weaknesses as well as to learn yours. Then it's easier to evaluate what works, what doesn't, what needs listened to, what needs to be given a passing nod to. Definitely don't take "every" piece of advice/suggestion given you when it comes to your work, but if it's a consistent complaint, you might want to check into it. I think, Jody, you hit it on the nail with the experience level of our critiquers. An agent and an editor should be higher up on our "fix" list.

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  22. Hi everyone! Yes, my twitter button is broke. My new webdesigner is working on trying to install a new one. But because the coding of my blog is so complicated, we're running into a glitch. Hope to have it fixed soon!

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  23. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!!

    I so often fall into camp 1, because I don't EVER want to get so defensive about my writing that I don't make a change that would drastically improve my story. I've talked to an author friend of mine about this and she gave me the advice to pray about it. Which I did and ended up leaving my opening the way I wanted it to be at this stage of my writing life. That's not to say it won't change, but right now I want it to be written this way.

    Such a complicated slew of emotions! But your post really nails it on the head. I need to print this baby out!

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  24. I have found that in general, even when someone offers a critique that simply doesn't jive with my own vision, there's almost always an underlying truth to their words. My vision may be fine, but there's something not working in the execution. So I think carefully about almost all feedback.

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  25. Wow... seems Jeff and I are in the minority here. Or is it just that guys are too shy to share?

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  26. LOL, Mark! Maybe the guys have less of an emotional reaction to their feedback and find it easier to sort through it than women!

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  27. Oh these 'camps' resonate so well. I have travelled between one and two and am now in camp three thankfully. Blogging has helped me mature into this, for which I am so very grateful.

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  28. Jody, I used to be in the first camp. I had no idea of how to discern good and bad advice. But with time, I've become more critical and more confident in my writing. I guess learning when/how to apply feedback is another skill we have to learn as writers [sigh] Nothing is simple in writing, is it?

    Thanks for the tips.

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  29. Lorena, well put! Yes, I do believe that sorting through feedback becomes a skill we can learn over time! There really isn't anything simple about writing, contrary to popular belief! :-)

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  30. I think I would be in the 3rd camp. When I receive feedback and suggestions I read them all very carefully. I then look at the parts in question and ask myself "How will making this change affect things?" I want to know how it will affect everything from the story (not just in the now of it but later), the characters and their interactions with each other and much more.

    the advice given may be, generally speaking, great advice, but it may or may not be good for my story or characters in the long run.

    One example is a comment made by a fellow writer on the following 2 lines:

    Slamming the door behind her and leaning against it, the bangs of her red hair sticking to her forehead, she cried out, “Mother!”
    Just then her mother, Luanna, walked into the main room from the back. “What is it dear?” she said.


    She asked, wouldn't her mother seem more concerned? My first thought was, you're right. But as I thought closer on the subject I decided to not change it because the character shouting for her mother is a 16 year old girl and we all know that they can tend towards being overly dramatic. If I had made the change suggested it would have changed the entire dynamic of the relationship between the mother and daughter as well as the rest of the scene. This 1 minor change could end up carrying through the entire book changing MUCH more than whether or not a mother was concerned for her child.

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