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?