Advice, Agent, Critique, Editing, Editor, Publish, Writing

The folly of feedback?

Recently, I bought a book by Becky Levine I hope will improve my critiques. (If you have or do read it let me know what you think.) I have been a member of a large critique group, then a smaller one, and now an even smaller one. I’ve never had much confidence in my critiquing ability because, except for the mechanics, I felt I could only tell you what I didn’t think worked, not how to fix it.

Then, today, I read this quote from Neil Gaiman:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Ookayyy … but who are these “people” he speaks of?

  1. Non-writing readers?
  2. Fellow writers?
  3. Agents?
  4. Editors?

I think this statement might apply most to group #1. It’s possible, of course, that someone who reads extensively, but doesn’t write could tell you what’s wrong, though not likely they could tell you how to fix it.

And I can see where it could apply to many in group #2. Haven’t we all had the experience of another writer suggesting changes that would transform your book or story into something you never intended. Or suggesting changes that would result in something suspiciously like their writing?

In fairness, Neil Gaiman is savvy, he’s a published writer, so I don’t think he was referring to groups #3 and #4. If we want to be published, we should—we have to—listen to agents and editors, right? So I’m left to wonder who exactly are these people he advises us not to listen to. Surely he didn’t mean that fellow writers can never tell us how to fix something in our writing.

Tell me, who do you trust to help fix your writing problems?


37 thoughts on “The folly of feedback?”

  1. My rules:
    1. Listen to everyone but change your work only on the advice of people whose comments don’t threaten its integrity by making it less yours.
    2. If you want a best seller, you need to aim at the masses so, if it ‘doesn’t work for them’ and they are the majority, it needs to change as there’s no point being artistically ‘right’ and unpublished.
    3. If you’re writing for a specific audience or editor, know them well and follow the rules.
    4. Don’t mistake intransigence for integrity!

    That’s on the basis of a fair few academic publications and not much else. Writing fiction or ‘from life’ stuff feels a lot more like selling art work where subjectivity plays a greater role and you can miss out on a hit just because the guy who likes your stuff is on a sicky the day your work comes in. Having said that, you choose your journal editors according to theoretical persuasion too!

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      1. Hm. I think that takes either an advanced course in tantric yoga or the kind of self confidence that builds up a whole wardrobe of emporer’s new clothes in the minds of our audience. Frankly, the latter seems a more cost effective solution!

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  2. I’m going to copy down Suzanne’s rules. Because they’re intelligent and filled with common sense.

    I have often wondered how much advice I should use and how much would morph my work into someone else’s writing voice.

    Of course I always welcome grammar and punctuation suggestions as those are my weakest areas and although I have been learning, it’s a bit hard to teach this old dog new tricks.

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    1. I have often wondered how much advice I should use and how much would morph my work into someone else’s writing voice.

      Exactly, T.A., that’s the conundrum. I generally take into consideration the essence of the advised change and, if I deem it worthy, then edit, but always in my own words. That way, I feel I retain my own voice.

      I’m strong on grammar and punctuation, its structure I struggle most with.

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  3. I think it always goes back to you, the writer. You must be in tune to your story. Take in all suggestions, change the obvious, ignore the clueless, then mull over those sitting on the fence.

    I say this now, but in the past I trusted the critiquer more than myself, and I lost some of the tone of my story for the sake of another’s opinion. I removed a lot of exageration and purple prose that worked for my humor novel. Humor has a different set of rules and I didn’t know that then and revised every time someone said I was over-the-top. I’m in tune now. I listen, but with a careful ear.

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    1. Agreed again. I use Critique Circle and, while I’ve been pretty surprised by the range of response to my own stories, I’ve been absolutely astonished at the range of critiques for the same story when I have been one of the critiquers. The upshot is that I try to step back for objectivity but lean forward and take executive control when that feels true to my message. Of course the vastness of the range suggests that there will always be someone out there who likes what you write – you just have to hope one of them is your next publisher!

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      1. I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here: I use Critique Circle and, while I’ve been pretty surprised by the range of response to my own stories, I’ve been absolutely astonished at the range of critiques for the same story when I have been one of the critiquers.

        True about the range of responses. That’s why I pay closest attention to the feedback from readers who “get” my story.

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        1. I mean that the critiques go from complete understanding of the message, direction and plot to an absolute lack of understanding of the same things in the same story. Hence some people tell me to go get it published and others fall just short of telling me to scrap it!
          When I critique the stories others submit, I get to see how other critiquers have responded, once the crit period is over. Again, stories I’ve found complex and nuanced have been slated elsewhere, and work I’ve thought wooden and linear has been praised. This is not universal, there are agreements too; it’s the very wide differential that leaves my jaw hanging.

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          1. Ah-h, now I get it. Do you think this differential is the result of others critiquing outside their genre? I’ve found that writers who exclusively write action-driven work, generally have a problem with character-driven work, though it doesn’t seem to work the other way.

            So, do you recommend Critique Circle? How long have you been a member? Are you a basic, premium, or gold member?

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          2. I like CC, but then I’m a beginner so range is everything for now. Yes, though, I suspect critiquing outside one’s genre may be an issue as all of my stories have been in what’s called the Newbies’ Queue and I’ve tended to take stories from that queue in return. I’ve been a member since Christmas, at basic (free) level while I sort out what I’m doing and why. CC offers something I didn’t get from my Open University course where most people seemed to drop out of the online tutor group work and scribble away in private. I like the variability because I think I will be able to figure out quite soon how much of the feedback is valuable and how much isn’t. In the meantime, it gives me considerable insight into readership issues. Just who would read my work and like it? Probably people like me, so how many of those are there and WHERE are they? CC begins to track some of this so it’s great. For me.

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    2. Yes, Tricia, another reason why I think critique groups made up of writers of different genres can be a risk. And now, having been in two groups with you, I’m wondering if the “over the top” remarks were mine. 😮

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      1. By the time I met you, I had already been burned by earlier comments so I was already rooted down deep with my story. But even so, I don’t think you ever tried to tone me down. One look at my hair and you knew my writing must match. 🙂

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  4. Trust yourself!

    The critiquer’s job is to tell you what (s)he thinks about your story, not what you should think about your story. Even the most trusted group of critiquers might not represent the people who would read your story if published.

    In my opinion, groups 1 through 3 may provide suggestions, but only editors can tell a writer that something *must* change (to publish). Assuming a traditional publishing model, the editor is the only direct buyer.

    How I interpret Gaiman: The smartest writer knows to value the opinions of other people but rarely takes opinions as fact.

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    1. Ann, I agree with everything you said. But, for me, this is the hardest part: The critiquer’s job is to tell you what (s)he thinks about your story, not what you should think about your story. Trusting my own judgment is hard for me, so I tend to think every other writer knows more than I do.

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      1. I’m just now starting to build the confidence to tell myself, “This is what my story is about. This critique and that one will help me strengthen my point, but those others won’t help.” Before, I tried to incorporate everyone’s suggestions, even when they conflicted. It just doesn’t work. I’d give up, abandoning my stories, instead of tweaking them to fit my original image.

        My point is that confidence grows like other writing skills. It’ll get easier for both of us.

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        1. Oh, Ann, I think I’ve done just that, abandoned stories because, after critique, I thought they just wouldn’t work. I’ll have to take another look. And yes, our confidence will grow. Believe it or not, I’m much more confident in my ability now than I was two years ago.

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          1. Yes yes yes! In my experience, confidence often starts out as misplaced naivete and matures, with learning and reflection, into wisdom. None of us is ever perfect and thank goodness for that because it’s the imperfections that create the innovative tensions we need to break out of the mundane.

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  5. I always just go with my gut (very scientific, I know). But I try to be open to critique and if it makes sense or feels right I go with it. I especially pay close attention to critique that I get from more than one person. I think it’s safe to say if more than one reader is picking up on something there may be a problem.

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    1. I think going with our gut is the best we can do, Candice. I’ve had suggestions in critique that left me dumbfounded, but I’ve also had some that I immediately knew were perfect.

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