A reader asked...
I submitted my story to a few online critique groups in hopes of getting it polished up for submission. I've been a bit paranoid about submitting since I found all these publishing and agent blogs and of course all of the advice from actual published authors. But after getting my critiques back, no one could agree, on anything. What was wrong, what was right, what worked or didn't work, even grammar suggestions. I didn't get the same thing twice. Everyone had completely different ideas. I'm just curious, that if I'm getting such a wide range of comments, could it mean that this story is lost cause? Or do I need to seek out some other readers? How do you sort through all the varied opinions? How do you get the most out of your critiques?
This is a great question and a situation I bet everyone who's ever gotten critiques back has encountered at least once. I submitted the first three chapters of my now-trunked first novel to Critters.org, and I had folks asking why it wasn't published yet, folks saying it was a mess and to start over, folks saying they loved my main character and others telling me he was terrible and to cut him and go with my secondary character for the narrator, and everything in between. And really, that's a pretty accurate sampling from real readers even if you sell the book. My reviews for The Shifter have a similar feel. One reviewer praised something another hated and panned me for.
Regular readers know I'm pro critique group, but inconsistent feedback is one of the downsides to an unknown critique group. You don't know who is looking at the work, so you don't know if they have any clue what they're talking about or not. You'll also have folks who are obsessive about "rules" that really don't matter all that much. And those who think it's the minutia that make or break you, not the story itself. Regardless of the type of critiquer (good or bad), chances are they're all readers, so they're still telling you their opinion on the story. Opinions are always valid. But everyone has their tastes, and even a well written story can fail to someone who just doesn't like that type of story.
The trick is figuring out what to heed and what to throw away.
Like any critique, take what feels right to you and ignore what doesn't. It doesn't matter who says it, if you think it will make the story better overall, it's a good comment.
Typically, you'll get an "out there"comment from almost everyone about something, since we all have our pet peeves and quirks. Any real problems will show up consistently. But sometimes, critiquers can't always articulate what's wrong, and they may say one thing when the problem is really somewhere else. Like a scene might not work for them and they'll give you reasons, but the real problem was three scenes earlier because the setup wasn't done right to make that later scene work as intended. And then of course there's the rare critiquer who feels that they need to point out something wrong, because it's their job to do that. So you'll get things mentioned that aren't real problems (or things that critiquer just doesn't like), but were the weakest parts of the story so that's what's talked about.
I have some folks in my own critique group who are wonderful writers, but sometimes submit a story that's just not my cup of tea. I've been critiquing (and writing) long enough now that I recognize these types of stories, and I can say, "There's nothing inherently wrong with this story, but it isn't grabbing me. This is the fault of the reader, not the writer." And then I'll go on to give the best feedback I can. Many of these stories end up selling to folks that do like this kind of story. Not every story will grab every reader and that's okay. But if I didn't recognize this about myself (and in the past I didn't) I could have given a terrible critique that changed the story from what the author was trying to write to suit my tastes (and I've done this, sadly). Sometimes, the wrong reader is reading your story, but they just don't know they're the wrong reader.
If the feedback is all over the place that most likely means the story is working fine and isn't a lost cause. Major problems would have come up in almost every critique. If three or more people said something, odds are there's a problem there somewhere.
So, some critique "rules" that I follow:
1. Take every comment seriously, even if it seems out of left field or flat out wrong. Ask yourself why the critiquer said what they said and try to see the underlying problem. Then decide if it's a comment that needs to be addressed or not. Left field comments are often picking up on subtle things that not even the critiquer knows why it bugs them and they come up with weird reasons for it. Totally wrong comments can be missing the point, but are still valid since that's what the reader felt. It's your job to figure out what made them feel that way and then decide if it needs fixing.
2. If you agree with a comment, make the change.
3. If you don't agree with a comment, don't make the change.
4. If you're not sure about a comment, think about what the critiquer is trying to point out and why. Also think about why you're resistant to the change. Sometime a change may require edits that scare us, or a change to something we love, or even require a skill we're not sure we have. Or it might suggest something we hadn't thought about before, so we knee-jerk say "no," but there's something in there that resonates with us so we hesitate. It's like our subconscious knows there's a gem in that comment.
5. If it's a grammar or punctuation rule and you're not sure if the comment is right, look it up. Otherwise, if the change makes the sentence read better make it. If not, don't.
6. If it's a clarity issue, fix it, even if you think it's clear. (This is my personal Golden Rule of crits)
7. Do whatever serves the story best. Great ideas or suggestions don't always work for the story you're trying to tell, and making those changes the story and can cause larger overall problems. Even great ideas can be the wrong ideas if they don't fit.
With any critique, trust your instincts. Focus on the story and keep asking what will make it better. As long as you do that, you pretty much can't go wrong. You might take a few side trips getting there, but you'll work it out eventually.