A reader asked...
Maybe a post on how the writer can figure out if that's really happening, or if it's just the conflicting tastes of different readers or other writers disguised as "Helpful advice?"I've done a few posts on this topic, the first on my approach to revising based on a critique, and the second on how to know what to do with the feedback you're given, especially if it's conflicting. And here's one on general critiquing and things to look for just to cover the bases. I wracked my brain this morning to find a new twist on this topic, but I honestly couldn't do it (grin). So here are my own personal rules for dealing with feedback with a few new thoughts, and I'll toss in what to do if you're the one who's offering the "conflicting" advice, and some wake up calls to realize if you're ignoring advice you ought to be taking.
Dealing With a Critique
When you get that crit back, it can be easy to just ignore what you don't like and only take in the good stuff. But the bad stuff is what you asked for. That's where the problems lie and these are the opportunities to make your work even better.
1. Take every comment seriously
Even if it seems out of left field or flat out wrong, someone thought that based on what you wrote. 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
This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but sometimes you'll agree with something, but don't want to do it. It'll be too much work, it'll cause another problem later, etc. Do it anyway.
3. If you don't agree with a comment, don't make the change
It's your book, do what you think is best. Even great ideas or suggestions can be wrong for your story. As long as you understand why the comment was made and have solid reasons for not doing it that way, you can ignore it. It's the comments you disagree with but can't say why that can come back to bite you. Those are often seeing problems that come to light in one area, but the real trouble is earlier on.
4. If you're not sure about a comment, think about what the critiquer is trying to point out and why
As in #3, sometimes readers spot things in one area when the real problem is somewhere else. A change that might feel "iffy" to you could be one of those comments. 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
People get things wrong all the time. And things like commas can be a personal preference. I had one copy editor add a ton of commas to The Shifter, so when I wrote Blue Fire, I followed those guidelines. And then the next (and new) copy editor had me take them all out. Both editors were right, but they each had a preferred style. Overall, if a punctuation 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. If someone got confused, something wasn't clear. Sure, you may have left hints, or even talked about it two chapters ago, but if your critiquer read those chapters a week apart (like a reader might) and forgot a key bit of info, odds are a reader will have the same issue. You might not need to go deep into anything, but a quick word or two as a reminder could be a good idea.
7. Do whatever serves the story best
Even great ideas can be the wrong ideas if they don't fit the story you're trying to tell. Adding or doing something that seems really cool just because it's really cool can hurt your novel. It can hijack it, add unneeded subplots, confuse the core conflict.
Okay, so what happens when you're the one who is offering feedback and no one is listening?
1. Remember that no one has to take your advice
Your advice might be exactly right, but if the writer disagrees, that's their prerogative. They have to do what they think is best, same as you.
2. Don't get pushy about what you think
If you're discussing the topic with the author in a post-crit wrap up, it's okay to explain your point and why you think it's a good idea, but don't try to shove that idea down the author's throat. That'll just make them more resistant to listening to you in the future.
3. Don't get mad
It can be frustrating to be ignored, especially if you believe your advice will help the writer or the work. But you've done your job by offering that advice, and you can't take it personally if someone decides not to use it. Maybe they feel it isn't right, or maybe they're just not at the point yet where they can put that advice into practice.
4. Consider that you might be wrong
It is possible that your advice isn't good advice. You learned it wrong, you misunderstood something, your take on the situation isn't right, or you really are missing the point. It happens.
5. Try and help them write their story, not yours
We often see what we'd do with a story when we read it, but our take on it might not be the same as the author's take. So why it's helpful to offer suggestions you feel would improve the story, try to keep what the writer wants in mind. Changing their story isn't going to help them improve what they want to do, even if you feel starting over with a new plot is what is best for it. If you're telling them stuff they just flat out don't want to do from a story or plot standpoint, they won't listen to it -- and they shouldn't have to.
How do you know if you're ignoring advice that can help you?
1. Do you hear the same advice from multiple sources?
If a lot of folks are saying the same things, odds are there's something there that need fixing. Especially if it's a larger issue that crops up no matter what piece you're working on. That suggests it's a skill problem, not an individual piece problem.
2. Is the amount or quality of feedback you're getting declining?
People don't want to waste time on folks who ignore them and keep making the same mistakes. So if you used to get detailed crits back, and now you're getting short summarized crits, you might want to think about why no one is bothering to try and help anymore.
3. Do you feel like you ought to do it, but you're blowing it off anyway because "that's what editors are for?"
I see this all the time on the writer's forums. Folks who think problems in their work will be fixed once they sell it. That their work only needs to be "good enough" to land an agent or an editor. Not true at all. You need to be as perfect and as polished as you can be before it goes to an agent or editor. Look at it this way -- would you want to work with someone where you always have to re-do their work or someone who gets it right the first time?
Critiques can be invaluable to a writer, but they're a two-way street. If you give as good as you get, and heed advice on both sides of the crit, then everyone wins.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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