What Does “Writing Is Subjective” Mean?

by Jami Gold on April 19, 2012

in Writing Stuff

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If you’ve sent out queries, you’ve probably received rejections.  They usually say things along the line of:

“This is just my opinion and others may feel differently.”

“Just because I wasn’t drawn in doesn’t mean others won’t love it.”

“Publishing is a subjective business and another agent would be better suited to your work.”

We can’t fault those who send those rejections like that.  Writing is subjective.

Heck, most things in life are subjective.  Some people like the outfits from the New York fashion shows, but others think they look like something an alien would wear.  Some people will think the guy in the picture of this post is hot, and others will think he looks like a douchebag.

We’re individuals.  We have different tastes, likes, dislikes, trigger points, etc.

Characters? Real People? We’re All Unique

As I pointed out before, one character wouldn’t react to plot events the same way as another character.  (And we know real people aren’t less nuanced than characters!)  So it’s normal for people to react differently to the same input.

That truth was brought home to me (again) by the fantastic comments in my last post about what stories we won’t write.  The answers focused on many different aspects of writing: character traits, plot events, genres, profanity, sexual situations, and moral issues.

In other words, stories that some of us would love, others of us would hate.  Things that set some of us off are no big deal to others.

We each have to decide for ourselves what we want to write—what we want to have our name attached to.  We might make decisions based on our brand or our moral code, but only we can decide what’s best for us.

As I mentioned in the comments of the last post, I don’t swear in real life, so I don’t use profanity in my stories unless necessary.  That means some of my stories have no swear words and some have quite a bit.  The same goes with sexual situations.  Some of my stories have just a kiss and some have very spicy scenes.  I listen to my muse and my characters to figure out what’s called for by each character and story.

Others will have different boundaries and make different decisions.  None of us is “wrong.”  Taste in all things is subjective.

Having Different Opinions Isn’t  “Wrong”

Differences of opinions come up all the time in book reviews.  The same book can receive multiple five star and one star reviews.  Even classics suffer from this fate, so it’s not just an issue of an author’s friends or enemies playing the system.

We’ve probably experienced this ourselves.  People will tell us we have to read or watch a certain popular book/movie/TV show, and then we do…and we hate it.

That doesn’t mean we’re wrong or our friends are wrong.  We just like different things.

Similarly, the agents who reject us aren’t “right” or “wrong” either.  Would we really want an agent who doesn’t love our work to represent us anyway?

“Past Performance Is Not Indicative of Future Potential”

Sarah Callender wrote about this issue on Writer Unboxed last week.  She revealed that when her original agent left the business right before she was supposed to go on submission to editors, she elected to start the query process over rather than end up with a random colleague from the same agency.

The agents she queried couldn’t even agree on whether her story was YA or adult, much less whether or not they liked it.  One loved the first half but not the second, while another one didn’t like the first half but thought the second half was great.  (And this was about a manuscript her former agent deemed ready to go on submission!)

This concept is something we have to remind ourselves of constantly.  Low scores on contests?  Rejections from agents?  Bad reviews?  Repeat after me: “Not everyone will love our work.”

Low scores, rejections, and bad reviews aren’t indicative that everyone will feel the same way about our work.  We can get low scores and high scores from judges in the same contest.  We can get rejections in the same week we get offers.  We can get one-star reviews and five-star reviews on the same book.

This is why we have to listen to our muse before blindly implementing changes from critique partners or beta readers.  Only we can decide the kind of story we want to tell.  If a suggestion will help us tell that story better, we should make the change.  If a suggestion would take us further from that story, we shouldn’t implement it.  That difference of opinion doesn’t make either of us wrong.

Just like how what we won’t write is subjective, the same goes for reading and enjoying books.  And if we take a step back, we discover that life, how we view it and how we experience it, is all subjective as well.  *smile*

Can you think of other examples for how writing is subjective?  What about examples from outside of writing: fashion, movies, etc.  (Do we dare mention how religious and political beliefs are subjective?)  Have you received wide ranges of opinions about your work?

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29 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Melinda Collins April 19, 2012 at 5:56 am

Hi Jami! Thank you for another great post!

Almost everything is subjective – especially books, movies, and music. I’m such a music and movie person that my coworkers and friends come to me and ask about new releases (what they’re about, how do I think the movie will be, who was the director and what had he done in the past, who are the actors, etc.), and most of the time I haven’t seen the movies yet so I have to give my opinion solely based on every other factor except how the movie actually turned out. And it’s subjective – simply my opinion they’re asking for. Most of the time they come back and say they enjoyed the movie, others not so much. The same goes for music most times as well. Almost everyone in the office can faintly hear my music. Some tell me to change the song, others tell me to turn it up. :)

As for my work, I’ve definitely had a wide range of opinions. From ‘I read it like it was already a published novel’ to ‘I think there’s a hole here and I don’t really get what your character means by this.’ Like you said, it’s all about sitting back down with your muse and deciding what opinions/notes may be right for the story and/or characters, and which ones you want to chuck out.

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 8:43 am

Hi Melinda,

I can picture that–some people in the office want a song turned up and some want the same song turned off. Thanks for sharing your examples! :)

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Angela Quarles April 19, 2012 at 6:14 am

Oh, yes! I’ve even had it on my title, ranging from “I don’t get it, you should change it” “Change your title” to “OMG, this is the best title ever” etc.

I’ve also had it in contest submissions. I haven’t yet had anything other than form rejections from agents, so nothing yet there to guide me/evaluate. I’m taking heart that I do get so low lyers with contest judges sometimes because I feel like that might mean I have a voice? Usually I’ve scored low if that judge just didn’t like my FMC’s voice and characterization, while from other judges that’s exactly what they loved… I also look at it as test trials for when I receive reviews– as reminders that not everyone is going to like it/get it and that’s okay.

I’ve had it in CPs too. There was one I had for a short while who, if I’d listened to her, my FMC’s character and personality would have been zapped. Things she marked out to cut, others marked as loving it, etc. or I just felt in my gut that this needed to stay and was later what contest judges marked as liking.

Anyway, this is a great reminder and I’m bookmarking it for when I get some agent rejections that aren’t form rejections on partials/fulls :)

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 8:50 am

Hi Angela,

Well, put me in the column of loving your title. In fact, maybe I should get you to help me with my titles. :)

Yes, I’ve also had some feedback that, if I’d listened to it, would have edited out my MC’s voice. We don’t want to overdo it or be repetitive, but splashes of personality are perfect.

And I’m with you. All these rejections and contest scores are good practice for reviews. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Angela Quarles April 19, 2012 at 6:16 am

Oh, and yep, guy in pic doesn’t do it for me :) Looks too twee. I can objectively acknowledge that he’s good looking and others would swoon, but I’d kick him out for eating crackers… :)

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 8:52 am

Hi Angela,

LOL! I laugh every time I hear the “eating crackers” expression. Yes, I purposely picked a picture that could go either way for people. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee April 19, 2012 at 7:59 am

Only we can decide the kind of story we want to tell.

So true! I had to decide this with A Fistful of Fire, for example, because it has a very, erm, meandering plot and passive narrator. But I couldn’t change those things without changing what the story even meant.

Some readers can’t stand the story for being what it is. Others love it for being what it is.

With friends, I’m careful to consider what I know they like when I give book recommendations. That means that I don’t suggest books with unreliable narrators to my friend who can’t stand them (no matter how much I love Chime by Franny Billingsley); nor do I recommend Bloodlines by Rachelle Mead to my friend who does not want to read about vampires, though that book would hit her other “Yay!” buttons. I have some friends who are folklore “purists”; others love reinterpretations of folklore.

I’ve found that, because I take that time and figure it out, they take my recommendations seriously. They also return the favor, as in, “I didn’t care for X, but I think you might like it.” (That’s how I found Sunshine by Robin McKinley, which I like quite a bit.)

Some things, like how language and grammar work, are (mostly) objective, though even some aspects of those are subjective. (Do you put a comma before an and in a list of 3+ items, for example? Depends on your grammar handbook.)

But writing is subjective in the sense that we like different types of plots and characters, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 9:02 am

Hi Carradee,

Exactly. If we love a story the way it is, and if some others love it the way it is (meaning that there’s not a consensus on those more objective things, like the author’s writing is worse than unpolished), then it’s more a matter of targeting the right readers.

Great examples with how you give recommendations. I don’t automatically pay attention to why I like or dislike something, so I’m not as good at giving subjective recommendations like that. I can analyze a book or movie to get there, but it’s not something I usually do. Thanks for the comment!

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Heather Day Gilbert April 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm

I totally agree and even blogged about it sometime last year, but can’t find my post to reference here. Anyway, YES, tastes are subjective (guy above? blah for me! not into tall dark and handsome. blonde or red-haired and handsome, yes. and of course I’m referring to my red-haired HUSBAND here…).

What one agent saw as having lots of potential, (“The Help”), maybe 60 others saw as “not right” for them. I’m just thankful for the future-looking agents and publishing houses out there who are willing to take risks on something they LOVE. B/c chances are, many readers will love it, too.

I’ve seen about three recent posts about Genesis contest entries from established writers that didn’t win at some point or another. It’s very comforting to know that a book that might go on to be published doesn’t always hit contest judges/editors right at any given moment. Doesn’t mean it’s all over.

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Hi Heather,

If you find that link, feel free to post it here. :)

LOL! at not being into tall, dark, and handsome. And since not every guy fits that description, it’s a good thing we are all different. Otherwise those great guys with blond or red hair would be out of luck.

Great example with The Help. As you said, one bad score, rejection, or review doesn’t mean it’s all over. Thanks for the comment!

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Roxanne Skelly April 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Not everyone will like what one writes, but the more you please, the more you’re likely to sell.

Hopefully, one can find a place between ‘writing only to please oneself’ and ‘writing to please everyone (selling out).”

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Hi Roxanne,

Exactly. Most of us want people to like our work–that’s why we’re sharing it. :)

We need to find the happy place where we make sure our work is good enough to like and not needlessly unappealing to a wider audience (like sticking politics into a story when there’s no reason for it), while also keeping in mind that not everyone is our target market. Thanks for the comment!

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Andrew Mocete April 19, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Yeah, that guy doesn’t work for me either. Too guy-like.

First example I thought of was The Shining.
By Stephen King? Awesome writing.
By Stanley Kubrick? Awful writing.
I didn’t expect the movie to mirror the book, but I did want it to capture the essence of the original story. It failed at that for me.
Clearly, Kubrick got something different out of the book to create the movie he did.

I’m sure ten directors would have had ten different visions given the chance to make the movie. I guess that’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult to adapt a book to film that satisfies everyone.

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Hi Andrew,

LOL! I was waiting for one of you guys to make a comment like that. I figured you’d all say he was definitely a douche. :)

Ooo, great point and example! I’m thinking back to those classes we took in school too, where we had to discuss and analyze the themes and meanings of books. How often would the class debate some aspect because we all got something different out of the story? Almost always, right? :) Thanks for the great comment!

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Amber April 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm

I thought of TV right away, since Tiffany and I review shows every Wednesday. We laugh about the fact that we have VERY different taste in TV. Sometimes, a review where I complain about a show means she will like it :)

I never make a judgement about Tiffany (since I know her to be an awesome person) and she doesn’t judge me – it’s just personal preference.

It is hard with writing sometimes, when I read something and think “Wow, this is clearly awful WRITING (not story or genre or character)” only to find that others think it was great.

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Jami Gold April 19, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Hi Amber,

Great example! I don’t have much time for TV, so I tend to be very impatient with shows that drag things out. The majority of shows fall into that category, so most shows that others love I can’t get into. :)

Oh yes, everyone’s threshold for tolerating bad writing is different too. I have a hard time accepting that sometimes and wish people would be more discerning. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson April 19, 2012 at 11:57 pm

I’m bracing myself for those bad reviews I know are coming, even after getting nothing but favorable critiques. My best friend & I write & read the genre, but I rarely like the recommendations she gives me. Go figure.

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Jami Gold April 20, 2012 at 7:35 am

Hi Nancy,

Yes, I think I’ll try to have a policy of not reading reviews if I can help it (for my own sanity). :)

Good point about how even within a single genre (or subgenre) writing themes and tastes can be broad. I know within the paranormal romance subgenre, some people love anything with vampires, while others will read anything but stories with vampires. And I could probably think of 10 more examples withing that subgenre too. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp April 20, 2012 at 2:50 am

I love sayings: “Perception is everything” and “Perception is at the whim of the viewer” come to mind for this post – which, by the way, is fantastic. From my perspective, 90% of life (at least) is subjective – the other ten percent are trees and grass and other solid objects, i.e. objective by definition. “Feelings” are always subjective and writing, especially fiction of any form, is based on emotion and therefore left to the interpretation and tastes of the individual.

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Jami Gold April 20, 2012 at 7:46 am

Hi Gene,

Exactly! And your percentage breakdown sounds about right too. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong April 23, 2012 at 11:14 am

I was busy last week so I didn’t comment, but, yes, that kid looks like a douchebag. No more so than the guys I had crushes on in my youth!

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Jami Gold April 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Hi Buffy,

LOL! Yeah, we might have crushes on lots of people that we know we wouldn’t actually want to have anything to do with them. :) Thanks for the comment!

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T.L. Bodine April 23, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Man, I needed this today. My query letter is making the rounds and I’ve pretty much tied myself up in knots over-thinking every single part of the process. You’re absolutely right — you don’t want an agent who isn’t 100% on-board with you. Your agent is probably the biggest advocate you will ever have. It’s worth the effort it takes to find exactly the right person to represent you for your whole career, and that’s going to require someone who really loves your writing.

More and more I’ve come to view querying as like dating — maybe because I’m so very familiar with rejection in both ;) But at the end of the day in both, it doesn’t matter how many people say no….because you only need one “yes” to change your life.

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Jami Gold April 24, 2012 at 7:18 am

Hi T.L.,

I hear you. Query letters are my nemesis. :) I over-think it all in my attempt to get voice, characterization, story, and…you know, making sense into that paragraph or two. And then trying to get that snippet to lead readers to the right conclusion? Pfft. Yeah, right.

I like what you said about how agents are your biggest advocate. Whether it’s through suggested revisions, contract help, or editor connections, they should be all about helping us succeed. Thanks for the comment and good luck with your querying!

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Taurean Watkins May 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I just wanted say two things-

1. Subjectivity is H-A-R-D to balance with self-confidence. Why?
Because of-

2. Self-Confidence can easily evolve into Pride. Pride blocks Humility, and facing one’s humility, and learning from it, is far more painful than any “Bad Review” someone can give you.

At least that’s what I’ve found.

I’m not the best at expressing myself in brief, concise bursts so bear with me a bit. Check out my blog to understand more if you’d like.

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Jami Gold May 15, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Hi Taurean,

I understand what you mean. There’s a fine line between self-confidence/healthy pride (feeling a sense of accomplishment) and unhealthy pride/arrogance.

That’s one reason I don’t mind that this writing thing is so hard. :) I want to make sure I never fall over that line, so those reminders knocking us down a peg aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Thanks for the comment!

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