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September 11, 2014

Feedback: Finding Problems vs. Fixing Problems

Framed paper scrap with text: Tell YOUR Story

If we’ve ever let beta readers or critique groups give feedback on our stories, we’ve probably run into the issue of receiving conflicting advice. In fact, if we’ve ever let more than one person read our work, we’ve probably received conflicting advice. *smile*

One reader may love a character someone else hates. One person may think a subplot is cool while another one complains of a “boring” subplot. And one agent or editor may love our work, no matter the numerous rejection letters from all the others.

We know that writing is subjective and that not every reader will love our stories, but this subjectivity can make revisions and editing difficult. Whose feedback should we listen to? Whose suggestions for how to fix the problems should we take?

The Many Reasons for Conflicting Feedback

There are many reasons we don’t receive identical feedback from every reader. Some readers are grammar nerds, and others don’t care about a punctuation issue here or there. Our beta readers and critique groups will give us feedback about different story elements, depending on their strengths or pet peeves.

But when we find conflicting advice about the same part of our story, the reasons often fall into one of these categories:

The Reader Isn’t a Fan

I don’t mean they’re not a fan of us or our writing, but of the elements in our story. This category is purely subjective.

A reader who’s not a fan of romances would probably pick on the longer character descriptions often used in the genre. A reader who’s not a fan of crime procedurals would probably complain about the detailed search for clues and crime scene analysis. A reader who’s not a fan of hard science fiction would doze off through the technical specifications and exploration of scientific theories.

If we have some of these non-fan readers, we might be able to count on them for finding potential problems, but we probably wouldn’t want to take their advice on how to fix the problem. For example, we might listen to their feedback about a section being “boring,” yet that doesn’t mean we should follow their advice to cut it from our story. Instead, we might check to make sure we’ve made that section as tight or as voicey or as tension-filled as possible.

The Reader Isn’t a Fan…of Us

Some readers simply won’t be a fan of our voice. To them, our voice might be too chatty or too dry humored. They might not like that we use big words or that we include profanity or sentence fragments.

Obviously, this is completely subjective. Unless we want to change our voice (or need to change our voice, such as for making the transition from adult to Middle Grades stories), most advice from these readers can be ignored.

One of the most destructive things we can do is allow our voice to be “workshopped” out of us. Remember that we can’t make everyone happy, and if we try, our work will turn out bland and lacking voice at all.

That said, if they offer specific suggestions about cutting unnecessary words, fragments, etc., and we agree they’re not necessary for the story or our voice, by all means, we can tighten our work. But we should never make changes that break our voice.

The Reader Has Different Goals

Sometimes we’ll get advice that would completely change our story. Honestly, in my experience this is the most common reason for conflicting advice.

I’ve seen editors who want to change the premise(!). I’ve seen editors who want to change the tone (from dark to slapstick!). I’ve seen beta readers who want to change the whole plot(!). *sigh*

In all cases, if those changes would make the story closer to the story we intended to write, great! But we shouldn’t change just for the sake of change. The suggestions are entirely subjective.

(Notice a running theme yet? Subjective, subjective, subjective…)

Many times this type of conflicting advice wouldn’t make the book better. It would just make the book different.

These readers are simply telling us how they’d write the book, and that’s not going to help us. There’s a reason various memes point out that we’re the only one who can tell our story.

Quote: "The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can." -- Neil Gaiman(Like this quote? )

Again, we can look at the underlying reason for their comments. Were they bored? Did they dislike the character? Did the plot point not make sense? etc.

If there’s something we can do to improve that issue and stay true to our story, wonderful. Anything we can do that brings us closer to the story we want to tell is valuable. But we’ll often find others’ suggestions for how to fix issues aren’t going to help.

Finding Problems Is a Different Skill than Fixing Problems

One thing all those categories have in common is that others aren’t likely to know the best way to fix a problem they find in our story. That’s the important point we need to remember when it comes to revisions and editing.

For every problem, there are multiple ways of fixing it. Our family, friends, beta readers, critique partners, or editors are simply sharing the way they would approach fixing the problem.

But they don’t know what that story looked like and felt like in our head before we ever wrote a word. They don’t know what story we were trying to write.

So when we encounter conflicting advice, the best thing we can do is identify the underlying reasons for their comments. Then we’ll be able to judge for ourselves the best way to fix it.

(This is why when I beta read or freelance edit, I always give a reason for every suggested change. That way the author knows the issue and can understand my suggestions better. In many cases with beta readers or critique groups, we can ask the reader why they gave a certain suggestion and uncover that underlying reason.)

Trust Ourselves to Know the Best Way to Fix Our Stories

Let’s take an example: What might the feedback look like if multiple readers are bored during a section of our story?

  • One reader blames the character and says they’re unlikable.
  • Another reader suggests cutting the scene.
  • Yet another reader says to punch up the humor.

If we just looked at the surface, those pieces of advice would conflict: unlikable character issue, scene issue, and mood issue. But they’re really all caused by the same underlying problem, and it’s just that everyone’s advice focuses on a different way of “fixing” the issue.

Once we understand the reasons behind conflicting advice, we’ll likely have a better idea of how to fix the problem in a way that matches our vision for the story. Maybe we’ll realize the scene is boring because we didn’t give the protagonist a goal.

Two sentences later, we can have the problem fixed. All with no changing of the character, cutting of scenes, or messing with the scene’s mood.

Feedback is great for helping us find issues. But we often should ignore the suggestions how to fix issues. My attitude is to be wide-open to all thoughts of what might be wrong with my work and to be somewhat closed when it comes to the how.

We need to keep our focus on the story we want to tell. Only then can we judge whether suggestions from feedback will help our story or not. Our story deserves to be told the way we intended for it to be told. Others can go write their own damn story. *smile*

What kinds of conflicting advice have you received? How did you decide which advice to follow? Have you received feedback suggestions that would change the essence of your story? How did you handle that situation? Do you have other tips for how we can stay true to our story?

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39 Comments on "Feedback: Finding Problems vs. Fixing Problems"

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Prudence MacLeod

Oddly enough, this is just what I needed to read this morning. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

Carradee
For every problem, there are multiple ways of fixing it. So true! It even applies to line editing. I always make sure to point that out to folks who get multi-pass editing from me—that if they dislike something I changed (which, as a line editor, is to repair meaning, grammar, repetition, or word usage), we can figure out something else to fix the issue(s). What kinds of conflicting advice have you received? How did you decide which advice to follow? Probably my most common conflicting advice tends to be character based. That’s understandable, considering my characters tend to be psychologically messed up. Some readers complain that my characters don’t do X, which doesn’t fit the characters—either due to their personality or due to their underlying issue. Usually, the conflict is over a reader wanting a character to be externally when they’re so active internally that they have to be reactive externally. For instance, one of my few reviews on Know Thy Frienemy gripes that the narrator is very reactive. It would be unrealistic for her to not be more reactive than active, at this point in her life—and she’s plenty active on an internal/introspective level, making decisions that’ll affect her life for years to come. Have you received feedback suggestions that would change the essence of your story? How did you handle that situation? I have, and back before I released A Fistful of Fire, I nearly broke the story trying to apply it. I nearly changed the story to… Read more »
Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I remember, a while back, I had submitted a synopsis for my crit partners to go over. I’m terrified of synopsis (in fact, I have to write a “spot on, perfect” synopsis for my agent in the next week and I’m drawing blanks left and right, especially since the story isn’t written yet -only the first 50 pages- and I don’t have a clear idea what the arcs or the plot will entail) Anyway, the synopsis I sent to my partners was one of my best…or so I thought. One of my crits liked it, another thought it was too vague and another hated it. I recall crying. I hate synopsis! I actually scoured your blog site yesterday to see if you had any posts on writing a synopsis. Unless I skimmed past it, I don’t think you do. Do you?
Anyhoo, that’s not the point, and neither are synopsis. The issue here are varying POV’s on my work, and yes, it’s hard to decide exactly who to listen to or how to handle a situation. I don’t have much input here, other than go with your gut. If you’re not sure about something listen to all of the advice you’re given and go with what feels right.
Thanks for your wisdom!
Have a great weekend 🙂
Tamara

Robin
Robin

Thanks for the post, I found it helpful. 🙂 I’ve had several friends read my work in progress, as well as a developmental editor…
I’ve been lucky that they are fans – of both the genere and of my voice. They haven’t made many large scale suggestions, but have been very helpful in pointing out places where description was a litt too thin, and they couldn’t visualize the place, or where I had not been clear enough on a first kiss that didn’t happen… Their comments have been remarkable consistent, which made it easier to benefit from the advice.

The advice from the editor was trickier. It was useful in identifying inconsistencies and some (serious) structural problems in the story. But his suggested fixes, if applied en masse, would have pushed the most important aspects of the story – the marriage relationship of the two protagonists – into the background, in order to make a significant pursuit subplot work.
But that was not the story I wanted to tell right now, so instead of enhancing the subplot and bringing to to the foreground, I killed it entirely (actually it will form the main plot of the sequel), and have refocused a tighter story on my main characters.

Sharla Rae

Jami, first of all great blog on a subject that is seldom touched.

I’ve noticed conflicting views and suggestions mostly in critique groups. I have gone home feeling like they were “all” wrong. But then I wait a day or two and a light bulb goes on. The conflicting views don’t matter! If more than one person detected a problem but in different ways, the fact remains there “is” a problem! I take it from there and decided what the real “underlying” problem — as you said– is. Often times no one hit the nail on the head but the important thing is that they pointed out something did not work.

reneeregent

Very timely, as I am grappling with this very situation now! As one of the commenters pointed out, letting some time go by helps also. Sometimes we have to let our subconscious sort things out before attempting to start revisions. Then it may be easier to listen to our “gut” once the confusion and emotion has subsided. Great post!

Julie Musil

If my beta readers have different opinions, and even I have a different opinion, I go with my gut. But if both of them agree on something, then I give even more thought to the issue. No matter what–if someone comments on something, I usually change or delete it. If it caused them to stop and make a comment, it’s worthy my time and effort to change it. I truly respect their time and effort.

Emma Burcart

Yes, yes, and yes! Thank you so much for this! Boy do a lot of people need to read this. I also think we should remember it on the flip side. As readers offering feedback to our writing friends, it isn’t our job to rewrite the story for them. If we tell them places where the story doesn’t work and why, they can figure out the how for themselves, just like you said. I had a guy in a workshop once who went through my story and crossed out huge chunks, because that’s the way he writes. He didn’t get it when I tried to explain that isn’t my style and doesn’t work with my voice. I’m definitely going to keep this in mind not only with my own work, but with the work of my friends as well. 🙂

Caoimhe McCabe

Hi Jami,

I read all your posts with great interest, thus one in particular struck a nerve. You’ve really defined the line between personal taste and objective editing/beta reading. Brilliant post and one I’ll be returning to many times I’m sure!

Thanks,
Caoimhe

HK Rowe

If I could hug this blog post I would. Thanks for this insight. It really made me feel better about some conflicting remarks I’ve received from my betas. I’ve felt compelled to change to their way but some things just don’t sit right with me. I know there are things to fix, but this post reminded me to fix my story the way I see best fit.

Thanks again for this sound advice!

R. A. Meenan

This is some excellent advice. That’s the one amazing thing about beta readers. You don’t HAVE to do anything they tell you to do. They’re all suggestions. Your job is just to figure out which suggestions work and which ones don’t.

I have a friend who looked over my book recently and made some changes. However, none of his changes changed the STORY. Instead he changed individual words and phrase that changed the voice from my voice to his. Obviously this is not helpful to my novel, so I had to choose to ignore it.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Ooh nice way to think about it, finding vs fixing problems. Yeah sometimes the reader doesn’t like it just because it’s not their style, haha. E.g. some readers want more kissing scenes, some want less; some think there must be sex scenes, some think there should be absolutely no sex—it’s all according to their individual preferences! Sometimes what one reader sees as a problem, another reader may see as a strength. One reader dislikes the one dimensionality (I think he meant two dimensionality, unless he really meant a line…*shudders*) of my protagonist in one of my stories, because this protag is whole-mindedly obsessed with science, is constantly thinking about science, and is antisocial towards basically everyone, lol. (Some psychologists in his society think that he has a mental disorder, whilst some other psychologists just think he has a very unusual personality type.) Yet another friend has my protagonist as her favorite character, BECAUSE he’s so extremely focused on science and so antisocial towards everyone, lol!! I also really love his extremity. 😀 Though I can still see what my friend meant. Yet, I can’t make my protagonist not obsess so single-mindedly over science, and also can’t make him more sociable towards some people, because that would not be true to his character; that would be out-of-character, haha. So…as much as I would like my protag to have more different sides in these two aspects, I’m afraid I can’t or else I’d have to distort his personality… And what do you… Read more »
Joanna Aislinn

Had an editor who very kindly posed her suggestions in this format: “Consider doing, changing, revising this to…” It showed respect for me as an author, and put her in the role of guide vs. “I know what’s best for your story–do it this way.” We had a wonderful working relationship.

My son’s language arts teacher–male–is currently reading one of my romance WIPs. He told me just the other day he “can’t stand” my protagonist b/c he finds her “distant” from her young daughter.

At first that threw me off, but I’ve looked closely at my WIP for any “evidence” to support his statement. I came up empty. As has been mentioned, readers bring their opinions, values and selves to the story. These band together, consciously and unconsciously, to form their reactions to our work.

As was stated before, knowing my story and it’s goals helps me stand firm or look to make necessary adjustments. Great post, Jami! Thnx!

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[…] Feedback: Finding Problems vs. Fixing Problems by Jami Gold. Good advice! Have definitely run into this before, and have probably done to others. Doh! […]

Joanna Aislinn

As per my son’s teacher, I appreciate his input (and his eagle-eye ability to catch the tiniest typos, i.e., two periods, and and, etc). He’s entitled to not like my protagonist–others have alluded to her being annoying at times; aren’t we all? He compares/contrasts what he hopes his wife would do relative to their daughters should his family ever–God forbid–be in a situation like my protagonist’s. (He owns it too, and I appreciate his honesty. It beats a generic, “I liked it.”

Also, I know what my story’s focus is. A romance is about a hero and heroine’s journey. The other stuff is not the mainstay of the tale, and that’s where this guy might be missing where I’m coming from.

Different strokes for different folks, right? Be well!

Joanna Aislinn

You’re very welcome, Jami. Thnx for your excellent articles and food for thought.

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