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.
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?Pin It