Feedback: Finding Problems vs. Fixing Problems
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
Oddly enough, this is just what I needed to read this morning. Great post. Thanks for sharing.
No matter how far along we are in the publishing process, I think we all could use a reminder of this message sometimes. 🙂 It’s very easy to think someone else–someone with more authority or knowledge maybe–must know what they’re talking about with their suggestions. And they do know what they’re talking about… But when it comes to our stories, we know even better. 😀 Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Yes! Every type of editing can result in various suggestions. You mentioned line editing, but we’d see the same in copyediting–even though the rules of spelling and grammar seem fairly cut and dry.
Copyediting fiction requires more judgment calls than copyediting non-fiction. In fiction, we might want an occasional comma splice (like in dialogue), or sentence fragment, or unusual capitalization, etc.
I bet if we sent the same chapter to 20 different copyeditors, we’d see 20 different approaches to editing it. That’s why sample edits are so important. Every editor is going to have a different style, and we want to make sure their style matches our voice.
Ooo, great point about characters not behaving the way readers want or expect them to. I’ve lost count of how many comments I’ve received “pointing out” that my characters seem xyz and that I should change something. But I just nod my head because I wanted them to come across as xyz, so that comment tells me I’m doing it right. 😉
I don’t think I’ve gotten too close to trying to apply bad suggestions, but maybe that’s a sign that I’m stubborn. LOL! So I know exactly what you mean: We have to know our story–and our goals and purpose for that story–well enough to recognize when something fits and when something doesn’t. Fantastic way to put it! 😀
Good luck with your new release and LOL! at the murder comments. Thanks for sharing your great insights!
What I call “line editing” actually includes “copy editing”. There’s overlap from content editing to line editing, then from line editing to copy editing, then from copy editing to proof reading. That overlap’s also severe enough that the terms can be interchangeable, depending on whom you ask. (“Content editing” is usually accepted as distinct, though.)
As an editor, I don’t allow comma splices except in the really short situations permitted by Chicago—but there are alternative methods, which convey the connection and speed without a grammar error. *points to em dash in previous sentence*
That variance in ways to fix things is actually one reason authors should learn grammar. If I’m having to puzzle out what you meant overall, then I have to make sure I’m more technically correct, because I have to assume everything’s an accident. But if you’re solid in the grammar, I’ll notice that and flag the exceptions that look potentially intentional, to make sure you meant them.
And if you know grammar, you can catch when I misread a sentence and change it to something other than what you meant. I had one particularly memorable instance where the difference came from “hair cut” vs. “haircut”.
Very true! Everyone’s definitions can be very different. (Yet another reason to ask for a sample edit to see what’s really included. 🙂 )
Great point too about why writers should learn grammar! The cleaner our sentences are, the more our editors can focus on making our words better rather than trying to untangle everything. 😉 Thanks for the comment!
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 🙂
Here’s the post I have on writing a synopsis. 🙂
Yes, whether we call it “stubbornness” like Carradee joked above or our “gut” or our “muse,” we have to go with what feels right for our story. And as Carradee said, the better we know our goals and purpose for the story, the better we’ll be able to tell what feels right or not.
In your new synopsis, where you’re not sure where the story will go yet, that judgment call can be very tricky. How well can we know what feels true to the story when we don’t know the story? 🙂 And in that case, I’d suggest seeing if some comments feel truer to your theme or worldview or which story feels closer to your passion.
No doubt it’s going to be tricky. I can’t do a full synopsis in advance because I write by the seat of my pants. I might be able fake writing about the first 3/4 of the story, but I never know how it’s going to end until I get there. 😉 Good luck and thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes, seeing consistent overlap in comments definitely makes our path clearer. Many editors have an eye on how the story could be more marketable. I don’t think that’s a bad thing (especially if that matches with our goals or gives us new goals), but it can make their comments less about the story we want to tell.
When I give feedback along those lines, I try to say xyz would make the story more marketable/meet reader expectations/create a deeper emotional experience, etc. but add a “however, that might not match your vision/voice/characters,” etc. Some authors do want to use a deeper POV but don’t know how, or they do want to appeal to traditional publishers and don’t know what it would take, and for them, I want to provide the education. Then I give the “out” to those who know but intended something different. 🙂
I’m glad you knew enough about the story you wanted to tell to make that call. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience!
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.
Hi Sharla Rae,
Exactly! We need to know where we should look for potential problems, and conflicting advice does that. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
Great point! Yes, when our emotions are fresh and raw, it might be harder to listen to our gut. Time allows those emotions to settle and to get a handle on what our story could look like if we wanted it to. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes, I take a closer look at everything beta readers mention–even if I disagree–but when multiple readers agree on something, we probably need to do something about it. 🙂 We might ignore their “fixing” suggestions, but we shouldn’t ignore the issues they find unless it’s what we intended.
I value my beta readers’ ability to find issues and would be lost without them. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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. 🙂
Ugh. Unfortunately, people who beta read like that are only wasting their time and yours.
However, I will say that I don’t mind examples. In fact, I often need them to release my brainstorming. As I mentioned on Facebook, I’m the kind of person who has a hard time seeing how writing can be different, so seeing their example (even if it’s completely off) can help me see possibilities.
Likewise, when I give feedback, I often do the same thing–give suggestions to spark brainstorming. I always start my edits with a comment about how I give suggestions, but only for educational and brainstorming purposes, not to tell them how to do something. 🙂
I usually write at least one comment with something like: “But do that in your voice. And in a way that fits the story. And better than my example. 🙂 ” That way, I’m specifically giving them permission to do it their way.
So I’d say examples are fine if it’s clear that’s the purpose, and it’s not about “here’s the right way to do it.” And that’s completely different from crossing out whole swaths and replacing your words with theirs. 🙁
That kind of large-scale “here’s how I’d do it” demonstration isn’t helpful to anyone. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the comment!
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!
That’s a great way to put it–personal taste vs. objective feedback. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insight!
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!
LOL! And yay! Yes, there are many ways to fix problems, so their suggestion is often not going to be the “right” way for our story. Personally, I’ve had the most luck fixing problems by tweaking a sentence here and there to clarify goals, motivations, internalizations, etc. Good luck with your revisions and thanks for the comment!
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.
Ugh. I think word choice changes are some of the least helpful suggestions possible unless a) the current word really doesn’t fit, or b) the author is at the line/copyedit stage and asked for that style of feedback.
As you said, story suggestions–plot, character, pacing, logistics, etc.–are far more helpful. I often start with just a chapter exchange with a new beta reader to make sure we’re on the same page. 🙂
I’m glad you were comfortable enough with your voice to trust that those suggestions wouldn’t work. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!
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 »
To answer your question about when some readers pointedly like something and others pointedly dislike it: Go with the story you (and your characters) want to tell, and know that those other readers have plenty of books to choose from with other voices and elements. LOL!
Seriously though, we really can’t make everyone happy and like our stories, so don’t try to do that. Instead, just try to make your story the best it can be. 🙂
The only time we might take a different attitude was if we had the goal of appealing to that other group of readers. For example, if we want to appeal to readers of X genre (say, romance), we have to follow the rules of that genre to some extent (such as having a happy ending), even if those rules don’t match the story in our head (such as ending in a tragic death).
That’s not to say that we couldn’t write that tragic-death story (just ask Nicholas Sparks 😉 ), but if we did so, we wouldn’t want to market and try to appeal to romance readers because they’d be very unhappy. Very. Unhappy.
So unless we were trying to appeal to a specific market that wanted “A,” we should write the “B” story we want to write. Does that make sense?
As you said, usually we’d instead try to edit the story to appeal to readers and stay true to the story. Then we get the best of both worlds. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
I’ve seen editors with that “consider this” attitude before as well, and you’re right that it gives a completely different vibe as far as respect. I don’t word every one of my comments that way, but my introductory comments and email always state as much. 🙂
Yikes! on your son’s teacher. Was he able to point out any specific problem sentences or phrases for that supposed issue? If not, I’d question his ability to analyze student papers much less full novels. 😉
(I’m actually being serious. 🙂 When I edit, I’m able to highlight and point to specific reasons for why I have certain impressions. Those with a critical mind should be able to do so.)
Once you know those specifics, you’ll be better able to judge if it’s just his own background that’s creating that impression, or if his goals are acting against your goals, or if he has a point. Good luck and thanks for the comment!
[…] Feedback: Finding Problems vs. Fixing Problems by Jami Gold. Good advice! Have definitely run into this before, and have probably done to others. Doh! […]
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!
Ah! Good to hear. 🙂
Exactly–our stories aren’t for everyone, and that’s why it’s so important to know our goals for our story. Thanks for the comment!
You’re very welcome, Jami. Thnx for your excellent articles and food for thought.
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