How to Apply Feedback

So you’ve got some criticism back from your writer’s group or your beta readers, and now you don’t know what to do. How do you know what advice to take and what to leave behind? How do you know what will help and what will harm?

For starters, there are two main flubs you’ll want to consciously avoid making:

  • FLUB #1: IGNORING IMPORTANT CHANGES THAT NEED TO BE MADE
    This can happen if you consciously or subconsciously think you know more than all your reviewers (in which case, why did you choose them?), or if you are too sentimental about your work and just cannot emotionally handle making a needed change. Another possibility is that you’re looking at the changes you need to make and saying to yourself, “It’s too much work. What I have is good enough.” Do you really want it to be good enough, or do you want it to be good? Chances are, you want it to be good.
  • FLUB #2: TRYING TO SATISFY EVERY WHIM OF EVERY REVIEWER
    Giving your work completely over to your reviewers and trusting them over your own sense of the work is going to get you in trouble. Your reviewers bring their own vision to your work, and if their vision doesn’t line up with your vision, you need to recognize that and stay true to what you are trying to accomplish. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make you happy. YOU have to love your book. You are the one who is going to send it off to agents and fight for it against all the rejection slips that are bound to pile up. You have to believe in your book more than anyone else does. If the changes you are making are going to make you not love your book or not believe in your book, don’t make them.

So how do you walk the line between the two extremes? How do you know which changes will be best for your story? Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. If you never have before, pick up a book on story structure, outlining, story theory, or revisions. There are a lot of them out there. A good understanding of what makes a story appeal to your reader will help you see the ways your novel works and the ways it does not—which will help you interpret the feedback you’ve received.Here are some titles I’ve found helpful.
    Wired for Story by Lisa Crone
    Rock Your Plot or Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley
    Structuring Your Novel or Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
  2. There’s power in numbers. If multiple reviewers are all in agreement that, for example, character Z is unnecessary, then either character Z probably is unnecessary and should be removed OR you have failed to show the significance of character Z and you need to figure out how to do that. Either way something needs to change regarding character Z. The direction you take your changes is up to you, but multiple people saying the same thing is a red flag that there’s something amiss.
  3. One person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion. You should consider these singular insights carefully in case your reviewer noticed something everyone else missed, and you can always poll your other reviewers if something someone said is particularly troublesome… but don’t change everything to please just one person. If you AGREE with the reviewer, maybe she found a gaping plot hole, then you will want do something about that—but a lot of the things that these insights will bring up are just options. Seeing them helps you expand your sense of possibilities, which may help you find the right path when you’re making the truly necessary changes…. but don’t try to turn your book into something you never intended it to be just because one of your reviewers has a different vision than you do.
  4. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your plot? Does it make your protagonist more or less invested in the outcome of the plot? Does it help keep the tension growing throughout your story? Does it make your protagonist’s actions more or less important to outcome of the plot? Overall, is this a change that would benefit your story on a plot-level?
  5. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your theme? Does it provide your character with an example that might change the way she thinks about the world and more specifically about her immediate issue? How does that affect your character’s motives? Does this change affect what your story is about overall? Is that what you want? Overall, is this a change that would play into your story’s theme?
  6. A note on grammar. If you’ve got some discrepancies between you and your reviewers about how to punctuate your sentences or the meaning of a word, do yourself a favor and don’t just assume the other person is right (or vice versa). Look it up. There are lots of grammar resources available online, and a quick internet search will tell you what you need to know.
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