I started following this hilarious account on Twitter called Guy In Your MFA.
He represents that potentially fictional, douchey guy who is obviously brilliant in his writing, wants to tell you how yours is all wrong, and will not accept that his work needs any changes whatsoever.
Of course he’s a parody, but parodies are based on real people, right?
The first tweet in this post is what gave me the idea for the post, because I’ve seen feedback not too different from that appear as real comments in my critique group. Also, a critique partner (CP) recently told me one of the trickiest parts of the group is remembering not all feedback need be applied. It reminded me of my early days in the group – as a new writer, jumping into a gathering of other writers (who you assume all must have more experience than you do) can be overwhelming. You post a story, a handful of other writers submit comments on your work, and not knowing where any of them are coming from, it can be hard to know which comments are “legit.”
If you haven’t experienced this, I’ll save you the suspense: they won’t all be legit. The trick is learning how to pick out the ones that are.
So how the hell do you do that, anyway?
The following steps outline my process in the critique group and when I get feedback from beta readers. They are not the same as editor feedback, which I’ll get to next.
1. Wait until all the feedback is in.
It can be tempting to make changes with the first critique or feedback email, but refrain. It’s much easier to see the changes that absolutely must happen when a handful of readers say the same thing. Then, you’re left with individual suggestions, with which you must…
2. Decide if those changes would make the story work better.
Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes making a suggested change makes the story more grammatically correct but messes up a character’s voice, for example. But sometimes, a CP or beta reader is the only one who had keen enough eyes to notice an issue and make the suggestion! Just because only one person suggested something doesn’t mean it’s not legit. In this case, it helps to…
3. Consider the source.
I have a small handful of close CPs whose feedback I’ll apply nearly 100% of the time – notice I said “nearly,” because even my writing BFFs make suggestions I won’t apply, but only after thorough consideration. I have to decide if my “Yeah, but…” reaction to a suggested change is coming from me being defensive about my book baby or if it’s because their suggestion is rooted in something they don’t know about the overall story – like it refers to an event that has yet to happen or to something they forgot about.
On the other side, if you’re in a critique group long enough, you start to recognize when a Guy In Your MFA appears and can pretty much ignore all of his suggestions. You can read them – he may get lucky and accidentally say something helpful – but don’t if he’s just crapping all over your work. It happens. Not all writers have tact.
This point applies to betas as well, who usually are not “writers,” as CPs would be. Consider the background of the beta, how much they like to read, and of course, if they’re making the same suggestions as other betas. Sometimes our betas worry about hurting our feelings, so I’ve found having a questionnaire ready to go is helpful. Design one with questions that might have come up in the critique group, like if a character’s motivations were strong enough, or if the settings were detailed enough, for example.
Now, what about editor feedback?
If you’re working with a professional editor, the process is a little different. You already know the source – they’re trained to look for specific literary elements. They should provide you with an editing letter outlining major issues/considerations as well as your MS with specific notes. Since this is someone you paid (or your publisher hired) to do this, their suggestions should be thoroughly considered before you decide not to apply them.
That said, let me insert a big fat but into this point…
Not all editors are good. If you’re getting several suggestions that seem “off” (or as in my own experience, you sense they used an online editing tool rather than read the story), discuss them with a trusted CP before deciding what to do. Which brings me to my final point…
Get someone else on your team.
This stuff works better with a buddy. If you’re struggling with whether to apply a suggestion, ask a trusted writing partner who has read the story what they think. Talking it out is sometimes the best way to decide if the suggestion is a good one.
And remember, no one knows your story like you do. Writing is an art, and if a suggestion doesn’t feel right for the story, don’t use it. I’ve applied suggestions and then gone back and un-applied them – that’s the beauty of the editing process. It’s shaping and reshaping until the final product is the masterpiece you envisioned when you first got the idea for the story.
If you’ve reached this point in your writing, what is your process for deciding what feedback to use?