When I first started writing seriously, I didn’t understand the importance of getting multiple opinions on my work. I wrote a draft, sent it out to one person, incorporated that person’s thoughts, revised, sent to another person, and so on.
Can you see the issue here? I was relying too heavily on one person’s opinion. For me, that problem was exacerbated by the fact that I tend to be a people pleaser. I want people to like my work, so I’m inclined to make all the changes someone suggests, unless they just really don’t fit with what I’m trying to do with the story. By the time I shelved that first manuscript, I figured out that approach wasn’t working. And here’s why: subjectivity.
Reader A is a married mother of two children under the age of six, living in the Midwest. She is politically conservative. She writes middle grade and young adult but also reads a lot of adult romance, mysteries, and suspense. She writes full-time with some freelance PR work on the side, plays the violin, cross-stitches, watches a lot of TV and movies, and is very involved in her church. (Yes, this is me.)
Reader B is a single mom of teenagers, living in the South. She is politically ambivalent. She writes only middle grade but also reads adult science fiction and fantasy. She is an accountant, plays golf, is president of the PTO, and gardens.
Reader C is a single man, without kids, living on the West Coast. He is politically liberal. He writes only young adult and reads pretty much anything. He works as a computer programmer, plays video games, is active in his local writing group, and loves basketball.
Obviously these three readers are going to approach the same manuscript differently. They have different world views and experiences, different likes and dislikes, different levels of familiarity with the category and genre. One person will love the POV; another will struggle with it. One person will love the climax; another will think the stakes aren’t high enough. One person will totally identify with the main character; another wants more depth and change throughout the story.
This might seem daunting, but getting these multiple opinions helps me focus as I revise. Say Reader A hates a certain plot point but Readers B and C love it. If I’d only gotten Reader A’s opinion, I might have changed it, even if it went against my better judgment. But because I have the other opinions, I can make a more measured decision while keeping that note in mind for the future. As I stated in my post “If You Have to Explain It, Something’s Not Working,” often a comment from someone is a reflection that the existing story is not providing sufficient support for the plot point rather than the plot point itself being intrinsically wrong. I’ve also discovered that having multiple comments on the same issue makes it much easier to focus on how to make that change. Often different readers will comment on the same thing in a different way, and that brings clarity to me for revision purposes. (I posted about that here.)
So now, instead of sending to one reader, revising, then sending to another, I send to two or three readers in each of the first few rounds. After that, I might do one at a time because I can always compare back to earlier opinions.
I will never be able to revise my work to make every single person who reads it love it exactly the way it is. It’s not possible because they’re not me, with my unique voice, world view and experiences. The best I can do is gather the opinions of trusted readers and pull out the advice that resonates with the story I’m trying to convey.
How do you resign yourself to the subjectivity of this business? I try not to let it discourage me. Sometimes I just have to put it down in writing like this to remind myself how different we all are.
I find that it is extremely helpful after a point to have my manuscript critiqued by an industry professional. They can pinpoint problem areas that I can more readily trust need fixing, because of their breadth of experience.
Although I’ve never paid for a professional critique, I have ended up getting them for at least part of each of my manuscripts, either from an agent who rejected with comments or through a contest. I agree that these critiques do help me take the manuscript to the next level.
Great post! I definitely agree — though so much critique can often be conflicting / confusing. My critique group has two other writers, and I usually have at least three more people beta my full finished manuscript. I have such a hard time figuring out what the best course for revising is with so many opinions. How have you learned to handle differing opinions? One rule of thumb I use — if people are confused by a scene, world-building, a concept or a plot point, it needs work!
Yes, confusion is an automatic revise. It’s sometimes hard to discern what’s subjective. I often will try out a change to see what I think. If it works for the story, I’ll keep it. If it doesn’t, I go back to what I had. Sometimes you don’t know until you try it out.