A matter of trust

Receiving feedback is a vital but uncomfortable part of the writing process. It can also be mighty confusing. Someone asks why you've hardly described the hero's looks, while someone else enjoys being left to imagine him. One person raves about your gift for description, while another turns their nose up at your purple prose. Someone adores the hilarious way your ditzy heroine keeps tripping over cake trolleys – but someone else cringes at her vacuousness, making you panic and scribble in a paragraph about her love of Renaissance literature.

When it's informal feedback – from friends, an online forum or a face-to-face writers' group – there might also be issues with the individual commenter's perspective. Is it a family member who just knows everything you do will be brilliant? Is it a kind person who wants to help but worries about hurting your feelings? Is it someone employing Machiavellian tactics to climb the chart on a competitive writing website? Is it an arrogant or insecure writer who feeds their ego by belittling others? Then there are those who have interesting views on your work but can't express them – they might say 'It was great!' or 'This bit doesn't read very well,' but that's the extent of their analysis.

What you want are sensible, polite, honest and thoughtful responders who can explain the reasons behind their views. But even they can end up being unhelpful. They know you want detailed comments and that you won't fall for being told you're the next Milton, so they will find something – anything – to show they are taking the task seriously. They might point out a 'mistake' – but if the same thing were in a published book, they'd see it as a clever literary device. People trust a published author to have a good reason for doing something, but they don't necessarily trust you in the same way.

For all these reasons, I'm wary about rushing in to make changes on the strength of one person's opinion. After a few days, once the sting of criticism or the joy of praise has worn off, maybe it will turn out that the person was right. Maybe a few people have made the same comment, or maybe I knew deep down that part of the story didn't work but I just kind of hoped no one would notice. Maybe they have raised an issue that never would have occurred to me otherwise, and that makes sense of everything. But it's also possible they have their own agenda or that they've completely got the wrong end of the stick.

It's great to have trusted readers who can enlighten you about how to improve your work – but if you've carefully considered feedback in cold blood and concluded that you don't agree, I think it's equally important to trust yourself.


NorwayNomad said...

Great post Caroline.

Anonymous said...

I think you're spot on. Never rush into making changes as they need time to marinate. Also, given time, you might come up with a better alternative.

In terms of who you trust to give feedback, I'd say go with a broad range of groups. Family, peers (published & unpublished) and your target audience if you can get hold of them.

You'll end up with a mish mash of comments, but if you put it to one side for a while, the answers will come to you.

VJ Corfield

Old Kitty said...


I used to always rush to change things on the say so of others. Now I read and digest comments and mull over. And then always trust my instincts to act upon or not.

Saying that, I'm hoping my instincts are being refined and influenced by all these courses I'm doing!


Take care

Julie P said...

Great post, Caroline, and very true.

I have only recently started giving some of my work to a reader who I know will only give me straight forward, honest advice that I know I can trust because of their proven track record in writing and they also write for the same markets I'm aiming for.

Julie xx

Emma Darwin said...

All very true. I do think it's important, though, to separate out the reader's reaction, from the solution they may offer to the problem. Their reaction may be that they didn't believe that Character A would have done X, but the solution may not be to make Character A do Y instead, but to change their character so that their motivations for for doing X more convincining.

Debs Riccio said...

Oh I hear you - well said Caroline. I, too, spent years trying to include every nuance suggested by everyone else in my writing until I not only didn't recognise what I'd written, I didn't like it much either. It was only when I switched off those 'voices', put my head down and just went for it, that I had the biggest rollercoaster of a writing ride and discovered that even if it's only me squealing with delight at what I've produced, then I've made ONE very important person happy!

Fionnuala said...

I think both this and Rod's post were very well timed for me this week. As a reader I'm really trying to get back that carefree attitude I had before I knew what a plotting device was. And as a writer, this week in particular (York) has shown me that you cannot possibly please everyone. While I'm really open to constructive criticism, I also have to re-claim that trust in myself again.

Phillipa said...

Absolutely spot on, Caroline, thank you for this insightful post. Even when you get professional opinions, they can vary wildly. We all know writers whose work has been turned down by a string of eds/agents for completely different (and often conflicting) reasons - then snapped up by one who loves it. I wish I knew the answer other than your advice to take time to think and be very wary.

fidelity said...

Criticism is a very vexed issue between writers and their, hopefully, helpful readers. Some of the online people say 'don't tell us what your mother thinks of it' which I suppose makes some sense. Anytime I've offered feedback I've invariably found myself saying this is the way I'd write it so I've never really known if I was being helpful or just transposing it into my own idiom.

Unless you're writing in an academic field, where it's ultimately important because facts matter so much there, I'd be inclined to say not to take much notice of it. If I'd been asked to give feedback on Marian Keyes' Anybody Out There I'd have wanted her to change every word and cut out most of the sillier emails, but really it's all very silly and great fun and that's why she earns the big bucks; she can amuse and make you laugh and no one cares about the rules when they're having fun.

Caro said...

Thank you all for the comments!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Late to this, Caro, but what a great and timely post. I recently received what I can only call a quite vicious response to a couple of paragraphs which has hung around in my head ever since. It didn't offer anything constructive or encouraging. I guess that's the difference between a critique and a criticism.