Dealing with Contradictory Feedback
One of the kinds of mixed messages we have to deal with is getting contradictory responses to our work. You may hear one thing from your friends, another from your crit group, and something different from an editor or agent. Agents experience this too: A project out on submission often elicits barely any response from some editors, while others are jumping up and down with excitement.
Or you may enter your work in a contest and be completely befuddled at the judges’ responses. My client Katie had this experience: “I got my contest scores back. One was a perfect score of 100 and the judge’s comment was, I don’t understand why this author isn’t published. The second score was also very high. The third was a 62! The judge told me to cut the prologue and the first chapter because they weren’t good. She also told me I’ll never get published in Christian fiction because my heroine is living with a man in the beginning and I make a reference to her craving a cigarette, which apparently offended her.”
How do we deal with contradictory feedback like this?
First, realize this is always going to be the case, and be thankful you’re experiencing it now because later when you’re published it will get worse. Readers will have all kinds of responses to your work, and they won’t all be positive. (Have you looked at the reader reviews on Amazon? Sheesh! There’s usually quite a range from “best book ever” to “worst book in the history of life.”) So now is a good time to get used to it.
But if you’re trying to figure out how (or if) to revise your work, and you’ve received contradictory feedback about what your manuscript needs, you may have to make some tough decisions. Here are my thoughts:
1. Keep in mind each person’s qualifications for giving feedback. Are they a publishing professional? Now obviously, just because they have experience as an agent, editor, or published author doesn’t make them automatically “right.” But if you’re weighing feedback from your friends and/or crit group (“It’s awesome! We love it!”) against responses from professionals (“It needs work”) you’re probably better off listening to those with experience. As much as you think your friends are going to be honest with you, let’s face it, if they love you, they probably think you walk on water plus they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Enjoy their feedback, appreciate what good friends they are, then listen to the professionals.
2. Whether you’re dealing with professionals or friends, these questions are even more important: Do they understand and share your vision for the project? Do they have a similar worldview as yours? Are they likely to be in agreement with the overall message of your book? You can use these questions to help you gauge which feedback is most applicable to your work and will be most helpful to you. Whenever possible, you may even want to ask these questions directly of your reviewers.
In the case of Katie’s example above, she has a two-against-one situation, so that’s a clue about which feedback may be most relevant. In addition, the third judge obviously was more conservative than Katie and didn’t share her worldview, so was unlikely to enjoy the book anyway. In this type of situation, I’d say it’s okay to consider whether anything judge #3 said rings true and if you can learn anything from it; if not, let it go and move on. Just accept that not everyone will like your book.
3. It’s important for you to go with your gut and stick with your vision. Don’t allow anyone to take away your voice or an important part of your message. However, if you’re a newer writer and you’re not sure you’ve found your voice yet, you can allow those critics to help you refine your voice or find your vision. It’s a delicate and tricky balance – figuring out which changes feel like you’re improving the work, and which feel like compromise. Only you can decide.
Every piece of art has its fans and its detractors; every attempt to speak the truth will meet some agreement and some resistance. We all have to use our own discernment and wisdom to figure out how to deal with it.
Q4U: Have you dealt with contradictory feedback on your work? How did you resolve it?
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent