Sunday, March 2, 2014

Knowing When to Reject Feedback

In my writers’ group there was the most by-the-book kind of guy as you could get. His favorite phrase was, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

Well, as a person who believed the experts and followed the rules, he listened to every piece of advice gotten. Even those he didn’t fully understand. He’d write it all down, take it home, change it, and come back to show us again. And it was always worse than when he had started. Always. Every single time. No exaggeration. Literally. Immaculately.

I am not being extreme.

BUT, we all know if you take all advice thrown at you, you will become homogenized and safe, conforming to sometimes undesirable standards. Then there’s advice that comes from a place of competition, or ignores certain niches in favor of more popular audiences (or the critic's own kind). And even when you do get good advice (and this is the worst part) if you don’t fully understand it, you might implement it poorly.

Unfortunately, criticism helps, and it's hard to tell the difference between hearing something bad, hearing something wrong, and not wanting to hear anything at all. The hard part of writing is learning what criticism to take. In many cases, knowing you made a mistake would be easier than not being sure you made a mistake.

There’s a lot of advice on the internet telling you how to appropriately take criticism, so here’s a list on knowing when to take criticism (and giving you permission not to).

NUMBER ONE: Remind yourself it’s probably not a make-it or break-it issue.

Most criticism is flexible, often times subjective, contextual, and about personal tastes. It is less often “right or wrong,” and more “This is what I noticed when looking for something to talk about.”

Does that one word have to be changed? Do you really need to answer that question more quickly? Do you need to make a character more likable? Cut characters? Cut words?

It won't kill you not to take the advice, even if it is good. Even if you are just being a big baby, you'll do more damage to your reputation than to your book by throwing a fit.

Sure, the change might help. It might even help a lot, but likely the influence will be minimal, especially if the edit is minimal. Usually the problem isn’t large enough to make or break the book, and even after you do fix it, there’s another problem waiting for you. Sometimes, all these issues could be killed with one stone. Sometimes you solve the first problem only to have the solution become an issue after another change. Problems come and go in strange ways, so, if someone tells you to add more happy scenes, and you don’t agree, it’s not the end of the world to not take the advice.

Also, by giving it time to gestate, you’re more inclined to understand it and apply it well. For another, unless you have reason to think the feedback is well-thought out, it probably isn’t. This doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it more malleable. There are other solutions to the same problem, and, quite frankly, this solution might not be the best in the grand scheme of things.

People evaluate things in an, “I’ll know it when I see it mentality,” so yes, it’s likely that they honestly acknowledged, “I don’t like this.” And maybe it is consistent with other people, and maybe it is the best solution. If it is someone else will say it too. In all honesty, it’s not necessarily accurate in why they don’t like it. In many cases, people don’t like things because it’s not their cup of tea. I’m sorry, but I can and have loved a crappy book as long as it has the three elements I look for.* I can also be bored out of my mind in a fantastic story. When I give it time to think about it, I might recognize that, yeah, it was a good book, but when I just gave it a quick glance, my reaction is, “Bleh!” Now give me three seconds to explain to you why I felt “Bleh,” and we’ll see how much of it you should actually be concerned with.

When faced with a criticism you don’t want to take, don’t take it. One of two things will happen—the problem will not come up again, or it will. You might very well understand it just by giving it time to settle. Remember, if an issue is important, someone else will say it better later. Yes, never taking feedback is an issue (flaws add up), but that's different than ignoring a specific piece of advice you're not certain about.

(Although, I would like to note, if you are self-publishing and the book is about to go up, waiting might not be the best solution.)

For that same reason, you might consider just trying the advice out, doing the workload so that’s not a factor anymore. Save as a new draft, make the change, and see if you care enough to go back to the original. Most times, this works for me, and I know when I regret something enough to go back to the first copy (has only happened once) it’s because it really is important to me. Most circumstances where I actually do this, I forget about it. I’ve come to find, (and this lends to the flexibility thing) most advice doesn’t really change anything; I like it fine either way. But when it does benefit the story, trying it might be the only way to find out.

NUMBER TWO: Why don’t you want to take it?

It’s hard to ever know for sure if you’re being honest with yourself, but because most criticism is pretty flexible in its truth, you get to go with your gut on most things because your gut is more likely to know something you don’t. If your instinct is saying don’t change it, then there’s a good reason not to. Your gut might be telling you no for a stupid reason, but there is still a reason, and it’s best not to act until you figure it out.

Understanding why you don’t want to take the advice is useful, but difficult. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably go, “I’m pretty sure I like stylized dialogue… but maybe I don’t. Maybe I’m just trying to be right?”

This is difficult, because, honestly, both are sort of true. There are a lot of things I know I wouldn’t care about nearly as much if someone else hadn’t said, “YOU ABSOLUTELY MAY NOT DO IT THAT WAY.”

So, ask yourself that question, find an answer, and try to see what your gut says. Hopefully, you’ll be wrong about the criticism being unnecessary, then dead honest with yourself about it, and the conversation will stop there. In all likelihood, this won’t be conclusive, but it will reveal more about you and what's important to you. (And whether or not it should be.)

NUMBER THREE: Profile.

Odds are you don’t know a lot about this person, so we again play on the high margin of error. Feel free to profile the person criticizing you, and take that into consideration. If they look like they have no sense of humor and don’t get the joke, then ignore it until someone else says something similar. If they say they aren’t a fan of fantasy and then claim they’re confused, go ahead and assume it’s because it’s fantasy until indicated otherwise.

Consider what you thought of them before they gave the criticism, and make a point to predict what they’re going to say before they say it, if you can. You can judge the sort of feedback you’re going to get from people, and if it’s not the sort of feedback you find important, or you feel they’re going to be competitive/closed-minded, you’re in your right to not give the manuscript to them for precisely that reason. Even if they’re the only ones agreeing to read the book, you can say, “This isn’t the sort of readerwho will help me write the best book in my eyes.” Or, you might be able to manipulate the situation and say, “I do not want line-edits,” knowing they’re the sort to rewrite it for you.

Yes, it’s hard to listen to things you don’t want to hear, but you’ll be more inclined to hear it from people you think are actually trying to help you, or are of enough of the target mind-set to be more relevant.

If they are your target audience, take them more seriously. If they look to have a good sense of humor, just assume they do. If they seem like a stick in the mud, they are. Stop thinking about it so hard, and go with the evidence you have.

You might try to change your opinion of them afterwards, or be afraid you’re trying to change your opinion afterwards. If that is the case, then strip the profile all together and go to the next step.

NUMBER FOUR: Assume no hyperbole, misinterpretation, or misdirection.

A lot of constructive criticism has hyperbole, misinterpretation, and misdirection. Most people are trying to be nice or they’re trying to be clever, which actually muddles things. In many circumstances criticism is “wrong” because it’s too exaggerated or simplified or even deliberately leaving out information. And I’ve been in a lot of situations where someone was telling me something completely different than how I was understanding it, making it good advice interpreted wrong, which was why I disagreed with it.

So, ask yourself, “If this was exactly how they meant it, would it be a problem (for me)?”

“I don’t know if you knew this, but Russia is a really big place.”

Yes it is.

“You have too much hook and too much tension.”

I don’t see there as being such a thing too much hook and tension.

“You have too many characters.”

Alright, I can imagine some problems that might go hand in hand with having too many characters, though I don’t think having “too many” is a problem in itself.

“I have a hard time picturing which characters go with which name.”

Okay, that’s an issue.

You’ll learn four things by doing this:

One: The sort of person he is.

There’s no real instruction or revelation in “Russia’s a big place.” If it doesn’t make sense taken literally, he’s obviously trying to be clever. That means he’s competing with you. That means that, while he might have a point, it will be diluted by trying to be right (see Number Five), which means that when in doubt, throw it out. If you don’t understand him, ignore him. If he makes sense, then be the bigger person. You don’t have to let him know you took his advice, but you don’t have to go out of your way trying to understand unless you want to.

Two: There is being information left out.

In the case of “Too much hook,” I seriously don’t see how that would be a problem, which indicates that’s not what he means. This requires more explanation. It says you really don’t understand what he’s talking about—not that you’re being defensive—and you have a clear reason why you might not agree with him. This might be a person to spend more time trying to understand, because there is a good chance he’s trying to be nice, which means he really is trying to be helpful, which means he probably does believe what he’s saying, which means it’s probably true on some level.

Three: It’s a quick way to understand if it’s subjective.

If you recognize that the criticism makes sense on its own and is clearly a problem outside of context, then take it seriously. There is still a chance that is not the common reaction, i.e. it’s subjective. But now you know that’s the question on whether or not you should take the criticism. It becomes about seeing what the “normal” reaction is in your target audience, not figuring out if that person is full of crap or if you misunderstood them. Go to Number Six.

Four: It shows the difference between a solution and a problem, and a solution and a self-insertion.

The main reason why I didn’t understand why someone found something so important is because they were indicating a solution, not a problem. And, unfortunately, solutions and, “Write my way!” or “I have an idea!” can look identical.

Because “You have too many characters,” isn’t a problem outside of the other problems it may cause, it’s actually a solution. He’s suggesting to cut characters to solve Problem Blank. This means you don’t need to take the advice, but rather figure out what Problem Blank is, decide if you care, and come up with your own solution if you do, or even implement his now that you understand why.

Sometimes, what looks like a solution is really just someone coming up with ideas, or trying to make you conform to their tastes, which is different. This is actually easy to spot out as long as you trust your gut; if it’s a matter of opinion or him trying to write for you, there won’t be obvious issues.

“Too many characters,” might mean he thinks it’s boring or confusing. “Too much tension,” might mean “There isn’t tension, you’re trying too hard,” or it might even mean, “I don’t do violence and you shouldn’t either.” Sure, you might be missing a problem caused by too much tension, but AGAIN, it’s not necessarily a big deal if you did.

NUMBER FIVE: Is he trying to be right?

This is the big one. Currently being right is the most important thing to many people. We fight about things that don’t matter. Our political and academic debates focus on proving the other person wrong, not giving evidence for our own points. Grammar Nazis ruin discussions by illuminating typos rather than discussing the actual subject.

Which leads to this: If you catch someone prioritizing being right over being useful, feel free to ignore him. Because the reason why something is a wrong is more important than that it is wrong. So it is likely he will use an argument he doesn’t believe, and if he doesn’t believe it, it’s not true. And it does matter if the argument isn’t true even if the topic is. The argument tells you what it should look like, why it needs to be that way, while the topic tells you how to get it there. So you can suggest to “delete some characters,” but which characters I delete changes if you said, “When I realized there were returning characters I didn’t remember, I stopped paying attention to what was going on and kept trying to figure out where I’d seen them before,” or “I had no idea whose side I was supposed to be on, so I didn’t take any, and so didn’t care.”

He is probably right in some way, but when his arguments start to contradict each other, it’s contaminated, and it will be far too much effort to sift truth from fiction.

NUMBER SIX: Ask other people about the criticism.

The common recommendation for feedback is if more than one person says something, it means to look harder at it. I’ve found this doesn’t work for me because they rarely overtly agree on anything, (the actually consistency being in why they made suggestions), and even when they do, it tends to be on ridiculous or superficial aspects—superficial aspects no one would be concerned with from someone they respect.

So what do you do? Ask someone about that specific criticism. Retell the feedback to a person you know is sympathetic—preferably someone who’s read the book, though it isn’t necessary—and have them explain it to you. If they don’t understand it either, give you a totally different reason than what the original speaker indicated, or even tell you they don’t agree with it, you get to reject the advice. The best part is, if you still aren’t sure whether or not you should take it, you can go to far more people to see what the common denominator is. (But if you find yourself going to more and more people just to get the answer you want, it might be time to go back to Number Two.)

If they are fairly consistent in their interpretation and the people in your target audience see what he’s talking about, take it seriously. If they don’t, don’t.

NUMBER SEVEN: Look at the people you love and admire.

When it comes to what you’re “trying to do” writing can be pretty convoluted. Most people will assume your third-person story is from the protagonist’s perspective. Are you wrong if you see the narrator as a different person? Many people don’t like “fluffy prose,” are you an idiot if you don’t want to write like Hemingway? People say no one likes vampire books anymore. Should you not write one?

Come up with a list of books you love, whether or not they’re well written. Come up with a list of books you admire whether or not you actually enjoyed reading them. Now, take the criticism you got (such as you’re supposed to write dialogue the way people actually talk), take what you believe you like (such as stylized dialogue) and see what the people you love and admire actually do.

Often times there will be consistency. In the case above, I found that the things I loved most (Calvin and Hobbes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, The Black Cauldron, and many fantasy novels) usually had unique or verbose vernacular. The stories that I admired, despite usually hating (Waiting for Godot, Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice, the movie Brick, and many noir novels) had poetry or unique voice to them. So when people kept telling me that no one liked dialogue that wasn’t realistic, and I severely started questioning myself, this was a good way for me to identify that—whether or not I was doing it well—it was what I wanted to try to be doing. I confirmed I wasn’t insane or stubborn in that stylistic goal.

If you find a consistency, especially amongst the stories you loved, then it means you aren’t wrong in wanting to do it. As long as you’re honest about your favorites (lying will do more damage the good), you’ll see that you’re not just trying to be weird.

If you realize that no one you like does it, or worse, they do do it but you always hated it, you might reconsider it.

NUMBER EIGHT: You are not obligated to prove you can take criticism well.

Not everyone works well together. Some people are cruel and rude. Some people are more abrasive than others would like. Some people love aggression and hate passive-aggression. I personally am far more offended by, “Please don’t take this personally, but you have a little too much dialogue in this scene,” than “Cut some of this dialogue.” I know others who don’t like overt instructions. You’re not going to get along with everyone, and if you’re putting up pretenses, you won’t be able to get to the level of trust required.

One person’s opinion is rarely so important that pandering to your spite is detrimental. You have the option to ignore an asshole, and it is unlikely that doing so will kill your career. Especially because, if he has a good point, someone more sympathetic will be clearer later on.

Of course, if everyone who gives you negative feedback is an asshole, it might not be entirely them, but you really do have to be able to accept that it’s okay to refuse cruel advice. And by acknowledging that you have the right to be insulted, you are far more likely to relax and take things objectively. I know from experience.

Remember: Not burning bridges is in your own interest, so you get to decide when it’s acceptable.


In essence, trust your gut, give it time, be open minded, respect yourself, and remember there’s a huge, blurry line between being “wrong” and being creative. Generally that line is a publisher’s logo. Taking or not taking advice isn’t the end of the world as long as you’re working on it.

*The three elements that I look for in a story are at least one over-dramatic, sarcastic character, a supernatural setting, and some romantic plot. Yeah, I'm that kind of person.