Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

Most writing advice is garbage.

john_roddam_spencer_stanhope_-_the_temptation_of_eve

I’ve reached the point in my writing where I ignore 80% of the feedback I receive. The other 20% I consider, and I might implement 10. Why? Most writing advice is crap. So why are so many of us addicted to it? Because somewhere in that 10% is the magic piece that fixes the story’s problem. The trick is finding it without letting the other 90 destroy everything.

At the beginning of the month, I hosted the #queryswap event. For those of you who missed it, this was an opportunity for writers to swap queries with other writers and get feedback. The event was free and so was the advice. The intention was for writers to improve their queries. I swapped with six other writers. Most of the advice I received was valid. Much of it conflicted. And after considering each suggestion, I added two words to my query.

So how do I evaluate feedback?

The first problem is one of expertise. Unfortunately, much of the advice a beginner will receive will be free (swap-type) events where the CP is also a beginner. The first question you should ask is: does this person know more than I do?

This isn’t being arrogant. There are huge gaps in ability among writers, particularly among unpublished writers. Some novices have incredible instincts. Others must be taught through practice and study. Just because both of you are in your first pitch wars, doesn’t mean that you have equal expertise. Likewise, just because you are a novice, doesn’t mean you should implement every suggestion a more seasoned author makes.

How do I evaluate expertise?

Is the person traditionally published? This is not a knock against self-pubs, but a writer who is traditionally published has been vetted. This means an editor has looked at their work and deemed it sell-able. Since your goal is presumably to create something that can be sold, someone who has accomplished this will have more clout over someone who has not.
(If the person is self-published, it’s not necessarily a negative. Download a sample of their book and read it.)

Does the person read/write in your genre?

You wouldn’t go to a podiatrist for your PAP test. Why would you take advice on your “MG feel good adventure” from a paranormal romance writer? Your critique partner needs to be familiar with your genre, and the conventions and expectations of that genre. All writers have internal biases. We like certain styles of writing, and therefore, we will read and write in the styles that appeal to us. When we evaluate writing, we will take these biases with us. In other words, a romance writer will be looking for the romance, a thriller author will be looking for the suspense, a women’s fiction author will be looking for the “feels.” When something is missing these elements, even if the genre doesn’t call for them, critique partners will insist their favored element is missing and needs to be included.

While I try to be aware of this issue when doing feedback exchanges, I flat out refuse to take paid editing work in genres that I don’t read. It’s dishonest.

How do I evaluate the quality of advice

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Someone recently told me she had hired a professional editor who told her to remove every instance of “is” from her manuscript. I was dumbfounded.

Does the person give advice specific to your story or does she just give blanket stock feedback?
You’ve all heard the same advice: show, don’t tell, don’t use passive, don’t use filter words, don’t use “that,” avoid…the list seems endless. While most of this is valid much of the time, unfortunately, there are plenty of examples where doing these things is exactly what the story needs. One sentence of telling can save a reader from pages of boring secondary character building, or speed the pacing at a critical moment. Passive voice can keep the focus from sliding to unimportant characters. Filter words can be used to create distance during an emotionally intense scene. “That” is a word and does have a function. If a critique partner quotes a rule, she needs to explain why that is the correct choice for the context.

Does the suggestion serve the story or the rule?

The online writers’ club loves its writing rules: beat sheets, character sheets, charts, little zigzagging tension lines, columns, graphs. It goes on and on. But the greatest works of literature were all created without the aid of graph paper. Strict adherence to the rules has produced an entire generation of writing that can be predicted down to the minute. For example, I took my then 5yo daughter to see the Batman Lego movie. About an hour and a half in, my daughter began to get antsy. My husband leaned over and whispered, “The movie is almost over,” and I responded, “No, it isn’t. Batman is only 2/3 of the way through his character arc. He still has to have his new belief structure tested. It will fail the first time, he’ll have his dark moment, and then he will actually learn his lesson.” My husband was not amused. I wasn’t either. It took Batman another 30 minutes to finally “get it,” and my daughter was driving me bananas. Plot structure formulas can be a good planning tool, but they are a guideline. The only “rule’ is to tell a compelling story. Make sure your critique partner isn’t changing your story out of blind adherence to rules.

Is the suggestion really an improvement?

Does it raise the stakes? Clarify an important point? Fix a character inconsistency? Change for the sake of change is a recipe for a story that never gets finished. Make sure a suggestion is actually better than what you already have. This was the issue I had with my feedback from #queryswap. Much of it would have worked, but it wasn’t better than what I already had. It represented a different style or tone, or a writer’s specific preferences. None of it was “wrong” but it wasn’t better, so I kept much of my original.

This is one place where beginning writers struggle. As novices, many writers haven’t learned to trust their own instincts. They haven’t gained the confidence in their own voices. Self-doubt plagues the novice. Trust yourself. As a reader, you have learned to distinguish good writing from bad. You also have the ability to apply those same skill sets to your own work.

Do the suggestions serve the story’s goal?

First off, you need to know what your story’s goals are. This is not the same as your character’s goals. You need to know what type of story you are trying to tell. Is it gritty, or heartwarming? Are you trying to push boundaries? Once you know what kind of story you are trying to tell, you will have a framework for evaluating advice. On the micro scale, you can look at a particular piece of feedback and say this does not fit what I am trying to accomplish. Consider:

There are many monsters in the ocean; I only hate one: dolphins.

My reader was concerned that having my MC say she hated dolphins (something most people love) would make her unlikeable. As we were trying to find ways to improve her likability, this is a valid point. But I chose to keep the line as is. I wanted the reader to wonder what could possibly be so bad about dolphins. Having my MC say she hated them was actually the hook of the opening line. If I had made the suggested change, I would have lost the hook.

Not all change is good. Learn to identify good and bad advice.

Evaluating feedback advice is critical to your growth as a writer. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. By following this guideline, you can be certain the changes you make in your manuscript are actually serving your story.

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5 thoughts on “Evaluating Writing Feedback Advice

  1. This speaks to so much of what I’ve found frustrating about seeking online, peer guidance. Your discussion of formula/grid work (basically that whole Save the Cat beat sheet thing) resonates so well with some of the negatives I’ve experienced. It takes a lot to really get me excited about, or moved by, a movie these days, because everything is so unabashedly formulaic and derivative. And I don’t want to be one of those people complaining about “the good old days,” because there was obviously a lot of formula involved in the movies I grew up with as well.

    I agree that it’s so, so important to find someone who is at least familiar with your genre (ideally they also write in it themselves). I spent a lot of my time on the Querytracker forums, getting feedback on my adult epic fantasy queries and first pages from people writing YA romance, etc, etc. Some of the advice was absolutely golden, but a lot of it amounted to, “write in a new genre” or “if your query is short and snappy it’s good.” When I went to write the query for my most recent MS, I wrote something tailored to what fellow authors on Querytracker liked, rather than what best represented my MS, and what I enjoy as a reader. People on the website liked it, but I didn’t, and to be honest I haven’t had a lot of success with it. My query stats were better for my enormous, 250k MS that I shelved.

    Aaaaanyway. Again, thanks for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely share your frustration. The most memorable stories aren’t the ones that follow all the rules but defy conventions in ways that challenge the reader. You should write the query that sells your story because that is the only real rule to querying. Best of luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. But dolphins are so loveable! *wink* As you and I discussed privately, plotting beats have had me beating (no pun intended) my head against my laptop for YEARS, writing and rewriting the same book because I can’t seem to get the “beats” EXACTLY right. Well, I’m done. I’m finally ready to say “screw it” and just write the most engaging story I can. Sometimes, close enough is just right. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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