Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Using Feedback

In my writing posts, I've been talking about getting critiques. I think the most important thing to learn about having your work critiqued is how to take criticism -- and I'm not talking about learning not to have a total hissy fit if someone dares say something negative about your work (though that is important, too). When you get feedback on your work, you have to learn how to use it.

The thing you need to remember -- and the reason I'm not totally on board with the idea that everyone absolutely must have someone else read your work -- is that anyone you give your work to for critique is human and therefore fallible. Even professional editors can make mistakes or make suggestions that would be bad for your book. I've had very good editors, and they've all at some point made suggestions that would have been fatal to the book if I'd followed them. Nobody knows or understands your story like you do, and ultimately, it is your book. Professionals may also disagree with each other because they have different opinions of what works. Learning to discern what suggestions to take and how to use the feedback you're given may be even more difficult than editing your own work. Accepting every suggestion you're given because you assume that the person giving feedback knows more than you is just as bad as refusing to accept feedback because you know your work is perfect the way it is.

Here are some ways I deal with feedback from editors, my agent or beta readers:
  • First, seriously consider each suggestion. You may need to take some time to scoff at it and get the sense of being insulted out of your system, but do this in private, not on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Consider whether the suggestion is definitively right or wrong -- is it based on something incorrect like a fact or grammar or does it violate a rule you've established for your fictional world? Would making this correction create an error?
  • If it would be an error, are you dealing with an incorrect assumption somewhere -- you didn't lay out the rules of your fictional world as clearly as you thought you did or your fact is little-known and the common knowledge (that most of your readers will be working from) is in error?
  • Would making the suggested change alter your intended meaning? If so, can you see why the change was suggested (perhaps your writing was too wordy or something else was unclear) and make a different change to accomplish that while maintaining your intended meaning? I often find that "wrong" suggestions result from me not being clear elsewhere.
  • Do suggested edits fit your voice or your characters' voices? That one word may take the place of several and tighten things up nicely, but it won't work if it's not a word your character would use.
  • Are suggested plot changes consistent with your characters, the situation you've established, the rules of your fictional world and with the tone of your story?

If I decide not to accept a suggestion, I make myself defend my decision. I may even do so out loud, as though I'm talking to the person who made the suggestion. This is not a writing phase I suggest doing in a coffee shop. For big changes suggested by editors, I've been known to write essays explaining why I can't do what they suggested. But then I try to find a way to fix the problem they've pointed out in a different way. If you really aren't sure, if something just feels wrong and you can't articulate why or if you can't decide whether something would be better or worse as suggested, you can try opening a second document and making the change there, then compare it to the original and see how it works. Or you can get a second opinion and at least talk it through. Sometimes the process of talking it through enables you to see things more clearly. I have heard of rare cases in which an author wasn't willing to make an editor's requested changes and the editor then refused to publish the book, but I've never had an editor be unreasonable with me when I've discussed why her suggestions wouldn't work and proposed something else that would address her concerns. I suspect those rare cases involve authors flouncing at the very idea of altering their great works of art, not authors and editors disagreeing but working on finding a mutually agreeable resolution.

There are also times when even a professional is just plain wrong. They have the same foibles writers do -- pet words that come up way too often, getting sidetracked and missing a detail, skipping words accidentally, etc. You need to learn to recognize these things in other people's work as well as in your own so you don't incorporate other people's errors into your work.

I always do another read-through after making suggested revisions to make sure it still works for me. If I can spot the places things have been changed, that's a bad sign because it means things aren't flowing. Also make sure that things you change don't have a ripple effect and force changes elsewhere -- if you delete a line or scene, you have to also delete references to that line or scene.

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