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I posted my novel online for critique. And stumbled with the obvious question: when should I consider a feedback and when should I ignore it? This is what I'm doing so far:

  • If more than two people point out an error, I think of fixing it.
  • If more than three people point out an error, I immediately fix it.
  • If a person points out an error that I previously saw, I immediately fix it.

This doesn't include grammatical errors. Those are easy. The difficult part is plot, pacing, characterization, etc.

Of course, I also use logic. If a mistake was very obvious but I didn't see it, I don't hesitate in correcting it. The problem arises when I'm unsure whether it's a real mistake or just the reader's opinion. (For example, some readers don't like my parenthesis, but others don't seem to mind.)

What guidelines should I use for determining what reader feedback to implement and what to dismiss?

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    Your last line as written was inviting discussion, so I edited it to make it a concrete question. – Lauren Ipsum Jun 15 '15 at 18:24
  • Your bounty suggests that you are not satisfied with the answers to date. Can you say more about what you're looking for? – Dale Hartley Emery Jun 18 '15 at 18:22
  • @Dale Hartley Emery I didn't do it. This is the message I see: "This question has an open bounty worth +50 reputation from Mnementh ending in 7 days." That means Mnementh opened the bounty? I don't even know what a bounty is, ha. – Alexandro Chen Jun 18 '15 at 18:31
  • Ah. Thanks. I misunderstood, even though (d'oh!) it's clearly stated right there in the bounty announcement. So my question is for Mnementh, then. – Dale Hartley Emery Jun 18 '15 at 19:05
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+50

Feedback is an enormously complex topic, for everyone, everywhere, in every role in life. Some people understand that it's complex. Others do not. Avoid feedback from people who think feedback is simple.

Here are some (perhaps too many) of my thoughts.

The Briefcase Method

Charlie Seashore offers this technique: When someone gives feedback, put it in a mental briefcase. Then thank the person, close the briefcase, and leave. Later, if you want to, open the briefcase and take a closer look at the feedback. If you want to, do something with the feedback.

At all times, you get to decide what to do with feedback, or whether to do anything at all with it.

Tasting and Swallowing

Family therapist Virginia Satir said, "Taste everything. Swallow only what nourishes." I think this lovely guideline works well for receiving feedback about writing. If someone's feedback fits for you, apply it. If not, don't.

Of course, this means you have to have some way of deciding whether a given bit of feedback nourishes.

This is difficult to do when you are unsure of yourself. And if you're seeking feedback, you are to some extent unsure of something. So receiving feedback always poses that challenge. If you knew for sure how to evaluate the feedback, you wouldn't have needed the feedback.

But here's the thing. The more your default reaction to feedback is to change your stories, the less of you there is in your stories.

Only you can decide what nourishes you.

My first rule: When in doubt, trust yourself.

My second rule: Doubt.

Your Responsibility to Respond to Feedback

What responsibility do you have to respond to feedback?

None.

You are under no obligation to respond in any way to feedback, much less to apply it.

Taste everything. Swallow only what nourishes.

The Giver's Rule

The Giver's Rule says:

Ninety percent of feedback is about the giver.

Feedback you get from online writing communities comes from other writers. Writers in those communities mostly know no more than you do about writing. Feedback from writers is heavily distorted toward "rules" that they have picked up from somewhere.

One way to detect such rule-bound feedback is phrases like "you can't" and "you must." Another way: Any "feedback" about how to "fix" your story. Readers don't tell you how to fix your story. They tell you how they reacted to it.

That isn't to say that feedback from readers is unbiased. Of course it is. Reader feedback is biased by each reader's tastes.

No matter where you get feedback, you will have to sort out for yourself which parts of the feedback are about your story, and which parts are about the giver.

For more about The Giver's Rule, see my favorite book about feedback: What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback, by Charlie and Edie Seashore and Jerry Weinberg.

Judgment

Look for feedback that focuses on how the reader reacted to the story, and less on feedback that purports to be the truth your story.

Here are two statements, each feedback about the same movie:

  • Chappie was an awful movie.
  • I hated Chappie.

Both statements express judgments. The first statement is phrased as a judgment of the movie. The second is phrased as the viewer's reaction to the movie.

Prefer feedback that is more clearly about the reader's reaction.

Distrust feedback phrased as the truth about your story.

Brutal Honesty

If someone gives even the slightest indication that their feedback is brutally honest, run. Honesty is not brutal. Brutality is not honest.

How to Fix Your Story

Never accept feedback about how to fix your story. Fixing the story (if you think it needs fixing) is your job, not theirs. Anyone who tells you how to fix a story is telling you their story, not yours.

Writers tend to evaluate using writing myths, not reader sensibilities.

Reader Reactions

Prefer feedback about how the reader reacted. Especially look feedback about clarity, significance, and believability. Prime yoursel to look for the answers to three questions: Huh? So what? Oh, really?

  • Huh? "I didn't understand what was happening..." This is about clarity.
  • So what? "I didn't care." Or, "I was bored." This is about significance. What makes this matter to the characters, or to the reader?
  • Oh, really? "I didn't believe..." This is about believability.

And of course, look for (and ask for) feedback about what the reader loved. This helps to make sure you don't damage the good stuff while you fix the stuff that needs fixing.

Focused Feedback

Feedback can sometimes be more useful if you focus on a specific aspect of your work, rather than general "whatever feedback you can give me."

Pick a single, specific aspect of craft to work on. Maybe dialogue, or scene openings, or pacing, or viewpoint, or description. For your next story or two or five, focus on practicing that aspect of your writing. Then ask for feedback about that specific aspect.

Feedback About Your Work In Progress

Never, ever seek or accept feedback about a story you are writing. See my answer elsewhere.

The Next Story

Do not use feedback to fix this story, unless the feedback points out a clear error.

Use feedback about this story to write better stories in the future.

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    @AlbeyAmakiir - I'm guessing this one? writers.stackexchange.com/questions/17615/… – Neil Fein Jun 16 '15 at 0:48
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    @Kevin, good call. Sometimes I devolve into rant mode, and my advice loses nuance. Which style do you prefer? Go with that. And thank you for not mentioning the possibility that all of my advice is bunk. – Dale Hartley Emery Jun 16 '15 at 2:29
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    Very helpful thoughts, @Dale. Your advice about "rule-bound feedback" is wonderfully in tune with what I think about rule-bound writing. – user5645 Jun 16 '15 at 2:52
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    That is such an excellent answer. – Mnementh Jun 17 '15 at 13:46
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    Very good answer, but there are two points I'd like to make: 1) I think part of the art of receiving feedback is understanding how to translate it (this applies to any kind of product development). Sometimes your readers might say they would have done it differently, etc. Sure, don't just change it to whatever that person would have done, but try to figure out why they think that would make a better story. Corollary: 2) I think it's okay to use feedback to fix specifics in a story. Not necessarily clear errors, but punctual events that might work out better differently. – user2686 Jun 19 '15 at 19:04
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I assume that we are talking about feedback that you are not obligated to follow, or that does not have consequences beyond "will this make the story better". I mean like, you show the story to your lawyer and he says, "If you publish these statements about Mr So-and-so, you could be sued for libel". Or you have a publisher lined up, and the publisher says they require changes before they will accept the manuscript.

That said, you have two conflicting considerations:

One: This is YOUR story, not theirs. You are not in any way obligated to accept someone else's suggestion. If they're at all reasonable, they know that.

Two: You are not the best judge of your own work, in many ways. You know what you INTENDED to say, but others can see what you DID say.

If you're posting on a forum where you're getting feedback from random people, the odds are that some of those people are idiots. If you read some comment or suggestion and it's obviously absurd, you don't need to argue about it or agonize over it. Just ignore it.

But be careful not to fall into the ego trap. Don't take comments as personal attacks and get defensive. If someone points out a real flaw in your story, don't try to justify it. Fix it.

In general, if readers say that some point in your story is unclear, I'd take that very seriously. You may have had a very clear idea in your head what was happening, but it may not be so obvious to a reader. At the simplest level, if someone says, "I don't understand. Is this scene supposed to be happening at Fred's house or are they back at the police station now?", don't argue why it should be obvious that they are at Fred's house. Add a few words to make it clear, like, "While they were at Fred's house, Mary said ..." Of course the issue could be more complicated than that. If readers say it's not clear why the hero did such-and-such, fixing that could take more than one extra sentence.

If readers say that a section is boring or irrelevant, examine why you included it. Is it necessary to advance the story? If it is but it's boring, is there some way you could liven it up? What happens here and why?

Etc.

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I'd like to emphasize two points that both Dale and Jay make:

  1. You are writing for the reader to enjoy your story enough to want to pay money for your book. The reader is your customer. This means that the reader is always right. If the reader is unhappy with your story it is not your job to convince them that they are wrong. Your book is not an intelligence test but a product that you want to sell to earn a living. If I don't like the taste of your pizza, I'll buy my pizza elsewhere, and no amount of arguing is going to make me enjoy the taste of yours.

    Therefore, every feedback has the same value and every feedback is equally true (if the feedback is given from a reader perspective and not just recounting what other amateur writers have read in how-to books about how a story should be written).

  2. It is your book and your story and only you know what it should be. So check each feedback against your gut feeling (and not against the advice given in how-to books) and accept only that feedback that clarifies your vision for you. If fixing your story no longer resonates with you, that reader is not part of your target audience and, no matter how true, accepting that feedback would destroy your art.

    You cannot write for everyone, so don't attempt it. Have the courage not to make everyone happy.

Since you won't have thousands of test readers, don't do statistics on the answers. Just because a certain critique is given only once, does not mean that it is less valid. Maybe this reader is the only from your target audience and her critique could be the one thing that'll make all your buyers regret their purchase and give you one star reviews.

If you want to make sure the feedback you get is valid...

Make sure your test readers are representative of your target audience.

  • The bold second in your second bullet point contains a spelling error. It should be "meow", not "kmow". – Sumurai8 Jun 16 '15 at 14:40
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    Making changes based on statistics is equivalent to writing by committee. That's something that really made me wince in the question. – user2686 Jun 21 '15 at 13:49
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It is rather common for good feedback and opinion to be mixed. I can't really help you if you put it online, but if you show it to people you know well, you will be able to tell if they are giving good criticism and not opinion.

This doesn't help, but I tried

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