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I joined a writers group that meets every three weeks. I submitted the first eighteen pages of my work and also sent the same file to a publisher at AuthorHouse.

The writers group had varied opinions including I need more identifiers because the characters sound the same. I don’t think that they do. I was told to simplify my language and reword certain passages. I was told that I use that too often (4300 occurrences in nearly 300k words).

However, my cousin remarked that I used the word unremarkable four times in one paragraph (I asked him if I used that too often).

The gentleman at AuthorHouse told me nothing disturbed his immersion and he wants to read more. He said he always knew who was saying what and to whom and that good writers use minimal identifiers. He also said that writers groups can end up confusing writers as their purpose is to tear it apart looking for mistakes. Not to worry.

How much weight would one give the critique? I know it is feedback and completely optional.

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    Why did you join the group if not to receive the criticism? The group is there to tell you where to improve. Even if the text is reads well, the writing can often be improved - there is a lot of criticism on writing of Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, for example. And I would really appreciate if some writers group travelled back in time to tell Victor Hugo to cut the rambling on unrelated stuff. – Džuris May 21 at 21:23
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    I do want to polish my novel, but some changes suggested would materially alter the tone and voice of it. In one case, I refer to the suspension of a vehicle as ‘hardly stock and tuned for high performance ‘ and they suggest I change it to ‘beefed up’. – Rasdashan May 21 at 21:36
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    Were there any suggestions from the group that you found valuable and are willing to implement if time permits? – IMil May 22 at 3:56
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    @Džuris I realize that your examples are meant to show how this criticism can be useful, but they show the opposite to me: you don't need to listen to it to be successful. – Jasper May 22 at 8:50
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    OP, this isn't the point of your question, but I'd really steer clear of AuthorHouse. It's part of the Author Solutions web of companies, and they're very well known for offering a lot of services that are quite expensive and offer little value. See e.g. 1, 2. (It's no surprise to me the AuthorHouse "editor" is mostly reassuring you the book's ready to go.) – Standback May 22 at 19:38
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First of all, as a simple metric, your use of the word 'that' is 50% higher than my own (I have 930 occurrences in 100K words.) I've tried to minimize 'that' in my writing. It's one of the words that can be pruned out in revisions without losing meaning (like the word 'just')--and as a side benefit the pacing of the writing is often better.

And, as another note--there are questions on this SE that look at the values and pitfalls of writing groups. Basically, writers' groups come with pros and cons. To my knowledge, there are no questions that ask whether the feedback from writers' groups is generally more or less reliable than that from publishers.

But to answer your question, here are a few points to consider:

  1. Authorhouse sells a service. This calls their feedback to you into (serious) question. As a service provider, they have zero reason to tell you that your work could be better.

  2. Writers' groups are variable, and yes, they focus on finding the weak spots rather than the strengths. Go to a different writers' group and you will have a different set of responses. Some responses may overlap, and this will start to point to a pattern in your writing.

  3. Some individuals in these groups tend to focus on the 'thing' they are currently mastering, such as echo words or character voice. A woman in my group is currently focused on whether she feels the emotion or not, in my excerpts. This is her feedback, routinely, because she is focused on emotion in her work at the moment. The reason this is valuable is because she will pinpoint areas where I might actually be able to increase emotion--areas I'm blind to, and she spots them like she was born to do it. The feedback you've received may be considered along these same lines.

  4. Some writers' groups coalesce around a certain style of writing. Thrillers, or cinematic, or literary, or women's, for example. You can either find the group that matches the story you are telling, or find a group with a more diverse set of participants, or learn to weight feedback accordingly.

  5. Every single person's feedback is unique. Broadly speaking, as groups, family often provides kind feedback, fellow writers are more often technical and craft-focused, service providers want your business, and non-writer readers (especially those whom you do not know) will be all over the board in regards to how they read your story. They may not know the difference between first and third person narrative, for example, or have a grasp on viewpoint.

  6. Good advice is to take any critique that resonates with you and allow the rest to fall by the wayside.

  7. More good advice is to find a reliable set of critique partners that you trust, and whose feedback is helpful, for the long haul. Finding these people takes a while. Through writers' groups is one way to go about it.

  8. More good advice is to take the critiques you get, let them sit for a while, come back to them some days later and see if they makes sense once the initial sting of them has eased.

  9. More good advice is to read craft books, and books in your genre, and ask yourself how your favorite authors accomplish certain effects, and whether you are accomplishing the same through your own style. Certainly some authors repeat words within paragraphs although I don't recall seeing a memorable word like 'unremarkable' four times within a paragraph. I'll occasionally repeat a word, or a paragraph style, intentionally and for effect but I trust my critique partners to tell me if it works for them. (ex: She hated the look on his face. She hated his piggy little eyes screwed up in judgment. She hated the pink flush on his cheeks, and she hated the way his chin quivered into itself whenever he spoke to her. She hated his sweaty hair, his sweaty forehead, and his ridiculously sweaty neck. But most of all, she hated that he made her feel completely and absolutely inadequate to the task.)

That's obviously repetitive, to make a point. It might work or there might be a better way to convey her feeling in this moment. If you are repeating the word 'unremarkable' to make a point, it's different than if you are repeating it unawares. A writer should be aware of their writing, and every sentence should have a purpose and be written intentionally.

As a final and unsolicited thought, 300,000 words sounds to me like a very long book, and it sounds as thought this might be a debut for you? If you are self-publishing, first of all I congratulate you, but second of all I do wonder if you can shorten it downward to your benefit. 300,000 words is a lot of pages, and this translates into cost to print, and a potential customer might decide to pick up a 100,000 word book instead because the print cost is more manageable for their pocketbook. You'll notice that many hefty works of fiction are not an author's first book, but instead come out after the fan base is established.

Edit: I forgot to say something about character voice until I read, enjoyed, and +1'd the other responses.

Character voice can be made distinct in many ways. Through dialog, action tags, adjectives/adverbs, narration. Try (1) a dialect, (2) different euphemisms, (3) quirks of word usage.

Try using the occasional (4) adverb or (5) said book-ism or (6) description of style of speech, limited to a single character at a time, to make their normal dialog come across as given in a particular way.

ex: She quipped, or she said with the snark she was known for, etc.

(7) I've seen authors characterize speech through observation. Gatsby says that Daisy's voice is 'full of money.' It colors how the reader 'hears' Daisy.

Try (8) using action tags like She waved her hand airily as she spoke to convey a certain voice.

Reading with an eye to this sort of thing opens up possibilities, and there are craft books that get into every nuance of writing, too.

Have fun with it.

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    Granted, though I contacted this individual upon the recommendation of a fellow local author who told me he helped her make her novels perfect and ‘was not an idiot’. Editing is one service they do provide. – Rasdashan May 21 at 18:01
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    I will divide it into at least two if not three volumes. – Rasdashan May 21 at 21:20
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    Quick count: This post contains 15 "that"s in about 1000 words... – Darrel Hoffman May 22 at 13:31
  • @DarrelHoffman :) Maybe 1.5% is what creeps in when I'm not paying attention. I'm with Amadeus, in fiction prune them out wherever it makes sense to to so. – DPT May 22 at 13:48
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    @DarrelHoffman And after a quick count--Amadeus has 8 instances of 'that' in his ~500 word answer. I see a few that can be pruned out in both of our answers, and others that cannot be. I don't bother contorting words to get rid of 'that' because then you bring in other issues. (Some people say to avoid verbs in their *ing form, for example.) But for unneeded cases of 'that' -- I axe them when I see them. (Unless it is a dialog quirk!!) – DPT May 22 at 14:13
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Ironically, you are basically asking another writer's group by posting here!

In general, writing should be tight, and not repetitive. Using "unremarkable" four times in one paragraph might be warranted if the point is to use it for emphasis. But every place you can eliminate connective words like "that" or "the" you should; it makes the text easier to read, and cuts the word count, and that cuts pages, and that helps sell the novel or make room for better pages; if you have written 4300 "that"s, you have 21,500 characters of it, about 14 pages of just "that". Surely if you got rid of half of them, you can think of something better to do with the 7 pages saved.

About the only time you need a lot of identifiers is if you have a lot of people talking. In two-person alternating conversations, you only need to help the reader keep track of who is talking occasionally. Personally, I do NOT recommend using language quirks, to me they sound unnatural. I have heard some in real people, but when I do I find them irritating after some time; I don't want to write that into my novel. Nor do I want to write accents.

The thing that reading groups can give you is harsher criticism, which is both harder to give and harder to take. They can tell you, for example, "Here is where I quit reading." Or "This sounded completely unrealistic," or "This part does not seem in character," or "It makes no sense this person agrees to this plan so readily."

One thing regular people can be expert on is whether the decisions and statements made by your characters feel like they make sense. Failure to make sense to the readers is a big problem, it jerks them out of the immersion of reading in order to figure out what happened.

One cause of this is the author assuming they have implied enough for the reader to figure it out. That's bad writing; your job is to assist their imagination, not force them to use logic to figure out what you are saying.

The other thing you can take reliably from regular people is by asking them where they got bored with the story. Getting lost or getting bored are things you want to avoid like the plague. (Getting lost will quickly lead to getting bored.) The book is supposed to be entertainment, not homework and not a logic puzzle. They want to be led by the hand through the story, with descriptions and conflict (people dealing with problems) from beginning to end.

For all other style questions, they are just telling you how they like to write, and even if they are successful and published, it doesn't mean you need to write like them.

  • Ironically perhaps, there were at least 3 points in that answer where, for my mental ear, the test was crying out for an additional 'that'. – Spagirl May 22 at 10:07
  • @Spagirl But were they necessary? "That" is a functional word that just gets over-used. That can create a pattern that the reader may find distracting. WAIT, let me rewrite: "That" is a functional word, but often over-used. It can create a pattern the reader may find distracting. Not only is the rewrite fewer words, but by avoiding the word 'that' I think I end up with a stronger passage. It isn't necessary. The same will be true of the word "Then", it is a crutch for action transitions, and the passages usually get stronger if we strive to eliminate "then". – Amadeus May 22 at 10:51
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The first thing you need to realise is that the advice from AuthorHouse needs to be taken with a very large grain of salt - they are a vanity press which expect you to pay to have your book published, unlike the more traditional publishing houses. Therefore it is in their benefit for you to stick with them, regardless of the quality of your book.

Not everyone at a writers group will be helpful - some authors can be very invested in what they consider the right way to do things, which can make them much more critical than an average reader. However, if multiple people are mentioning similar issues it's probably worth trying to improve it, and overuse of certain words can be very jarring even to a casual reader. Fundamentally you want to write fiction that people will want to read, so people's responses to your writing are important.

If even a minority of readers genuinely can't tell who's speaking a particular line of dialogue then that's a big problem.

This can be fixed without adding too many identifiers, by carefully considering whether a character would actually say the dialogue you've written. Each character should be coming into a scene with their own aims, mood and personality, and these things should show up in their speech. It's possible your characters are too uniform in their opinions, that there isn't conflict or disagreement between them, or that they all seem to socialise and communicate in the same way. Be particularly careful about this in exposition scenes; it's possible to be so focused on what needs saying in a scene that you essentially come up with the dialogue then distribute it across the character in the room.

Even if you end up adding loads of identifiers they can be more interesting than "x said" and "y said." Combine the dialogue with descriptions of body language and facial expressions to indirectly attach a character name to a line. For example:

Joseph stopped typing and stared over at Alice. "You can't seriously be suggesting what I think you are."

If the writers group isn't helping you write then don't feel you have to keep going - it's meant to be for your benefit. However your writing is not perfect, and probably never will be, so be wary of people telling you it is, and make sure you're not dismissing critiques out of hand.

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Every reader's opinion is valuable to a degree, though some carry more weight than others. If several people in your critique group are giving the same feedback, there's probably something to it. If it's just one person, then it depends.

A critique group is not like a regular reader (or even a beta reader). You need time to get to know them, and them you. You will figure out who has a bug up their bum about certain words (so you can ignore that if no one else cares) and who can go inside a section that never felt right to you and pinpoint exactly where you need to untie the knot.

Some people offering critiques can be totally off about some things and dead on about others. One person in my critique group comes up with the craziest stuff sometimes, stuff that makes me and everyone else roll their eyes, then other times he just nails it in ways that no one else saw.

If your work is accepted for publication, fantastic. But it doesn't mean it's done. The acceptance comes from the promise. The next step after you sign a contract is editing. That's when they'll get into the "thats" and the "unremarkables" and all the other stuff that may need some tweaking.

This is true for a traditional publisher. I had never heard of Authorhouse, so I assumed that is what they were. But no...as DPT points out, they're a printer and author services company. In 2016 they claimed they have "published over 70,000 titles by 50,000 authors since 1997." On their website they say:

AuthorHouse has helped authors publish more than 100,000 books over 22 years. We put you in charge of your publishing path, helping you every step of the way.

These are similar(ish) numbers to Penguin Random House, which publishes 15,000 new titles a year...but they have 250 imprints and 12,500 employees. Authorhouse has 163 employees. They sound like a solid company to help authors self-publish (without doing all the work themselves) but don't confuse them with a publisher who evaluates manuscripts for potential success and provides top notch editing services.

My suggestion is that you keep going to the critique group and see if their advice evolves into something that is helpful to you. It's not even about if it's right (though that's a good thing) but if it's something that can help you in this stage of writing. If it's not, ask if they can give feedback on other levels, or focus on things you find problematic. If it's still not a fit after 2-4 tries, then find another group.

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Some writing groups are awful and shouldn't be giving advice. I'd be more considerate of my fellow writers' critiques if they were successful teachers with students who had been published and/or people in the industry: other writers who have been published, agents, editors, etc. At the worst, it would be great to be in a group of writers who are keyed into what's going on in the industry and understand how to be effective instead of being focused on their personal pet peeves. It's very difficult to get into a quality writing group; but if you suspect their information is off base or capricious it probably is if they can't explain the why behind their comments.

If applying their advice to any part of your story doesn't measurably improve the quality of your work, then it's likely not worth it. And, frankly, if they are mostly worried about things that editors worry about then they likely are looking for problems instead of really understanding why your story is or is not working.

This is not to say all writing groups are bad. There are more bad members of writing groups than there are bad writing groups. But, you can't think just because a group of people got together that they know what they are talking about. You can find lots of groups around you that you totally disagree with that have nothing to do with writing. Why would writing be any different?

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