Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Benefit of Multiple Opinions

by Annette Lyon

I've said it many times: The single best thing I ever did for my writing was get into an excellent critique group. It gives me the feedback I need to know whether I'm getting close to the mark or whether I'm totally off track.

As you seek feedback, keep one very important thing in mind:

Don't rely on one opinion.

Feedback from one person isn't enough, no matter how good the writer, no matter how experienced or excellent they are.

Here's why: Writing is subjective. There isn't just one right answer. Surrendering to one person's opinion might not be the best way to go.

What if you relied so heavily on one opinion that you overhauled your entire manuscript . . . only to discover after the fact that your book was actually better before your massive revision?

Or what if your original manuscript did need a big revision . . . but in a totally different direction than your only reader suggested?

My critique group is composed of published and award-winning writers who know their stuff. But even they sometimes disagree about whether something should be changed or whether a story element is working. While I usually take their advice (they are frighteningly good at what they do), I've ignored suggestions from every single one of them.

Usually (but not always) that's when the group is split on an opinion, and I take the majority's view to heart. But what if I had only gotten one opinion? What if I relied so heavily on one person that I missed out on the (even better) insights I could have gotten from others?

If you don't have a critique group like mine, don't panic. You still need outside feedback, so seek it out. Just do so from multiple sources.

For example, attend writers conferences and writers meetings, such as local chapters of SCBWI, RWA, and other organizations. Network with other writers and exchange contact information, then swap manuscripts and critique one another.

Go online to find online writing support groups. Many offer critique exchanges. Don't worry that you don't know how to give a good critique; you learn how by doing it. The more you read with a critical eye, the better you'll get at offering helpful advice and at finding weak spots in your own work.

When you're ready, consider having a professional look at it (like one of the editors from Precision Editing Group).

Just be sure to give your work out to multiple sources for feedback. If one source suggests major surgery, hold off and get a second opinion before putting your book under the knife. If sources #2 and #3 agree with #1, then maybe your manuscript really could use some time on the operating table. But what if #2 and #3 agree with one another . . . in disagreeing with #1?

You'll never please every reader, and you shouldn't try to. But the more eyes that look at your work, the wider the perspective and opinions will be. That means your chances will go up that you'll hit closer to the bull's eye with what you're hoping to achieve.

And isn't that every writer's goal?


Anonymous said...

I have to say that I wrote a short story that was about a very mature women's topic. Two experienced writers, both older mature women, who read it really got it.
A third, also very gifted writer, a young mother in her thirties, did deeply appreciate it, but needed more explanation, more connection between two parts of the story.

Then I sent a one-act play out and, after making it to the final stages of the competition, got the three anonymous judges' reports back with the rejection. They graded it on plot, dialogue, wild card, etc.
one gave the dialogue the highest marks, another a low mark, the third, a zero! And so on down the line. All three very different responses to my work.

It's a jungle out there. A writer needs to listen,and also consider the source and who is therr audience. And, she/he needs to still trust their own instincts for the story.

Kimberly said...

Great advice, Annette. I have three different readers giving me feedback on my work in progress, and it's so fascinating. At times they disagree, but wow...when all three point out the same problem or the same thing they love? Such an incredible experience.

Heather B. Moore said...

Definitely trust your instincts. Also, definitely get more than one opinion before making a major change. I remember a friend submitting a book written in 1st person to a publisher, when the publisher suggested switching it to 3rd, he gave the publisher a list of books that had been published in 1st person. Following his instinct led to a successful book. (Now you know what I'm blogging about tomorrow :)

Tamra Norton said...

A little over a year ago I was invited to participate in a "critique wekend" with about 8 or 9 other writers from SCBWI groups across Texas. It was an incredibe experience. About a month before the weekend we exchanged the first 30 pages of our manuscripts with everyone, then our entire manuscripts with 2 others we were assigned to.

For the weekend we stayed at a B&B, and had group sessions where we went over everyone's 30 pages for about an hour each, and 1-on-1 sessions with the 2 that read our entire manuscripts. It was a LOT of work to get the editing done before the weekend, but when it was all over I felt like I had a gold mine with the stack of critiques these talented writers had offered me.

That manuscript was my quickest acceptance from my publisher (it was accepted within a few days of e-mailing the editor the manuscript) and the editing procedd AFTER acceptance was so much easier than any of my other manuscripts.

Yeah--lots of perspectives are great!

Keith Fisher said...

Very good advice. Having more than one opinion is great because (In the case of my writer's group), each reader tends to have pet peaves and while one is focusing on adjectives, another is focussing on grammer. It gives me a more complete view of things to fix. That being said, I have noticed times when all five of them will focus on the same plot hole. I know then that I need to change it.

Still I agree that a writer needs to nake the final determination because often, I have recieved suggestions that if used, would change my voice as the writer. so I work to say it in a better way that is still in my voice.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Agent George Nicholson of Sterling Lord Literistic says, "It's important to be your own person. Too many novice writers are uncertain about their skills and pay too much attention to what others say. While it is important to listen to what others say, trust in your own instincts and judgment."

Pink Ink said...

Annette: Yeah, it helps when more than one person points out a way to improve an ms, then you know you have to fix it...

Tamra, sounds like a great way to make a manuscript solid.