When It Gets Crowded in the Revision Cave

Recently a friend asked me whether she should address the concerns of a beta reader who had clearly missed something in her novel that everyone else got. This started me thinking about the challenges in revising a story when you’ve received critiques from many different people, particularly when their comments contradict each other.

We’ve talked a lot at Publishing Crawl about revising your novel on your own and with editorial letters, but what about earlier in the process — maybe before your book even reaches agents or publishers? I am a big believer in beta readers and critique groups, and I participate in an amazing writing group. Almost every piece of fiction I have written has benefited from the sharp insights of other writers who tell me what’s working and what needs work, and call me out when I’m being lazy. If you’re fortunate, there will be a consensus, a clear sign to what you should focus on, but often there’s very different feedback from everyone, and it isn’t at all obvious who is “right” about your story. Now what?

First and foremost, it’s your story, so you have to follow your instincts. That said, you do have to be open to the possibility that you can make it even better by listening to suggestions you may not immediately agree with. And always remember that you can’t make everyone happy, but that isn’t the point; you’re trying to figure out how to make the story as good as it can be, which should also be the goal of your critiquers.

My record for critiques on a single piece is probably around twenty, for some of my short stories at the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which is where I developed my process for juggling feedback and planning a revision strategy. Whether I have seven or 17 critiques, my first step is to read through everyone’s comments and my notes from the crit session, jotting down the key points and organizing them into four categories:

  1. I totally agree with this comment and I will definitely do this
  2. I disagree with this note, but they’re probably right, so I’d better fix that
  3. That’s very interesting, I’ll keep that in mind
  4. Nope

Although here I’m focusing on what needs to be improved in the next draft, make sure you’re also noticing the good stuff, which can show you where your story is on the right track, as well as give you an ego boost that is likely sorely needed about now. This is the stuff you don’t want to break when you’re fiddling with everything around it — which can easily happen, especially if you’re trying to follow every suggestion you received.

Once you’ve listed everything out, categories 1 and 2 should give you a pretty clear idea of what changes to make in your revision; however, sometimes you will get two or more recommendations that are  incompatible, and you have to choose one. Assuming you don’t want to settle for the fastest and easiest fix, you should consider what makes the most sense for your characters and their story, and what fits with the rest of the feedback you’ve received and strengthens what was already there.

You can also consider the source of the feedback: For example, if you’re writing a YA novel, you might weigh criticism from other YA writers or readers more heavily than feedback from someone who rarely reads YA or doesn’t enjoy it. (Their perspective is still valuable and probably shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but they may be unaware of some of the nuances of your particular genre.) Or certain readers “get” your work or connect with your story more than others, so they have a better idea of what you were trying to accomplish.

Once I have a sort of road map of the changes I want to make, I usually dive in and start editing from beginning to end, in a linear order, layering in changes as I go. Of course every edit ripples throughout the piece, so the more time I can spend focused on and immersing myself in the story, the better to keep it all in my head, and ultimately put it on the page. I’m also keeping in mind some of the criticism that I am less sure about, or even some of those “nopes,” because as the story changes, they might make more sense or I’ve become more receptive to them. As I change the story, I feel more free to take it wherever it needs to go. If I take it too far or it doesn’t work, I can always revert back to the previous draft!

When I first started revising this way, it sometimes felt like I was writing by committee, and I resisted taking too many suggestions from others. Whose story is this, anyway? But if you’re committed to telling it in the best possible way, so it will reach the most readers, getting lots of feedback from many different perspectives is incredibly helpful. Don’t forget that every reader is different — just look all those wildly differing reviews on Goodreads! (No, don’t.) In a way, they’re all correct, because reading is such a personal, unique experience. And so is writing. In the end, you decide what your story will be, and you’re the only person who can write it.

Everyone’s writing and revision process  is also unique! So, how do you reconcile varying feedback from multiple readers?


5 Responses to When It Gets Crowded in the Revision Cave

  1. Mandy Nov 25 2015 at 9:59 am #

    I’ve faced this same dilemma. One beta reader loves an aspect of the book while another hates it or feels it doesn’t work at all. I tend to look at suggestions as a whole and see where patterns emerge. Of course, writers always have something they will refuse to change until an agent or publisher forces it. But even after a book is published, you’ll have night and day reactions to it (ala Goodreads). In fact, in one day I received a rating of 1, 3 and 5. In the end, writers just need to trust their gut instinct.

  2. Chris Bailey Nov 25 2015 at 10:32 am #

    I’m working through this issue. Sometimes beta readers point out important issues that you need to fix. Other times the novel gets tased by overzealous beta readers. My favorite piece of advice–and I wish I could tell you what author wrote this, but I’ve taken it in now and made it my “rule”–is that you should pay attention when the critter says something like, “this section doesn’t read true to character,” or “this confuses me,” or “why doesn’t the character react more strongly?” but ignore the advice when the critter says, “Right here, Brad ought to answer, “Up yours!” The point: questions and criticisms about action sequences or character development or plot tangents can help you strengthen the story; specific editorial recommendations are a form of rewriting, and take your story away from you. Best wishes to us all!

  3. lisa ciarfella Nov 27 2015 at 3:13 pm #

    So, in my workshops at school I used to dread the feedback, since most of my class mates and even professors are not into my crime fiction genre at all. But, I learned the hard way to find “my audience” even though it meant scouting out outside writers groups in addition to and totally not affiliated with my school.
    You just have to do that if you want decent feedback. And, if you don’t want your ego totally crushed constantly!

  4. Rowenna Nov 28 2015 at 10:23 am #

    One thing I remind myself (and encourage my students to consider after peer review!) is that a beta reader or CP’s *suggestion of how to fix something* might not be right, but the fact that they stumbled or had an issue in a section means something. It might not be what they “diagnose” as being wrong, and their correction might be totally off base, but if they have a moment of “huh” in the writing, it means that I as a writer have to pay closer attention there and work out how to make the writing clearer, the plot tighter, the character truer–whatever.

  5. Virginia Anderson Jan 6 2016 at 11:16 am #

    Chris, you’re right on as far as I’m concerned. I’m especially grateful for comments that tell me where readers get confused. After all, I know what’s going on; why shouldn’t everyone else? Not. It’s far too easy to miss those moments. I am also alert to queries about how characters behave. “Why in the world would she do that?” is a very useful question that provokes a meaningful examination of motive as well as of how I actually see my own characters.

    I love the post but also like your additions!

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