How Do You Handle Conflicting Suggestions?

I belong to a fairly large critique group here in Florida, and I’m always amazed by how diverse the comments are about a piece of work. We usually critique two pieces during the meeting. We receive (via email downloads) the work a week before we meet, giving everyone a chance to read the two pieces and write down (or use the track changes and comment features in Word) their reactions and suggestions. Generally the pieces are no longer than 3,000 words.

When we do meet, each person present is allowed to give his or her critique with the author remaining silent during this time. When everyone present has spoken, the author then speaks, either defending certain decisions or answering questions posed during the critiquing session.

The members of this group vary in their writing and publishing experience, but all are readers, and, of course, it’s readers a writer always wants to reach. Reactions vary from “Love it, love it, love it,” to page after page of suggested changes. I often worry about the newer or less experienced writers in the group. How do they know which suggestions to heed and which ones to ignore?  And, will they become discouraged if given a large number of conflicting suggestions?

I do think the group is great training for a writer. It’s a preview of how different editors, reviewers, and/or readers may react to a piece. It shows, even though one editor (or reviewer) may reject a piece, there’s a good chance others will love it.  No matter how hard we try, we’re not going to please everyone.

The difficult part for a writer, especially a new writer, is deciding what suggestions (or praise) to listen to and what to ignore. (One thing I’ve learned is no matter how many people praise your work, it’s the negative comments that stick in your head.)

So what is a writer to do?

  1. Make sure you belong to a critique group in which the members truly want to help you improve your work. (The one I belong to is like that.) Sadly, there are some people who enjoy tearing others down. That’s not going to help you.
  2. Listen to all comments. If several members are questioning the same thing or suggesting a change, consider it. If something’s not working for several people, even though it’s clear to you, you may need to add some information. A simple rewrite of that section may resolve the problem.
  3. Ignore the comments that come from members who don’t seem to understand your basic idea or the parameters of the genre. And ignore the praise from your relatives and best friends, unless you truly trust them to tell you the truth.
  4. Take a day or two after attending a critique session (or receiving a critique) before you look at the piece again. Let your subconscious work on the suggestions. Then read over the notes you took or received regarding changes. What do you think now? Can you see their point? Will rewriting something make the story better? Stronger? Or do you still feel your version is best?
  5. Trust your gut. If you know, for your story, what you wrote is how it should be, either grammatically or plot wise, then that’s how it should be. Editors (and readers) are always looking for something a little different. Perhaps your story will fit the bill.

Remember, it will be your name on the cover and title page. You are the writer. Believe in yourself. It has to be your story.



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18 Responses to How Do You Handle Conflicting Suggestions?

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    More Great Advice. Sometimes though we have to put it aside for our vision. It is hard to do because even after we get published, there are people who love it and those that don’t. Sometimes I read the reviews of famous authors like JK Rowling. They are love and hate it types and it makes me feel like I’m doing okay.

  2. Nancy Gideon says:

    Great post, Maris! Critiques are a valuable tool . . . once you know how to use them. I never had a critique group or partner in the beginning (didn’t know any other writers!) and looking back, those books could have used another set of eyes. Now, I view critiques the same way you describe above, the same way I apply research: Take in as much as you can and use what best serves your work. Opinion is opinion. Sometimes more than one person has a valid point but as the author, it’s up to you to determine which suggestions can improve and/tighten your WIP and which simply change it. It takes time and experience to know what advice to take and which to nod, say thanks and ignore as not in the best interest of your work. Always be gracious, listen, don’t argue or feel you have to defend your reasoning to the critiquer, consider what they’ve said and use what strengthens your view of what you want to write.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Nancy, that last bit you added is very important. Even though I may not agree with a critique, that person is trying to help me make the book the best it can be and deserves a thank you.

  3. Good advice, Maris. The responses we get from critique groups can vary so much that I sometimes wonder if we’re reading the same pages. But I always listen because somewhere in there is a nugget of perception that could help me improve my work. A reader’s reaction is always worth listening to even if it’s entirely negative.

  4. I don’t have a critique group but see how this could be beneficial. But as you say, we need to be true to our own vision.

    • Maris Soule says:

      The longer we write, the easier that becomes, which is why I worry about the new writers who haven’t discovered their vision. Thanks for the comment, Jacqueline.

  5. Diana Stout says:

    Yup, all good advice. Dealing with vast opinions I recently received on a backcover blurb for a cookbook I’m getting ready to publish. The comments have me really looking at my audience because, ultimately, that’s who I need to be targeting.

  6. Sharon Ervin says:

    Thanks, Maris. Being acquainted with your fellow critiquers is helpful. Some want specific kinds of heroes and heroines and try to bend the personalities of yours to fit their preferences. It’s good to know your group. Your observation that helps me most is delaying a review of the material for a couple of days, which helps me be more objective. Sometimes harsh critiques hurt my feelings, however, sometimes those provide the most “meaty” information. It’s hard to get impartial about my own work.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I agree, Sharon. Initially I want to tell the person giving the harsh critique that he (or she) is wrong, but after a few glasses of wine and a couple days of mulling the criticism over, I usually see the comments in a new way. Or not. Sometimes the critiquer just doesn’t know what she’s talking about. LOL

  7. Lucy Kubash says:

    Good advice! I always say you have to trust your characters in fiction and stay true to them. If someone suggests they do something you know they wouldn’t do, don’t try to force it.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Lucy. Sometimes readers want characters to act/react in a way different from how the writer has the character acting. I know there are some characters I dislike, but that’s the character the writer created and did so for a reason, so that’s how they should act, whether I like it or not.

  8. Carole Price says:

    I’ve been with the five authors in my critique group for years and don’t think I would be published without them. Their comments, positive or negative, open up new ideas to help improve my book. We meet every week, have lunch, no rules necessary, just good exchange/advice/fun/news. We celebrate holidays and birthdays. Good solid friendship.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Carole, that sounds like a fantastic group. I’ve belonged to groups like that (and they really have helped me), but each, over the years, has disbanded for various reasons. I’m about to join a new group. Fingers crossed.

  9. Diane Burton says:

    Great advice. I love your #4 about taking a day or two and returning to look at the comments (or your notes). I do that after a critique or edits. Listening to people who want to help you is right, also ignoring those who just tear down others’ work. Consider the source.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Diane. Time away from a piece always helps me see it with new “eyes.” Also, even though I might not be aware of it, my subconscious is playing with the suggestions that were made, and I usually come up with something that will make the story better.