I’ve been reminded once again that it’s not possible to please everybody, and trying to do so is more likely to result in pleasing nobody. The most honest feedback you’ll ever receive is from a stranger who has no reason to protect your feelings, and that’s why online critique groups can be helpful and hurtful at the same time.
Imagine you’ve written your best chapter ever, at least, the best in your eyes. You put it out there for strangers to critique and then question why someone picks it to bits and tells you they hate it. First reaction, shock? Second, hurt? Then you ask yourself why you asked for someone else’s opinion; you’d already decided it was your best chapter ever, so what did you have to gain from requesting feedback?
It’s natural to want endorsement, but if that’s what you want, the best place to get that is from your nearest and dearest; those who saw how much effort you put in, how many drafts you rattled through and how much you need confirmation that it’s great before you can put it aside and get on with another incredible chapter.
Strangers won’t tell you it’s incredible, mostly because they won’t think it’s incredible; especially if they’re writers who have their own unique voice. I discovered this a few years ago. I realised that it’s natural to question writing that’s in a different style to the one you’ve spent years fine-tuning. However, that doesn’t mean that’s the only permitted style.
After working with a much smaller group for a while, as part of my studies, I’ve just returned to my online critique group. The first chapter I shared was Chapter One of a novel I’ve been working on as part of my MA in Creative Writing. After an endless number of drafts and several edits, this chapter was formally assessed and graded very highly. In my online critique group, the first person to review it wrote almost as many words as the chapter, pointing out all the things I’d done ‘wrong’ and all the things they didn’t like about my characters, settings and plot. A lot of the ‘rules’ I had broken are not chiselled into stone or scribed in blood, they are preferences, personal preferences. This wasn’t my initial reaction though. Beyond shock and hurt, my initial thoughts were tinged with self-doubt. I considered deleting the chapter so nobody else could see what a dreadful story I’d written; luckily I didn’t do anything more radical than sleep on it.
Drawing on past experience, I reminded myself that you can’t please everybody and I was just unlucky that the first person to comment fell into that category. I still had a shadow of self-doubt, naturally. Then I received two more lots of feedback almost back to back, followed by two more, all majorly contradicting the first one. Sure, they had a few suggestions for things I could do differently, and I’m glad because that’s why I shared it in the first place. On this occasion it wasn’t about endorsement, I’d already received that through my assessment grade. Requesting feedback at this stage was about smoothing a few rough edges and making sure I hadn’t weakened it with the minor changes I’d made based on my tutor’s feedback. I’ve certainly got something to work with, and realised that one of my changes (timing) created an inconsistency—ever seen a sunset in England at 11pm? Whoops! I’d best fix that little blooper 🙂
I’m now ready to share the next chapter, but this time I’m not planning to read any feedback until I have at least three reviews—power in numbers, right?
So remember, just because one person doesn’t like what you write, it doesn’t mean it’s rubbish, it just means it wasn’t to their taste. If possible, try to consider if they are your target audience; chances are they’re not!
Above all, believe in yourself and use your judgement. After all, it’s your story.