Who Knows Best What’s Good or Bad Writing?

Recently I applied to join a writers’ group. I didn’t particularly want to join the group. I already meet up fairly regularly with three fellow writers who offer mutual support and constructive criticism.  I always find our meetings extremely useful and I doubted I wanted to commit to anything more.

The reason I applied was out of curiosity.  No, to be totally honest, it was vanity.  Acceptance to the group was conditional upon approval of your work.  You had to submit a sample of writing, up to ten thousand words, which the group would then vote on.  Moreover, you would receive feedback from the members who were, judging by their publicity flyer, a pretty illustrious and industrious lot.  They met fortnightly and only accepted writers whose work lived up to their lofty criteria and was deemed to be of near publishable quality.

What would this group of serious writers, who knew nothing about me or my novel, make of my writing? And would I make the grade?

I sent off the first two chapters of my novel and a couple of weeks later I received an email forwarding the comments of nine of their members.  What did they say?

Here are a few snippets.

‘This is very accomplished writing.’

‘The writing needs a lot of work.’

 

‘It’s certainly a page turner.’

‘I didn’t find the writing gripping.’

 

‘I felt very secure in the fact that the author knows where this story is going and will reveal to me exactly the right bits of information at the right time.’

‘We have not enough information to understand the irrational leaps the narrator takes.’

 

‘I felt as if I was being invited into a very weird world, full of strange, indelible imagery.’

‘All the characters are cliché stock characters.’

 

‘There are some minor quibbles, the majority of which wouldn’t stop it being published.’

‘It does not yet meet the criteria of near publishable standard.’

 

‘Loved it. Negotiating disturbing ideas while navigating through life’s absurdity and emptiness. Brilliant scenes. Fantastic.’

‘Not convinced by the story unfortunately.’

 

Okay….

The one thing that could be said of this group’s responses was that they were magnificently at odds with one another.  What on earth was I to make of this?

The email informed me that the vote was split right down the middle, fifty/fifty. To be accepted I had to receive a majority vote. In the light of this split I was neither accepted nor rejected, but invited to re-submit having edited my submission ‘in line with our suggestions.’

But whose suggestions?  Whose opinions was I supposed to give credence to?  Those who liked the work, or those who did not?

Some of the criticisms I was able to dismiss straight away.  One reader, for example, objected to the use of the word, ‘coloured,’ as racist and offensive.  I agree with them, but the novel is set in the seventies when the term was commonplace and racism was rife. I’m not going to sacrifice authenticity for the sake of contemporary sensibilities.

Other criticisms gave me more food for thought: inconsistencies in the narrative voice; too much happening too quickly.  Hmm maybe.

I rather wished I knew who these readers were (they were all anonymous) so that I could make some kind of judgement about them.  What kind of writers were they? What kind of people? Whose opinions were likely to be ‘right?’

This, of course, is the big issue when seeking feedback on creative writing. What is the ‘right’ response when it concerns something so subjective?

I am coming to the point now, nearing completion of my second draft, when I am going to be looking for feedback on the novel as a whole. Most writers have at least one trusted reader or editor who looks over their work. What I’ve learnt from this exercise is that, interesting as a ‘blind’ response might be, it’s not necessarily all that helpful.  It’s important to choose your readers wisely.

I have mine all lined up (in my head at least -I haven’t actually asked them yet!). I’m not interested in flatterers who are going to tell me everything’s great. I want people to be honest, brutal if necessary. But I also need people whose opinions I trust: people perhaps whose own writing I admire, or whose opinions on other people’s work I broadly agree with.  Not necessarily people with the same taste as me, but who are in tune with what I’m writing.

I will listen to their feedback as open-mindedly as I can. I envisage making many changes in the light of what they say.  In the end, however, it’s up to me what advice to accept or discard. And, later, when it comes to submitting to agents, I will remind myself that each response is only one opinion and that, in the end, the person who knows best has to be me.

The original Bloomsbury Group

The original Bloomsbury Group

This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Who Knows Best What’s Good or Bad Writing?

  1. Claudia,

    This couldn’t have been more timely-you are in my head! I entered my first chapter in several “first chapter” contests over the summer. The feedback was similar to yours- all over the place. But there were several consistent remarks which I grabbed and made substantive changes as a result.
    I’ve recently joined a writing group-the first to take a stab at critiquing my completed first draft. I enter our sessions with dread, to be honest. I’m still not entirely certain of my group as readers or writers. Some of the feedback feels more akin to “If this were my novel, this is what I would do” rather than approaching the story and my writing on its own terms. I’m seeking out beta readers from among those who have shown interest and corresponded with me via my blog, as well. Virtually anonymous criticism seems a little easier to stomach.

    I wish you such success, in the search for readers, in receiving their feedback and as you seek publication. Thank you for sharing your concerns, doubts and determination here. Your words hit home. It’s a relief to know we do not struggle in vain, nor alone.
    Best wishes,
    Julie

    • claudia says:

      Thank you Julie. I’m glad this struck a chord.

      There’s nothing worse than somebody telling you what they would do with your novel. Ugh.

      I actually think it’s of great benefit to your own writing to learn how to CONSTRUCTIVELY read and criticise other people’s work. So writing groups can be really invaluable in both giving and receiving feedback.

      I hope you get the feedback you need and wish you lots of luck with your writing too.

  2. Jan Hopper says:

    “Who knows best?” I found this very interesting, not least because it is a question I often ask myself (obviously, not in relation to writing a novel but …..). In my own everday life I often want second opinions, different perspectives, a fresh pair of eyes…… maybe a clearer head than mine but finding such an objective person is almost (note: I said “almost”) impossible. Like you, I don’t want flattery, I don’t want easy cop-outs, I want honest, thoughtful, sensible truths…………. which may sometimes dent the ego but the truth still gets the higher priority. So what am I saying? I guess that I am saying two things: ………….no-one is immune from the opinion of others (no matter how ridiculous those opinions may be) and unless an opinion comes from a valued source ………….. well, it is about as useful as a chocolate teapot ! So maybe feel comforted (or not – the choice is yours) that in writing, as in many things in life, there are no definitives – “one man’s meat… ” and all that. My own philosophy is to value and appreciate the opinions of perhaps 5 or 6 people………. the rest……….. well (a shrug of the shoulders). 🙂

    • claudia says:

      Hey, thanks Jan. I hadn’t thought about it, but I suppose this is true of life generally. I probably pay less attention to what people say about other things than to what they say about my writing, which probably means I’m more secure in other areas. It’s great, though, when you find people you can trust and value.

  3. Claudia, I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Look for my ping on Monday!

    Versatile Blogger Award info:
    http://versatilebloggeraward.wordpress.com/vba-rules/

    Cheers, Julie

  4. Andy Wilson says:

    Claudia,

    Sounds a bit like trial by jury! But at least they didn’t tie your hands and throw you into a pond to see if you floated or sank.

    The wide range of responses suggests some of the people reading your work just didn’t ‘get’ you. Most likely their literary tastes were in something different and hence the value of their feedback is debatable. I’d suggest that unless they’re able to overcome their personal preferences and simply assess your work on its technical merits, their opinions don’t count for very much.

    In response to the question you pose, can I throw out another: what is it the writer needs to know? The terms ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are just too large, too general. In my own case (novel first draft completed, currently at first edit stage) I’m concerned about things like coherence, character credibility, pace, timing (particularly to do with information necessary to the reader) and that really tough one, page turnability. But I’d seriously doubt I’d get constructive feedback on all of those from any one person, or even one group. For character credibility I’ve been asking a trusted friend. She has good reviewing skills and won’t pull her punches if something doesn’t sound right. On some of the more technical issues I might eventually approach a writers’ group, but if I do, it will be a group operating in a similar genre, and which hopefully is made up of writers who are targeting similar audiences.

    On the reverse side, I think I could only offer constructive feedback to other writers if they wrote in a genre already familiar to me. I read thrillers mainly but I’m fussy. I don’t like discrepancies in the narrative and I expect the detail to be spot on. Most of all, the story has to be credible and the characters real. If I was reviewing someone’s first or second draft, I’d want a clear brief as to what I was supposed to be looking out for. I’d aim for constructive feedback, would never say anything like “All the characters are cliché stock characters”, but instead might suggest that character x needs some quirkiness that makes them stand out from those in the stock character catalogue.

    I’m good on the technical side: if I read a book or watch a film, I’m quick to notice stuff that doesn’t fit with the laws of physics or best practice. If I see someone in a film putting on a tourniquet (to stop bleeding), I immediately think, that’s bollocks: you apply pressure directly over the wound. A tourniquet’s only useful in certain specific cases, like amputation. These are the details that make or break a film or book. They always jar.

    Perhaps there is scope for a reviewers’ group within the ranks of those posting here?

    • claudia says:

      Ooh, I fear those readers with all the technical knowledge! I have a scene, for example, in my novel where someone is siphoning petrol out of a moped to put in their car and I’m not one hundred per cent sure it’s accurate.

      I agree it’s much more constructive to specify areas of criticism than simply to use terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ But, I do think it’s possible to give useful criticism to work outside your own genre. Sometimes a comment a little left of field, from someone unfamiliar with a genre’s conventions, can be quite astute.

      I suppose it’s all a question of sifting through the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism!

      • Andy Wilson says:

        When I’m confronted with something like your moped scenario, I feel I have three choices. One is to find a way of getting the details right, for example asking a friend who is knowledgeable about such things. With a moped it’s probably possible to access the fuel quite easily, but always worth checking.

        The second of my solutions is to re-write the piece in a way that eliminates any potential technical inaccuracies.

        The third is to eliminate the piece altogether and find a way of achieving the same result with something different.

        For me, resolving issues like that always brings peace of mind, which I think probably benefits my writing in other ways. If it’s niggling at me, it’s a distraction I don’t need.

        The tourniquet scene I referred to was in ‘Heat’, a 1990s film that received widespread critical acclaim. It was one of the very few inaccurate details in what was otherwise a particularly slick film. Perhaps most viewers didn’t care but given the budget of $60 million I thought it was pretty sloppy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*