May 2020: Rolling with the Punches

One of the most important parts of writing for an audience is soliciting and responding to feedback. While your own opinion of your story is obviously important, never forget that if you’re writing for other people, that their ability to engage with your writing is what determines a story’s quality. Soliciting feedback is what allows you to understand what works and what doesn’t, what can be improved and what can be expanded on. Effectively responding to feedback is a sure way to improve your story, and improve as a writer in the long term.

It can also be an immensely frustrating process.

Ultimately, feedback is a reader’s personal opinion. That means it’s a representation of what the reader feels. This is what makes it so useful as a gauge of how effective your story and your writing are, but it also makes it feedback difficult to parse and respond to. Feedback can be vague, it can be contradictory, it can be counter-productive or seem to demand some concession or solution which you can’t or are unwilling to entertain. Like any kind of public opinion, it should neither be blindly followed or ignored. Feedback should be considered in the context of what your story is trying to achieve. Only then can it be effectively used to improve a story.

When it comes to processing feedback, it bears repeating that all feedback is valid, but not all feedback is actionable. While anyone presenting you with feedback deserves to be listened to – assuming they’re not being outright abusive – whether their feedback should be acted upon is up to the judgement of the writer, which is to say, you.

Reader feedback is significantly more effective in pointing out problems than offering solutions. As members of your intended audience, beta readers are qualified to determine how a character makes them feel, or when a plot element needs reworking or clarifying. However, they are not the writer. They do not possess the same inside knowledge of your own setting, characters, and plot elements that you do. Their suggestions regarding how a story might be improved may or may not prove useful since they are necessarily operating on an imperfect understanding of what your story is meant to achieve. Ultimately, you are the only arbiter of how your story should change in response to feedback – or even if it should change at all.

Determining whether a piece of feedback is actionable or not is a process that requires, above all, a firm understanding of the objective the character or plot element being critiqued. I’d go so far as to say that without knowing what kind of reaction you want a character or plot element to elicit, you won’t be able to tell the difference between feedback you should address and feedback you shouldn’t. If you don’t fully understand what a character is supposed to do, then you obviously won’t be able to know when you’ve succeeded and when you’ve failed. If your beta readers’ feedback to your character or plot element that implies that they feel the way you want them to feel, then you’ve succeeded, even if the reader themselves think that you’ve made a mistake: your story is ultimately your creation, and if your reader disagrees on how your story should go, you are under no obligation to change it, especially if it already does what you want it to do.

Of course, there are times when this isn’t the case: when a character that should be likeable gets seen as repellent, when a major plot twist comes off as contrived, when the plot just doesn’t seem to make sense. This is when you need to step in and consider possible solutions. If you successfully communicate what you want to the reader and they don’t like it, then it’s the reader’s preferences which are to blame. If the reader fails to comprehend what you’re trying to say, that’s a failure of communication, and it’s on you, as writer and communicator, to resolve the disconnect.

That being said, just because feedback successfully identifies the problem doesn’t mean it can successfully deliver a solution. Feedback serves to deliver an outside perspective on whether what you’re doing is working or not, but your beta readers will still lack the perfect knowledge of your story and characters which you (hopefully) possess. Second opinions are great for pointing out mismatched windows or badly fitted doors, but you’re still the one with the blueprints, which means you are the one best equipped to choose the best solution to the job.

There is also a third type of feedback, one which may not tell you if a given character or plot element has succeeded or failed outright, but might offer opportunities of its own. This is when characters and plot elements bring up unexpected reactions from your beta readers: a minor character could prove surprisingly popular, a plot twist might lead to a split between how your readers see it. A good writer should seize these opportunities when they can, the same way a builder might choose to run a road through a valley instead tunnelling through a hill: the work is already half done for you, why not use it to your advantage? So long as it doesn’t clash with your ultimate objectives in telling your story, there’s no reason not to at least try to use that unexpected feedback to your advantage: give that surprisingly popular character an expanded role which lets them move the plot, adapt that out-of-story debate among your beta readers into an in-story one, with both sides believing themselves in the right. Use the feedback you receive not only to fix the problems in your existing work, but as a way to tell your story in new and interesting ways.

One last note. Whether you choose to act on feedback or not, it’s always a good idea to communicate with your beta readers. If you plan on making changes, tell them about it. If you don’t, explain your reasons for doing so. Not only will that reassure your beta testers that their feedback is being listened to and taken seriously, but it will also give them a better idea of what your intentions are. The end result should be a group of beta readers who are not only more confident in submitting feedback, one which is more capable of submitting better feedback as well.

Mark Brown at Game Maker’s Toolkit very recently uploaded a video discussing more or less the same topic, but from a game development perspective. I’d highly recommend checking it out. He touches on many of the topics I’ve talked about here, and it’s certainly a good watch.

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