There is a whole lot of writing advice out there in the world that deals with the nuts and bolts of writing and story structure and character motivations. If you spent your time reading all of this in preparation to write your novel, you’d probably never get chance to even write your first sentence; you’d never start writing. However, as a follow up to my last post on whether or not we can be bombarded by ‘too much writing advice‘ I wanted to also add in some thoughts about beta reading and more specific feedback based on our own writing.
Once we’ve absorbed as much of the generic writing advice we can and we’ve put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and actually written something, there comes a time when you need to share it with the world. You’ve done all you can on your own and tried to apply each piece of advice that you could identify that is relevant. Then, you ask someone else to read it.
And a whole lot of new problems appear…
They might not like your main character. They might really enjoy your writing style but think the first chapter is a little too introspective. They might find your action stilted and jarring. The might get bored by repetitive actions you didn’t notice you’d given to your characters. They might even highlight some terrible grammatical errors that you’ve made which (you now realise) can completely alter the meaning of the sentence you wrote.
Forget all the generic writing advice – here you now have a whole list of things specific to your own writing. These are things you have control over, that you can change and improve. So you sit down and get to it. You correct all those things that were pointed out to you and feel like you’ve made a difference. You send it off to another reader, awaiting for the brilliant comments that you feel must be on their way to you.
But, wait, this reader has a selection of other comments to share, some of which totally contradict the last lot. Characters are now too stereotypical and ‘perfect’; scenes are too much action not enough explanation; vocabulary is too complex and it feels like you’re been trying too hard…
Right about now is when we writers feel completely overwhelmed by confusion and woe. We are aware that we can’t please everyone all of the time, but we so hoped that we would be able to please at least two or three people – people we’d picked out to help us, to guide us with their reading talent and help us improve our work.
Beta readers are feeling just the same. They want to help you write your book so much that they can over-comment on things that don’t really matter to you as a writer. Sometimes, when our beta reader is another writer, they might highlight where they would do things differently. Occasionally, they might just want to say something to get you thinking because they don’t understand that you’ve already considered all of this and want to lead you down a path they don’t think you’ve been down before.
Everyone involved in writer-reader relationships at the revision stage of a novel wants to help shape the story. But it pays to remember that YOU ARE THE WRITER. This is YOUR STORY. Other people would approach it differently, describe characters with various other habits and have things happen in an unconventional order. What makes this story unique is that you are the one writing it – it’s not a collective effort: it’s your effort.
When you receive those comments from people who have read your work, understand that it is their opinion and nothing more. It is no better or worse than your own opinion – is shouldn’t unduly affect your decision to have your manuscript written in a particular way. You should only take on board those things that you feel could really help you write your novel. Everything else is just chaff. If you were to make alterations based on every suggestion made by any one who reads your work, then you wouldn’t be writing with your own voice or telling the story you set out to tell.
Once again, if you spent all your time trying to ensure that everyone enjoyed your novel and wouldn’t change one thing about it…well, this time you’d never stop writing it.
Advice is a wonderful thing, but that is all it is: advice. It is not instruction. It is not a command. And, more than anything, it is not meant to confuse or overwhelm or destroy us. It is a gesture, and it’s up to us whether or not we turn that gesture into action.
As Robert Frost once said:
“Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”
Now that’s advice.