Your Story, Their Opinions: Tuning Out Subjective White Noise

I’m at the point in my current story where I’m almost ready to turn it over to let some folks read it. Some folks who aren’t me.

And I’m shaking in my boots. (Rain boots, as it were, since I’m pretty sure The Ark is going to float by my window any moment…)

I always get really nervous at this point in crafting a novel. Why? Because I know the opinions are about to come flying at me at 900 miles an hour. But I’ve learned a thing or two over the past few years, so no matter what, I’m ready.
The art of crafting a story is definitely just that–art. And art is subjective.

20 people read the same book: 5 will think it’s the best book they’ve ever read, 5 will think it was “okaaaaay, but…”, 5 will say they didn’t even finish, and the last 5 will rip it to shreds and find every single reason to hate it–just because.

Subjectivity at its finest.

Subjectivity is the combination of someone’s opinion with their circumstances (are they in a good mood or did their cat just die?). It’s their own preference combined with their life experience.

No two people are ever going to look at art the same way–whether it’s a book, a painting, a song, or one of those weird statues made of garbage. Some will love, some will hate. That’s just the way it goes.

So when you turn your manuscript over to inquiring eyes you’ve asked to read it, consider the following: you will get what you’re asking for.

So what do you do when you have opinions flying at you from all different directions? How do you weed out the opinions that might help and kill the opinions that might hurt? How do you stop the white noise from destroying your story?

Tuning Out the Subjective White Noise

1. It all starts with the eyes–and the eyes you choose matter. When you are an unpublished writer who doesn’t have an editor on speed-dial and your story is in the pre-published stage, it’s very important to get feedback on it. You need to know what you’re doing right and where you need some work. So the most important thing you can do is choose valued readers who can help. Valued readers are the ones who have knowledge you need: Critique partners, writer-friends, people who are familiar with your genre of writing, your agent, paid critiques, etc.

Notice who I didn’t put on that list? Mom. Not that I don’t think Mom should read it–she should. But her opinion is less valuable to you because, let’s face it, she’s going to tell you it’s wonderful no matter what. And her opinion, while good for your spirit, should be considered part of the “white noise.” Also in the white noise category? Your best friend. Your buddy at the gym. Your spouse. The chic in the Mommy&Me group who doesn’t really read but promised that she’d read yours. The point is, when picking readers, be picky. Choose people who have opinions that will add value to your story. And remember that your story is in the early stages so keep the number of readers at a reasonable level–do you really want the whole world reading it before it’s been tweaked and polished to perfection?

2. Prepare yourself. A story is like a child to an author. You’ve named it. You’ve nurtured it. You’ve loved it through good times and bad. So when someone offers an opinion (good or bad), it’s very easy to take it personally. Before your turn your story over to be read, prepare your heart. Pray about your receptiveness to what is being said. If you’ve chosen quality readers, the opinions you get will hold more weight, so you need to be ready to hear them with an open mind and an open heart.

3. Swallow your pride. Although your story is like a baby and you think it’s perfect–it’s not. There will always be opinions that will say you should change or work on certain things about your story. Subjective, yes, but be willing to make changes if they need to be made. There’s no point in soliciting opinions if you aren’t willing to make changes.

4. You are the author of your story–why is this an easy thing to forget? There are some who love nothing more than to put their own touches on your work. At this stage of your writing game, that’s not their job. They may make suggestions about things you should change, but be confident enough in your story and its lesson/point/essence and your own writing ability to know what to change and what to keep. If you aren’t careful, you can let someone else makeover your story until it’s not yours anymore.

5. In order to be strong with #4 above, you have to know the essence of your story. You have to be connected with your own message and voice. In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain talks about the importance of understanding the “feeling” of your story. The feeling is yours. The feeling is what drives your characters and your plot. And the feeling is what shapes the writing rules you use. If you are in tune with that feeling, you’ll know what suggestions will work for your story and what won’t.

6. Be strong enough to say no. Just because someone suggests changes to your story doesn’t mean you have to make them. However, keep in mind that if you’ve chosen the right readers, suggestions they make should be worth looking at because hopefully they will only improve your work. Learn to balance suggestions and your story’s feeling.

7. No one has power over your story but you. You are the only one who can make the changes you need to make and you are the only one who understands the feeling of your story. Therefore, you are the only one who can decide what works for your story and what doesn’t. Anything that doesn’t work for your story is white noise. Any opinion that removes the essence of what you are trying to convey is white noise. Any person who tries to make your story into theirs–white noise.  Anyone who takes away your unique voice–white noise. Value those opinions that begin by valuing what you are doing with your work.

We’ve all gotten good & bad feedback on our writing. It’s what we do with that feedback–how we react to it and what we change within our writing that crafts our stories and molds us as an author.

Get ready. It’s coming. But you and your story can both make it through.

Share with me: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in a critique? What’s the worst?


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12 responses to “Your Story, Their Opinions: Tuning Out Subjective White Noise

  1. I'm excited to read your books, Jenny, even if it's after they're for sale at Barnes and Noble. I'm happy to hop in the long list of hopeful beta readers, too, though. This is such a constructive list…I need to save it.

  2. These are excellent insights, Jenny. I especially like #5 where you reference Dwight V. Swain about understanding the feel of your story.As for me, I would recommend that a pre-published author make sure they are truly ready for critique — for feedback of both the "this works" and "this needs reworking" type.(OK, looking back you didn't really ask that question, but I'll let that part stay because I think it's important.)The worse piece of advice I ever saw was one I watched being given to another member of my critique group. A gal in the group came in and basically said "I got back at you" to the person she'd critiqued.That is lousy motivation for a critique.

  3. Colleen- Glad I could help! And I do want your eyes on this one–SOON.Beth–that's horrible!! I hope that poor writer in your group reacted appropriately and didn't destroy her own story by making changes someone had put in there for vindictive reasons! That fits this post perfectly–you have to know where you stand with your story before you let the critiques get out of control.

  4. Jennifer, I know I'm not answering your question with my comment. But I wanted to thank you for your post. Yesterday was a rough day for me. Being reminded of #'s 3, 4, 5, & 6 will help me tackle today!

  5. Wisdom here. The best and worst critique I ever received was when a multi-published author offered to read the story I was working on. I was blown away by the offer, excited and terrified. She changed my life. Well, my writing life. :0) I learned so much, learned there was so much I DIDN'T KNOW, but also learned I was doing a few things right. I totally agree, you must pick and choose your readers very carefully. I don't put much stock in those who will read through a manuscript and tell me it's wonderful. I'll take that comment when it's on the shelf between pretty covers! Before it hits my agent's desk, before she sends it out to editors, I want the truth. I want someone who will read, mark-up, slash through, whatever needs to be done to make that story shine, BEFORE it leaves my computer. A good critique partner is hard to fine, but invaluable if you have one.

  6. The best piece of advice I've received was from an editor who described something as "emotional whiplash." That term made so much sense to me (in context) and helped me improve a problem I kept running into.

  7. This is an awesome awesome post, Jenny. Love all your points. Agree with all your points. It's a good reminder for us both as writers, and as critiquers! We need to respect the writer's voice and the essence of the story. It's not ours. It's theirs.

  8. What an awesome post, Jennifer!The best advice I received from my CPs was that my story had a sagging middle. I'd just rewritten 75% of that story and didn't want to hear that 50% of it still needed work, but that was the best advice they could have given me. I heeded it, rewrote the middle, and ended up with a far better story.

  9. Good points. I'm not at the critique stage yet but I want to be prepared for it. Thanks for sharing.

  10. i quake in trepidation sending my story to my critique partners. yes, we're friends, but we shoot straight with each other. i know i'll get honest feedback. just got some today, as a matter of a fact, and i'm THRILLED! (Thanks KATIE!)

  11. Love getting your best & worst on here to share! Hopefully the insights will help us all!It always helps to have a fab-o critique partner, doesn't it, Jeannie?? 🙂 (Katie rocks. Hard.)

  12. I'm so with you. It seems a lot of people think of writing like assembling a piece of furniture – read the instructions, follow the rules. But it's art. And sometimes art breaks the rules to make a point. Really great art stands out because it's different. I think in their quest to be publishable, a lot of writers lose their sense of art. I guess the question is, do you want to create a one-of-a-kind painting or a more approachable poster print? There's room for both, but you better know what you want and never lose sight of it.Simple enough. Ha!

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