“Conflicting Advice”

For most of my life, I’ve considered writing to be a solitary activity. When I began studying creative writing at university, I discovered the joys and frustrations of ‘critique groups’. Then a fellow-student and I adopted each other as ‘writing buddies’. In the process of co-writing an article on writing partnerships for a literary journal, we interviewed fourteen other writers, who all told us they rely on fellow-writers for mutual support. Some people work one-on-one with a single trusted writing friend, others operate in groups of up to eight (though more commonly three to five).

One of the main ways writing buddies support each other is through providing feedback (sometimes called critique or constructive criticism) on work-in-progress. But here’s where it gets tricky. What if you don’t agree with your buddy’s feedback on your story?

Jenny writes a story and is very pleased with the climax, which she considers subtle and powerful. Her writing buddy Ryan, however, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Jenny explains the climax to Ryan, who suggests she provide a few more clues so the reader knows what’s happening. Jenny fears this will give too much away, risks telling rather than showing, and doesn’t demonstrate trust in the reader. She hopes Ryan’s missing of the point is just an aberration: on most of her target readers, she thinks, the climax will have the impact she’s aiming for.

How can she test this optimistic hypothesis? She sends the story to another three writing friends. Emma thinks it’s brilliant, and insists she mustn’t change a word. Viv, like Ryan, doesn’t get it, and Anthony understands what’s happened in the climax but is underwhelmed.

Jenny tries to analyse why her buddies’ responses are so different. It doesn’t seem to be a gender thing. It’s not that they read and write different genres: each of these people appreciates and experiments with diverse writing styles. Emma has known her the longest, so perhaps Emma’s knowledge of Jenny as a person has helped her grasp and enjoy the story.

What should Jenny do next?

  1. Send the story to some more people, and keep monitoring reactions. She’s running out of writing friends, but maybe she should just find people who belong to her target market. There are potential problems here. She may end up with even more conflicting advice. Non-writers may feel ill-qualified to ‘judge’ her work, and may tell her it’s great out of politeness. Or tell her it’s not great, but be unable to articulate why not. And what if her sample ends up equally divided between thumbs-up and thumbs-down? How’s she going to feel, and what’s she going to do?
  2. Look for an expert who can tell her definitively whether the story ‘works’ or not. Unfortunately, as William Goldman once famously remarked in relation to Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ The most experienced agent or commissioning editor will sometimes completely misjudge what the readership will accept, understand, and embrace. Anyway, opportunities to access genuine expert advice on a specific story are rare and usually expensive.
  3. Send the story to market as is. After all, there must be people out there like herself and Emma, who’ll get the story straight away and love it. On the plus side, this is one way to get expert advice. If Jenny sends the story to a magazine, the editor may either publish it (yay!) or send specific guidance for a rewrite or to inform Jenny’s future efforts. Sadly, the chances of receiving such feedback from an editor nowadays are slim: it’s usually just yea or nay. If it’s nay, Jenny may have spoiled her story’s chances with this editor. And the story could be tied up for a long time waiting on that fairly unhelpful nay, unless Jenny has chosen a publication that allows simultaneous submissions.

I don’t have an answer for this one – do you? What would you do?

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Andrea Baldwin

About Andrea Baldwin

Andrea Baldwin teaches creative writing and business writing, most recently at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia. She has published fiction, poetry, travel articles, feature stories, reviews and academic papers, and has been a street press editor and sub-editor. Andrea holds PhDs in Psychology and Creative Writing and a Masters in Drama. She lives in a house full of notebooks and can never find a pen.