Recently I received back reader reports, or peer review, of an unpublished manuscript. This is part of the writing process that allows me to get honest feedback prior to publication, which I can then use to revise the manuscript as needed or anticipate the kinds of criticisms the book might receive after publication. Getting feedback is an essential part of writing. I firmly believe that a manuscript that has not been read by someone else is not ready to be submitted to a publisher. As more authors turn to self-publishing, getting feedback serves an even greater function, since the system of feedback, fact-checking, proofreading, copying, and just plain narrative critique that is built into the traditional publishing model is absent when an author decides to upload their own work to a retailer for publication and sale.
But, as much as I know and value this part of the writing process, it is also always agonizing. Anonymous feedback has a tendency to be more critical. That’s useful for me as a writer but gut-wrenching for me as a human being. It’s never easy to craft something into life, pour your heart into it, and then hear someone tell you how terrible it is and how much more work it still needs.
In the case of the manuscript in question, I receive two conflicting reports. One thoroughly enjoyed the work and had a few suggestions to tighten the narrative. The other reader did not fundamentally buy into the premise of the story, and so they left extensive commentary on where my writing fell short, where things didn’t add up, and where they checked out. In cases like this, with such differing opinions, what is a writer to do?
I don’t think it’s advisable to make it a habit of disregarding a more critical or negative reader report. “They just didn’t get it” is an easy way to dismiss legitimate critique that could make my writing better. Only focusing on the positive feedback and revision suggestions from the more glowing review would be easier, but I might miss the opportunity to really improve the writing and reach out to other audiences.
At the same time, it is very easy to ignore the positive review and dwell in the misery that someone, even if only 50% of my readers, had criticisms, and to exaggerate those criticisms into unproductive negativity: “They hated it,” “it’s a terrible manuscript,” “it’ll never get better, so I should just give up on it.”
The reality is that I will never write a book that pleases all readers. And that’s not my job. My job is to write something that is convincing, that the readership I want to enjoy it will, and that is written to the best of my ability. In the case of this particular manuscript, I can see where the more negative reviewer is right. I’ll need to make those changes to make this manuscript viable. But I can also see where they are just not the market for this book and probably were not an appropriate reviewer in the first place. Understanding how to accept useful feedback and reject feedback because it is not appropriate to the project is an important part of learning to be a good writer. It’s agony, but mastering it is part of the process.
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