Getting the Most Out of Readers’ Opinions

Omg, I love it!

When you ask the opinions of others on a piece of your writing, whether it be fiction or memoir, I think all writers secretly want to hear “OMG, I loved it!” followed by “Don’t change a word.” I get it. Your soul is on the page and you want to hear that it’s worthwhile. But it’s unlikely to happen because:

  • You asked for comment. Because you asked, people generally feel they have to come up with something helpful. So, the idea that the universal opinion will be of perfection is doomed.
  • Everything can be improved. I know you know this but it can be a different thing when people get specific and figuratively kick your baby. But to access possible improvements, you don’t actually want an omg, don’t change a word response (yes, I know you do emotionally—I’m talking to the other side of the brain).

Handling the opinions right

In the last post, a feedback session on your novel didn’t go well for either you or your friend, Marina. Let’s reprise to see if we can make it more satisfying for you both.

Marina: I liked the premise a lot.
You: Thanks, good to know. You’re not giving the impression that there is a right interpretation the reader should pick up.
Marina: Your main character—I started disliking her— she was so ruthless. Unpleasant surprise. Youwere going for determined not ruthless.
You: Really? In what way? Ask for info rather than trying to get the answer you’d prefer.
Marina: Well, that dirty trick on her old boss—that seem-ed pretty mean.
You: So, is it that incident which made her seem ruthless? You are getting data on whether it’s a trait of the character.
Marina: That was probably the worst but generally, she seemed pretty hard- nosed. So, for Marina, it is.
You: Was she unsympathetic as a character? This is critical.
Marina: Funnily enough, even though she was ruthless I kinda wanted her to succeed. Pay dirt!
You: So, being ruthless didn’t make you want to stop reading about her? Which is the main issue.
Marina: No, I wanted to see where it was going to get her.
Marina may well have other views which you handle in the same way.
You: Marina, thanks. You’ve given me a lot to think about.
Marina: Happy to do it. It was fun. You can probably ask her for other readings.

Post-feedback

You’ve gotten Marina’s opinion without overlaying your own views.

Having said that, you may not be all that happy with it. You really didn’t want to portray a ruthless character and you’re still unsure what to do, if anything. There is some good news:

  • You don’t have to accept her opinions. Reading is such a personal thing because people bring their own world view to it. Getting her true view is important but you can decide whether or not to revamp based on it.
  • You can ask others for comments. It is entirely because reading is so personal that you need a range of opinions. If all opinions say, ‘ruthless,’ it should give you pause but you may still want to stick to your vision. In later posts, I’ll discuss more on this.

The important thing when asking for comments is to up the chances you get the true views of the reader. Whether you change the manuscript based on them is a different issue.