Seeking opinions is dangerous to your sanity

We all seek opinions about everything, every day, either at home, school or work. We ask friends and family, we ask acquaintances on Facebook or other social media. Do you like this? What should I wear? Is that movie any good? Did you like this book? What kind of person is Joe? Was my report useful at the management meeting?

Of course, right now, the entire US is engaged in the largest mission of opinion-seeking there is – who do we think will make the best President. I think we are training ourselves that polls are of no value when both candidates are 1% apart with a 3% margin of error.

But this post isn’t about politics. I hear a sigh of relief. This post is about writing.

Throughout the process of writing our book, especially after the first draft, we begin to solicit the opinions of others. Creatives are by nature paranoid and insecure. Are we writing a pile of poop that no one will want to read? Our work represents months, often years of our life. We need opinions – we can’t complete it in a vacuum.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of soliciting certain groups:

  • Family: Often the easiest to ask since they are right on hand. They love us, they understand our egos. They will be gentle. But that’s the problem: They are inherently biased toward telling us that everything is great – they love our book.
  • Friends: Some friends will act just like family and sugarcoat their opinions. True friends should have the guts and enough mutual respect to tell us the good and the bad. There’s a hidden minefield here. They may understand when we ask for a brutally honest opinion, and they may deliver it, but somehow our brains fritz out when we hear tough criticism from a friend.
  • Writer’s Group: Now we are getting very honest, objective and useful opinions from others that are traveling the same road. They understand the craft, they understand the pitfalls, they’ve studied markets and genres just like we have. A good writer’s group operates on a covenant of mutual assistance: I help you make your book the best it can be, and you reciprocate. Fantastic. But… and you knew there was a but… writers can be overly picky, get deep in the weeds, feel the pressure to offer highly technical and detailed critiques. Many things that a writer’s group obsesses over, a reader will never notice. Often it can be easier to copyedit a piece with lots of mark up, than to step away from the pen and offer big picture opinions. Are the characters progressing? Is the pacing right? Is the suspense building or flopping?
  • Beta Readers: Coupled with a writer’s group, now you have the best of both worlds. Readers won’t be as technical (though practiced ones can be), but won’t get caught in the weeds of the craft. They represent the “end-user” so their opinions should carry considerable weight. Don’t expect detailed critiques, but even a simple note at the end of each page or chapter can suffice to teach us a phenomenal amount. “I skim-read it, it bored me”. “I couldn’t wait to turn the page.” “Susan just wouldn’t behave that way.” “The ending was flat.” “OMG, Frank was just so horrible but I really admired Jane’s strength in dealing with him. I clapped and cheered when she pushed him over the cliff.”

We won’t talk about reviewers, since that is a completely different kettle of fish (and sharks).

So all these opinions are great, right? We can get constant feedback about whether we are on the right path. If it passes the writer’s group, and passes 2 or 3 beta readers, then I have a bestseller on my hands, right?

Er… no. But you knew that. You might have gathered a handful, maybe a dozen opinions along the way. How representative is that of your audience? Likely, many folks in your writer’s group don’t even read your genre. Beta readers will have their own bias. Just as we ask ourselves, how accurate is a CNN election poll that asks 30,000 people against a population of hundreds of millions; so should we ask ourselves are we seeking opinions from the right people, and enough people.

By now we should have all accepted the truth that we can’t please everyone. We won’t even capture most of them. It all depends on your own definition of success. If 1 million people read your book, yet 90% of them disliked it, how much would you value those 100,000 fans? As an optimist, I call that a success, though the percentage tempts us to believe the opposite. All we are after is a core set of readers that like what we like. We must put opinions into perspective.

Here comes the reason for the title of my post. Chasing accurate opinions will drive you insane. How do I know? I just went through it.

Just a few weeks out from publishing my first book, I began to solicit opinions on my cover, on my blurb and hookline. What we’re looking for of course is a consensus. If I ask 20 people and 15 people agree, I have to assume that is representative and I can relax. Those are great odds. What I found were clusters of people sharing an opinion, but no clear leader. Stalemate! So I asked more people, seeking clarity. More opinions, more dilution of the majority, more insanity. I have to find a way to know which opinion is accurate! Who else can I ask?

Luckily, I stopped myself before my brain exploded. The problem was that I had written my best blurb and hookline, and worked with an artist on a superb cover, and expected everyone to agree. Not likely. Once I restructured the question in my head, everything became clear. Intuition tells me that I had crafted the materials to best represent my book. All I need to be sure of is that everyone isn’t unanimous AGAINST that. I won’t please everyone. I just need to ensure that I am pleasing SOMEONE(S).

Am I saying ignore opinions? Absolutely not. I have changed many decisions due to the opinions of my friends and family, and my book would be much weaker without my awesome writing group. What I am saying is weight them against their contained bias, and against your own intuition. You be the arbiter, don’t expect everyone to make the decision for you. That way lays madness.

Ask yourself the simple question: Am I being stubborn against an overwhelming trend of opinion? If the opinions are mixed – that’s ok. Embrace it. As long as you have been diligent at putting forward your best, be grateful you are pleasing someone. A mixed opinion amplified by billions of readers worldwide, could still net you a wonderfully diverse readership.

Have you agonized over trying to please everyone? How do you handle it when opinions vary from awful to awesome?


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