Do you pay more attention to the messenger than the message?

I read this post today over at Seth Godin’s blog and it started me thinking. Seth is talking about companies who react to the squeaky wheel but don’t fix the problem. I wonder how many of us react to feedback about writing or any other endeavor. Do we react to the message or the messenger?an assortment of tools

The situation

In life we get feedback from all kinds of places. At work we get our performance review, at school we had grades. I think it’s also about which people become friends with us. It’s as simple as this. We want something and we either get it or not. If we get it, that’s positive feedback, if we don’t that’s negative feedback.

For an author feedback comes from beta readers and critique groups before you publish and from reviews after you publish. The way to improve your chances for getting good reviews is to listen to the feedback. Oh, and if you are not asking for feedback get it. Look on line for groups if you can’t find writers in your area.

Critique groups, finding the balance

This is a group of writers – they are going to read your manuscript as if they were readers and then give you feedback from a writing craft point of view. Sometimes you need to try out a few groups before you find a critique circle that works for you. It doesn’t have to be all writers in your genre, it doesn’t have to be all published writers. It does have to be people who will give you honest feedback – preferably respectful but honest is the no.1 criteria.

Listening to the messenger is about feeling like you need to justify what you wrote because the person giving the critique must not understand.

Listening to the message is about putting aside your feelings and deciding what information you need to improve your work.

An example: I write mysteries – and other genres – and I would often get the feedback, “obviously this person did it because X”. The group was usually wrong and that made me happy. I was tossing a red herring in and I’d done it well. If I was listening to the messenger, I might have tried to argue them into realizing that they were wrong.

Beta readers

This is a group of readers – they can be authors too – they read your work and give you specific feedback on character, pace and interest, or whatever you ask them to give. These people should be fans of the genre because they need to assess your book against the genre conventions.

An example: Your paranormal romance gets feedback that your vampire should be a werewolf.

If you find yourself thinking that your reader doesn’t get your work, you’re listening to the messenger. You’ve chosen people who read the genre, so they should know what they are talking about.

Listening to the message means that you want to know why the vampire is coming across as a werewolf. Are you making him too forceful? Does your story need him to be that way? Should you rewrite?


These are tricky because the previous two groups are there to support you in making your book better. Reviewers may have other agendas. My guess is 95% of the people who review your book are giving an honest opinion. That other 5% may be trying to game the system. I think it’s pretty obvious and easy to find out if that’s happening – check out if they have given other reviews.

Let’s talk about the 95%. You have a choice here. If you are getting a spread of reviews between 1 and 5 stars, your book is probably good. Some people will love it some people won’t. If you are getting a lot of 2 and 3 star reviews and the comments seem consistent, you might want to fix the problem.

Listening to the messenger here is getting into an argument – on the review, on your blog, on other blogs, whatever. Listening to the message means you consider what the reviews are consistently saying. Do they find your character hard to like? Do they find the pacing slow?

Try to be the type of writer who listens to the message, not to the messenger.