How to Get the Most From Critiques

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How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby disgruntledpeony » Mon Nov 25, 2019 7:17 am

I see discussions on giving critiques far more often than I see discussions on receiving them, so I thought it might be prudent to talk about how I analyze critiques once they’ve been sent to me. I should note that these tips are not meant as the be-all and end-all of how to process a critique. They’re simply the methods that work best for me. (If you’re looking for tips on how to give a good critique, RSchibler did an excellent job of discussing the topic in Reigheena’s Revision Tips & Tricks thread.)


1) I strive for politeness and professionalism.

I feel it’s just as important to be professional when receiving critiques as giving them. My critique partners put in the effort to read my story; they deserve to be treated with respect. Full stop.

I will admit, there are times when professionalism can be difficult. I can only count the number of occasions where a critique made me genuinely angry on one hand, but it’s always a trial to figure out how--or if--I should respond under those circumstances. (It’s particularly difficult for me to manage politeness if I feel like I’m being critiqued as opposed to my manuscript.)

If someone sends me a critique that makes my hackles raise, I put it away, sleep on it, and see how I feel about it the next day. If I can let it go without comment, I make every effort to do so. If I still feel the need to discuss my concerns or frustrations with my critique partner after taking the night to think it over, I do my best to ensure said discussion is polite and respectful. (My rule of thumb, whether giving or receiving critiques, is that I try to think about how I would feel about the messages I’ve written before I hit that send button.)

2) I get feedback from multiple people.

I try to get feedback from a mix of people I've never traded with and people I've regularly traded with in the past--I never know when a fresh perspective will be useful, but it's also good to have people who I know will have solid advice on ways to improve my stories. I’ve found that three to five critique partners is generally a solid number for me these days, given my twin-related time constraints. Do keep in mind that you may have a different sweet spot for number of trades on a given story, ranging from none to double digits. (I recommend keeping the total number of trades on a particular manuscript below ten--too many critiques can muddy waters instead of clarifying vision--but you do you.)

3) I endeavor to keep an open mind.

Even the friendliest, most insightful critiques can be difficult to process. My story may need more work than I thought. Difficult situations I’m experiencing in the real world can weaken mental defenses and make the crit more painful than it should be. Sometimes a story just isn't for a particular critiquer, which may or may not affect the tone of their critique. Sometimes crits just hurt, period.

If I find myself feeling defensive in response to something someone has said about my story, I approach it the same way I would if I were angry: I set it down and come back to it after I've had time to sleep on it. The end goal is to make sure I'm calm, collected, and ready to process things as objectively as possible. I don't want to overlook useful advice simply because I got frustrated by the way it was phrased or was having a bad day.

4) That said, I question everything and think critically about every critique.

I may endeavor to keep an open mind, but that doesn't mean I can afford to take everything everyone says about my story at face value. Sometimes I receive conflicting responses from different critiquers. Sometimes a critiquer correctly analyzes a problem my story has, but suggests a solution that would change the tone or message of the story into something that feels wrong for that particular story. Sometimes suggested edits are just plain wrong, either situationally or objectively--we’re all human, and none of us perfect.

I try to analyze what my critique partners say about my story with the same scrutiny I give when I'm writing a critique of my own. Even when a suggested change is wrong for me, the thing that the critiquer keyed in on may well need work, and it's my responsibility to recognize that.

#

My most notable example of critique analysis took place during edits for my latest submission to Writers of the Future. A number of people said that my story had insufficient conflict. Each of them had a different suggestion for how to fix it, and many of those suggestions were good, but none of them rang true to me for the story I was telling. I knew there was conflict in the story as I intended it--the question was whether or not I’d made that conflict clear enough for my readers. After reading my story with fresh eyes, I realized that my external conflict was strong but that the depth of my protagonist’s inner conflict hadn’t fully made it onto the page. I did a deep dive into the story, doing my best to provide as much insight into the protagonist’s internal thoughts and feelings as possible. (This ended up being my second Finalist piece, and is currently sitting with the judges.)

Anyone else have thoughts, tips, or concerns about how they process critiques on their manuscripts? I’d love to discuss.
Last edited by disgruntledpeony on Mon Nov 25, 2019 11:49 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby officer » Mon Nov 25, 2019 11:46 am

Thanks for kicking this off!

I've also found around four readers is best for me in short fiction. I have more experience in non-fiction, where I found one peer plus the editor was sufficient.

I like to send a new draft to each reader in sequence. Then I can make edits between and see how my changes work for the next reader. This is especially helpful after major revisions, which might create sequence-related contradictions only a fresh reader would notice. If I'm conflicted on a particular suggestion, I see if the next reader also addresses it; if not, I ask after.

disgruntledpeony wrote:Sometimes a critiquer correctly analyzes a problem my story has, but suggests a solution that would change the tone or message of the story into something that feels wrong for that particular story.

My critiquers are generally right that something is wrong/deficient but rarely suggest the best fix (typos excluded). I always say they're welcome to make suggestions but highlighting/explaining what they don't like is just as useful for me, should that save time.

When I disagree with a crit, I try to use it as inspiration to improve my story in a related way, which might also address the concern. I rarely send the critiquer another draft, so there's no room for argument. It's my story. I address 80-90% of crit issues, so I doubt anyone would be offended that I ignored a few suggestions.

Sometimes when readers don't like something and want it cut, I like to add more. Its importance may not be clear to someone who hasn't read the entire story. That's why I like to do crits in sequence. The original reviewer might agree with my fix, but he isn't seeing it with fresh eyes. There might still be a problem.

When I put on my own critiquer hat, I'm far more critical than when I'm reading for fun. So I don't take crits personally. The critiquer wouldn't even think about most of her issues if she weren't trying to help. At least, that's what I tell myself wotf011

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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby czing » Mon Nov 25, 2019 6:18 pm

I'd add one important thing is to trust yourself and your vision for your story. Sometimes a critique has lead me down the wrong path. For example I had a flash story that I got encouragement to flesh out to a longer story. I did that and it lost something. In the process though I did add a few little key important pieces that I retained when I rolled back to the original to edit. But the story wouldn't have been good if I didn't listen to myself and turn back to my original.

Trying to figure out when to follow your own instincts and when to listen to critique guidance is something I expect I will be working on for a very long time! But I do know that experience I mentioned above was really vital to helping me recognize that vital aspect of needing to trust my own vision and balance that against critiques :)
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby disgruntledpeony » Mon Nov 25, 2019 6:55 pm

czing wrote:I'd add one important thing is to trust yourself and your vision for your story.

Oh, absolutely. That's incredibly important (and it can be very difficult to do until you get the hang of it).
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby Wulf Moon » Mon Nov 25, 2019 10:14 pm

Nice post on critiques, Liz (disgruntledpeony). We talked about this the other day, and I'm glad you shared it. As I mentioned to you, my next Secret, on the checklist from the very beginning, is going to be on protecting your Voice, and I've planned on saying some things about critiques all along. You have spoken here about our attitude toward the critique and the critiquer, being open to suggestions, but staying true to our story in the process. That is so true. There are pitfalls we really need to be aware of, and the newer we are in our writing, the easier it will be to fall into them. I'll be talking about that, but please know it has nothing to do with your post here. This is good advice. : )

All the best to you on your upcoming news. I, like everyone else on the Forum, are really hoping you win this thing!

Cheers!

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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby Andy Dibble » Tue Nov 26, 2019 3:45 am

Disgruntledpeony, I'm also waiting to see if we get to meet in April :)

My two cents on critique:
* If you're going to respond to a critique with more than just a generic "thanks," sleep on it first. Normally critiques seem more reasonable, or at least represent a legitimate perspective, once you've let your original impressions fade.
* If one person suggests a change or says something doesn't work and it doesn't ring true with you, ignore it. If two people note the same problem, that's when you really ought to pay attention. They might not be right, especially if other feedback contradicts theirs, but be sure to at least have a reason why the complaint can be ignored before you ignore it :) Stephen King says something like this in his On Writing.
* I've been doing Critters now for a few months. I've had four stories critiqued, got back 9-13 critiques on each, almost all substantive. The disparity in critiques was tremendous each time. Some critiques were almost blistering: the critiquer struggled to find anything they liked. And other critiques on the same piece were the opposite: critiquer struggled to find anything they didn't like and said a lot of very congratulatory things. Most critiques are in the middle. This suggests to me that the only way to really get representative feedback on the quality of a piece is to get A LOT of critique. That might not be practical, but it does mean that you should never let one negative critique get in your head.
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby einstein36 » Tue Nov 26, 2019 8:53 am

Very nice post on this. I say the critiques we receive I think is very valuable and the people that review our story who are taking their time and energy to review our stories are very awesome people.
Another thing I have noticed is sometimes it might be better to set the story aside for a while and then come back to it with fresh eyes.
I have recently done that with my 1st rejection and I can see with fresh eyes now a better perspective on the story and now I'm doing Wulf's Kill your darlings exercise...I have cut around 3,000 words and I can see the story becoming better, but I got more to cut and refine.....
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby czing » Tue Nov 26, 2019 9:03 am

Andy I've had similar experience on critique circle with disparate quality of critiques and with widely differing opinions! One thing I'd make a counterpoint to in your comment is about needing lots of critiques. I've mostly stopped using the open queues on CC because getting too many critiques does my head in. So I'd say, find your happy place on number of critiques. I'd rather have just one or maybe two critiques from people I really trust than a dozen from other people!
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby czing » Tue Nov 26, 2019 9:08 am

disgruntledpeony wrote:
czing wrote:I'd add one important thing is to trust yourself and your vision for your story.

Oh, absolutely. That's incredibly important (and it can be very difficult to do until you get the hang of it).


100% difficult to do even after you think you are getting the hang of it (at least for me). I've ended up half mangling at least one more story since the one that helped me gain that first insight.
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby einstein36 » Tue Nov 26, 2019 10:08 am

As wulf has said, listen to your writer's voice...
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby RSchibler » Tue Nov 26, 2019 12:51 pm

I found Critters absolutely overwhelming as a beginning writer. I learned tons from doing critiques, but the stories I got back, like Andy said, were all over the place and I didn't have the skill or voice to know when I should trust myself and when the crit was correct. I ended up leaving critters after a while because of that, combined with the crushing pace. I still learn from doing critiques, but critters was too much for me. The point is, as czing said, to find your perfect balance. I've found that 3-4 critique partners is about all I can take on a story, before I start to lose the integrity of the writing. Everyone is different though.

Great post, Liz. I try to let critiques rest at least a day before I start applying changes - I often argue with them back and forth in my head while they percolate and so by the time I get back to the story, I have a better sense of what will work for my vision and what won't.
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby Wulf Moon » Tue Nov 26, 2019 1:13 pm

czing wrote:Andy I've had similar experience on critique circle with disparate quality of critiques and with widely differing opinions! One thing I'd make a counterpoint to in your comment is about needing lots of critiques. I've mostly stopped using the open queues on CC because getting too many critiques does my head in. So I'd say, find your happy place on number of critiques. I'd rather have just one or maybe two critiques from people I really trust than a dozen from other people!


czing, you've hit on one of the many pitfalls of getting multiple critiques. I think you'll like my "Protect Your Voice" upcoming Super Secret.

Best,

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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby Andy Dibble » Wed Nov 27, 2019 4:50 am

Wulf Moon wrote:
czing wrote:Andy I've had similar experience on critique circle with disparate quality of critiques and with widely differing opinions! One thing I'd make a counterpoint to in your comment is about needing lots of critiques. I've mostly stopped using the open queues on CC because getting too many critiques does my head in. So I'd say, find your happy place on number of critiques. I'd rather have just one or maybe two critiques from people I really trust than a dozen from other people!


czing, you've hit on one of the many pitfalls of getting multiple critiques. I think you'll like my "Protect Your Voice" upcoming Super Secret.

Best,

Moon



Wulf, "Protect Your Voice" may be good for me too because I'm a serial Critterer.

The reason why I favor Critters is that until I started with Critters the feedback I got from readers was normally too generic to be actionable. It can be overwhelming, and feeling I need to put my stories through the Critter-mill has slowed me down.

If it's overwhelming, my best advice is to still use Critters (and similar sources of bulk feedback), especially for pieces that you are unsure about, but only use feedback that strikes you as immediately helpful. Many errors with my writing are opaque to me until someone points them out. Diversity and quantity of critiques is helpful to overcome this because you have more chances to have a mirror put up to your mistakes.

Another advantage of Critters is that every so often you get congratulatory feedback from an accomplished writer. I had one writer who has published 12+ times in F&SF say some very nice things about my voice and the quality of my prose. Sometimes that's the kind of feedback that pushes you to finish a piece.
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby AlexH » Wed Nov 27, 2019 5:24 am

disgruntledpeony wrote:
czing wrote:I'd add one important thing is to trust yourself and your vision for your story.

Oh, absolutely. That's incredibly important (and it can be very difficult to do until you get the hang of it).

"Go with your gut" is my go-to phrase for myself and others.
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby Wulf Moon » Wed Nov 27, 2019 9:49 am

Andy Dibble wrote: "Wulf, "Protect Your Voice" may be good for me too because I'm a serial Critterer.

The reason why I favor Critters is that until I started with Critters the feedback I got from readers was normally too generic to be actionable. It can be overwhelming, and feeling I need to put my stories through the Critter-mill has slowed me down.

If it's overwhelming, my best advice is to still use Critters (and similar sources of bulk feedback), especially for pieces that you are unsure about, but only use feedback that strikes you as immediately helpful..."


You must have found a way to protect your Voice, Andy, because you won WotF. You didn't get homogenized by all the other Voices clamoring in the critiques you sought. As I've mentioned in Super Secrets, for aspiring writers, it's really hard to get someone ahead of us on the path to critique for us. They need someone equal to (or ahead of) them on the path to help them consistently advance their work. The normal commodity for critiques is a swap, but an aspiring writer's critique is not going to be viewed as an equal exchange by an established pro writer. It's going to be viewed as much work with little to no return. This is because new writers are still learning some of the basics--sometimes ALL of the basics--it's why their stories are not selling yet. Established writers get asked all the time for critiques by new writers, and they simply don't have the time to do many of them, because to truly help, it's going to be a labor intensive experience that will take many hours.

So how does one get a critique that will be beneficial? You could hire the professional services of an editor that actually is one of those writers ahead of you on the path. Now we have an exchange professional writers that hire out to edit understand--if I devote all the time this manuscript needs to become market ready, I'll get paid for it. This is content editing, the most expensive in editing services. But the editors working in that domain often have impressive credentials, and that means they know how to create a manuscript that is professional and sells. Honestly, I always find it odd to see content editors advertising their services, and they have never sold a story to a pro market or written a successful novel. Why would I pay them money to help me figure out how to fix my manuscript or novel if they have no proof they can do it for themselves? But someone has credits in the genre and industry I'm pursuing? They have bona fide proof they have the kind of knowledge I am seeking, and if they can list clients that got results using them, well, this also proves they have the ability to transfer that knowledge to someone else (trust me, this is a gift as great as writing and editing skills, and very few have it).

Problem: such services are costly, and the higher up the food chain that editor is, the costlier their services get, and most aspiring writers are dirt poor.

So what to do? (Speaking to all here.) You know you aren't selling, but you think your writing is as good as anything out there that's being published. Obviously, you're missing something, or the editors that have read thousands of publishable stories are missing something. A humble person looks at that equation and recognizes what side of that coin they are on. But they still can't recognize WHY they are on that side of the coin. So they admit they need help, and seek anyone that might offer some constructive criticism.

And there's the danger. That's like building your own house with the help of anyone that might put in a few hours. You stick up a sign with your blueprint in the front of your construction site that says: GOT AN HOUR? HAMMER AWAY. Some kids show up. WHAM WHAM WHAM. The mailman walks by. WHAM WHAM WHAM. A homeless man walks by. SLEEP. SLEEP. SLEEP. And yes, maybe a contractor by some kind of wonder of the universe walks by and says he'll go late to his job today and give this crazy project a little direction. He loses money to do that, by the way, but life isn't always about making money to pay the bills. It's about doing good deeds to help others, too.

So you drive back to that building site of yours after that sign has been up for awhile, and what do you find? No quality control. No real experience that could honestly see where your vision was going with that blueprint. And, yes, you found one guy that got it right, but you're going to have to wade through so much wrong to see the right. If you were smart and had the money, you'd go find that contractor and hire him on the spot. Why? BECAUSE HE KNOWS WHAT HE'S DOING. :)

But, like I said, that's simply out of reach for most writers. I still say if you can find a way to pay for one of Dave's advanced classes, that's your best bet for getting that experienced contractor to help with your work. Obviously not with your entry to WotF, but he will offer critiques on something else, and he will know what you're doing wrong, and how to fix it.

But if writers can't find a way to do even that, then they either have to keep hammering away until they figure it out, or they have to get people to offer opinions to the question: Does that look right to you? From friends and family that may have read next to nothing, to writing groups that often are filled with people that have sold next to nothing. It really is the case of the blind leading the blind. Thus, the pitfalls. You have to be very careful with such advice. I will argue that you will get far more misdirection than solid intel that will put you on the path to success.

"But wait!" you say. "If I get a dozen critiques, I don't have to worry about that. If ten guys and gals all say the same thing, then I know they must be right!"

Maybe. Maybe not. But I'll argue if that were true, then every person in Critters and Codex would already be bestselling authors. Because that's what they're doing.

There is another way. And I am in no way telling anyone not to be a member of a good writing group. I'm simply stating there are inhernet pitfalls, and we have to figure out ways to avoid them if we hope to succeed.

There. Part of my "Protect Your Voice" Super Secret is right here. Call it a teaser for what is to come.

And Andy? Well done for winning WotF! Hardest thing in the world for an aspiring writer to accomplish. And the best reward any aspiring writer could hope to achieve. You did it right. I look forward to reading your story, and I hope to make it to the workshop and gala to meet you next year. Working on it!

All the beast,

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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby disgruntledpeony » Thu Nov 28, 2019 11:08 am

I've been meaning to respond to things in this thread for days, but I've also been busy, so now you guys get a small novel. wotf019

Andy Dibble wrote:Disgruntledpeony, I'm also waiting to see if we get to meet in April :)


Doesn't look like it, unfortunately. Glad you're going to be there, though. wotf007

Andy Dibble wrote:Disgruntledpeony, I'm also waiting to see if we get to meet in April :)My two cents on critique:
* If you're going to respond to a critique with more than just a generic "thanks," sleep on it first. Normally critiques seem more reasonable, or at least represent a legitimate perspective, once you've let your original impressions fade.
* If one person suggests a change or says something doesn't work and it doesn't ring true with you, ignore it. If two people note the same problem, that's when you really ought to pay attention. They might not be right, especially if other feedback contradicts theirs, but be sure to at least have a reason why the complaint can be ignored before you ignore it :) Stephen King says something like this in his On Writing.


Good points on both counts. I usually only respond in detail if I have follow-up questions. For example, I once asked for followup feedback from a friend who told me I had some gun-related details wrong in an urban fantasy where said guns featured semi-prominently. My friend is a gun enthusiast and helped me get things properly ship-shape in that regard.

Andy Dibble wrote:* I've been doing Critters now for a few months. I've had four stories critiqued, got back 9-13 critiques on each, almost all substantive. The disparity in critiques was tremendous each time. Some critiques were almost blistering: the critiquer struggled to find anything they liked. And other critiques on the same piece were the opposite: critiquer struggled to find anything they didn't like and said a lot of very congratulatory things. Most critiques are in the middle. This suggests to me that the only way to really get representative feedback on the quality of a piece is to get A LOT of critique. That might not be practical, but it does mean that you should never let one negative critique get in your head.


The large amount of critique volume is why I haven't signed up for Critters yet. I just don't have time available to devote to the site right now. I agree with getting multiple viewpoints; also, with not letting one negative critique get in your head.

czing wrote:100% difficult to do even after you think you are getting the hang of it (at least for me). I've ended up half mangling at least one more story since the one that helped me gain that first insight.


Same. I think the worst problems I had actually came from an initial misunderstanding of David Farland's critique on my semi-finalist, because he said I told some things I should have been showing. I was more familiar with the screenwriting version of "Show, don't tell" at the time (which, I should clarify, is that you want to describe everything visually because internal thoughts don't make it through the camera except in voiceover narration, which can often be considered tacky), so I immediately started removing all internal thought processes from my characters. It took me something like a year to realize my mistake and properly correct from that; I still have trouble remembering to add in important internal details to my prose, although that's been a weakness of mine since day one.

RSchibler wrote:Great post, Liz. I try to let critiques rest at least a day before I start applying changes - I often argue with them back and forth in my head while they percolate and so by the time I get back to the story, I have a better sense of what will work for my vision and what won't.


Good point. I often let critiques rest for a day or two, myself. More specifically, I'll wait until I've gotten all my critiques back (I like to send all my crits out on the same version of a story, personally--part of protecting my voice, because if I trade with one person at a time I'm more likely to lose it to individual suggestions), read them through, and then think on what everyone said for a day or two. I ask myself what I would do to fix the problems they've mentioned, go back through the story on my own, and do an edit with those issues in mind. Then I look over the individual critiques to see if there's anything I want to change and forgot about.

AlexH wrote:"Go with your gut" is my go-to phrase for myself and others.


And a very important phrase, it is. If a suggested change feels wrong, don't make it--but ask yourself why it feels wrong, and how you would change the thing (if it needs changing).
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby Andy Dibble » Fri Nov 29, 2019 3:53 am

Wulf Moon wrote:"But wait!" you say. "If I get a dozen critiques, I don't have to worry about that. If ten guys and gals all say the same thing, then I know they must be right!"

Maybe. Maybe not. But I'll argue if that were true, then every person in Critters and Codex would already be bestselling authors. Because that's what they're doing.


I think there's an important distinction missing here. Many critiques I receive, on Critters and elsewhere, are written from the perspective of a reader of speculative fiction. This is why I value reactions to my writing (ideally specific, inline reactions) more than what the critiquer thinks good writing requires. A reader's feedback is valuable, so long as that reader is not too idiosyncratic in their preferences. And competent readers of spec fiction need not be bestselling authors.

I agree that feedback on one's work from novice writers can be dangerous, especially novice writers that read little of the genre you write in.
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Re: How to Get the Most From Critiques

Postby Wulf Moon » Fri Nov 29, 2019 12:25 pm

Andy, I do agree reader input can be valuable--they don't have to be professional writers to know if they liked or didn't like something. : ) Hollywood does something similar. They hold a screening, poll a sample audience, and determine what needs to be fixed based on the cumulative results. They don't want screenwriter input, they want Joe public that buys the tickets at the box office. Sometimes the system works, sometimes it flops. Some very successful box office hits were almost destroyed by these screenings. And some were improved, creating enhanced marketability.

Like any other system applied to improve our writing, each has pros and cons.

All the best,

Moon
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