The first rule regarding feedback:
don’t talk about feedback always thank the person giving you feedback. Seriously. No matter how rude you feel they are, how clueless, how obtuse, just say ‘thank you’ and move on. Even if you’re paying for reading/editing (but especially if you aren’t!), people are making choices of what to do with their time, and they’ve chosen to spend it with your story.
OK. The second rule, which is only not the first rule because I feel it’s really important you say thanks, never, ever, make any changes just because one person, even if that person is an expensive, well-renowned editor, tells you to, unless that suggestion gets you so fired up to make it that your very finger tips itch to start hammering at the keyboard.
Really, that’s the basic gist of what I want to get across here. Make changes only if you feel they strengthen what you set out to do in the first place. Most people (I was going to claim ‘all,’ but I’m sure there are always exceptions) started writing with an idea of what they wanted to accomplish. Make changes that bring your writing closer to those goals, that strengthen your intent. My rule of thumb when I get feedback is exactly what I said above. If I get so inspired I just can’t wait to get at the keyboard, then it’s a ‘good change’ and it doesn’t matter if it was just one person who gave me feedback.
Now, what if multiple people give you the same feedback? Then it becomes a numbers game. Always get an odd number of readers and always at least three. If less than a majority of people have the same comment, feel free to ignore it. You simply cannot please all the people, all the time. If each of your readers loved some portion of your story so much that they’ve recommended it to their friends, it’s OK if they have some less-than-favorite sections they feel can be strengthened (unless, of course, your finger tips get itchy). In my first novel I had just as many people complain about the romance as I did about the ‘endless’ jobs interrupting the romance.
This is not to say that you should ignore mechanical advice. Meaning, if your writing… fails to match conventions (you might hear the term ‘sucks’). Conventions exist so people can focus less on the prose and more on the story. The more conventions you break, the more people have to work to get at the story. If you’re intentionally breaking a convention (or several) and that’s the whole point for writing your story in the first place (as a topical example, I just read a novel that was entirely dialog between two people speaking on the phone; I can’t wait to read more!), then any advice contrary to that goal can safely be ignored. You must understand, though, that bucking conventions almost goes hand in hand with reducing the number of potential readers. But if that’s your intent, then it’s not wrong when you did it.
On the other, other hand (or the gripping hand), if you didn’t set out to deliberately dispense with convention, then it’s probably good that you learn (and internalize) the mechanical aspects of writing, since you dilute your reader’s feedback if they’re focused on elements you don’t intend. As an example, quotes are used different ways in different cultures. If you’re targeting US audiences, you need to do your quotes such that those readers will understand. If your prose lends itself toward… excessive description (read “purple“), then you may want to consider tightening things up. If you’re like me, on the other hand, you’re rather parsimonious in your descriptions and aren’t supplying enough for your readers to visualize what you have in your mind.
So you’re happy that your prose matches the conventions, at least to the extent you intended. And a majority of readers all complain about the same thing. What then? I still say you need to seriously consider the value of sticking to your guns (for those of you not familiar with the slang, “avoid making changes”). If you can make a change that preserves your intent, yet also allows for the resolution of your reader’s dilemma, at least for me, that makes my finger tips itchy. Do not, though, make changes simply because a bunch of people complained about the same thing… unless you can be convinced it strengthens your story’s intent.
What does it mean when you constantly make changes? It means you aren’t writing your novel, you’re writing an amalgam of a bunch of different people’s vision of what you set out to do. Who wants to read a novel written by committee? I don’t see any awards for that!
When you’re self-editing, particularly after you’ve read about how stories shouldn’t be told, don’t go second guessing yourself. Sure, if it’s a mechanical aspect, you need to learn to be a professional writer (assuming you want to be one, of course; there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobby (but even then, convention exists for a reason)), suck it up and learn to write. You’ll get much better feedback from your readers if they aren’t continually popped out of the story when they stumble over your prose. But if your story violates some so-called convention (for instance, my first was written in first-person, present-tense; boy did I get a lot of complaints about that!) on purpose, stick with your intent. You can always write something else later. Remember, just because it’s the first novel you’ve written, doesn’t mean it has to be your first novel published.