Unless the book you’ve written is so bad that allowing others to read it will somehow bring about the end of the world (in which case you should probably kill that MS with fire), seeking feedback is a helpful step for any writer.
It’s a step I’ve taken numerous times in the last few years, and here is what I’ve learned about the thrill and fear that comes from willingly seeking the judgement of others—or in other words—handing your book over to beta readers.
Initial Feedback – AKA The Family And Friend Beta Readers
In my experience, if you want to know if the story is working, enlist the help of willing family and friends.
Seeking such feedback should be free or done in return for an equal-value favor (unless that favor is helping someone move, which is more trouble than it’s worth). If you don’t have family or friends willing or able, find a critique group where you can team up with other writers and swap manuscripts.
F&F Betas are great for general feedback, but to get more than just “I liked it!”, consider including a small, non-overwhelming list of questions with your MS, such as…
- What they thought of the overall story
- Which characters they liked/didn’t like and why
- Which parts they thought were confusing
- Which parts were boring
- If they saw a plot twist coming
When the notes come back, listen to what your betas tell you, especially if different people raise the same issue, and appreciate any feedback given. Sharing something creative with those closest to you is a learning curve for everyone involved and you may be surprised by who ends up becoming your biggest supporter.
In a perfect world, your F&F betas will read the MS as soon as you hand it over, but life gets in the way and you can’t expect it to be read in a timely manner. You’ll also find that some people don’t want to read it, take it but don’t read it, or never finish it.
More often than not, the feedback from F&F betas will center on what they liked (which is a great ego boost) and not any harsh truths. This might be because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, or because they don’t know how to critique in a way that will help you. That is when it’s time to seek the feedback of a professional.
Professional feedback is on offer to writers through manuscript assessors, editing services, and professional beta readers—and I’ve done all three.
These services can be costly and leave you feeling that it was worth it, and also that it wasn’t. My advice? Shop around, look at reviews, ask fellow writers for recommendations, and don’t go for a service simply because it’s the cheapest unless it also happens to be the best.
I’d also advise not splashing out on professional feedback before putting your MS through the F&F betas. The professionals should be looking at your final draft, the one you plan on sending to agents and publishers. Paying for someone to read your MS before that stage is a waste of money, and is also something I’ve done.
A good, professional beta will offer genuine, impartial feedback as well as advice about…
- Head hopping
- Info dumps
- Typos (even those ones you were sure weren’t there anymore).
Basically all of the “writerly” things you need to know about that you can’t get from F&F betas. Their feedback will be honest and it may even hurt, but if you can look at it just as impartially, it will help you grow as a writer.
As with anything looked at by different people, you’re bound to gather some opposing feedback. What one beta reader loves, another might not. For example, the following is actual feedback I’ve received in regards to my voice—for exactly the same manuscript.
“Your writing has a distinctive clarity, spaciousness and steady, calm pace.
“The absorbing writing has a dream-like quality.”
“Your tone/voice could be loosened up and more casual for YA. The voice is a bit stiff for this audience.”
When you get feedback that contradicts another, you need to decide what you think is best for the book. It can be hard. I once had a beta tell me the settings weren’t clear enough and to add more spacial description to the house where the MC lived. I did this, only to have the next beta say there was too much detail in this area and that it was slowing down the pace. It’s all a balancing act, which takes many drafts to get right.
What To Do With Your Feedback
Once you’ve gotten your feedback, braved reading through it, cried over the parts that felt like personal attacks (they aren’t, but you’ll feel like they are), and smiled from ear to ear because someone else loved the MS too, it’s time to do something with the notes.
I like to organize my feedback three ways:
1) Make a list of the negatives, plot holes, typos, darlings, confusing sections, etc and then plan how to fix them. I then go from start to finish, chapter to chapter, rewriting.
2) Take the incorrect assumptions, parts that were flagged as issues but had clearly been misread by the beta, and suggestions that I don’t agree with, and forget about them.
3) Copy all of the positive feedback into a notepad file and print it out. I then stick that piece of paper where I can see it so that I can read it as I work through the rewrites. It reminds me that I am capable of writing something that others liked, even when I’m drowning in self-doubt.
No matter which way you look at it, seeking feedback is both a blessing and curse. It can confirm that what you’re writing is on the right track just as much as it can make you feel like a talentless hack. The key is to use all feedback, good and bad, to improve your manuscript. It also pays to keep in mind that you ultimately want others to read your work. After all, you didn’t spend years at the keyboard creating pages that no one else will ever see, right? Don’t be afraid to seek feedback from others. It may be scary, but it’s worth it.
— K.M. Allan