While writers handing their manuscripts to beta readers are looking for honest notes and help on their work-in-progress, sometimes that feedback is much harsher than they were prepared for.
Maybe the beta reader is a tough critic or that (shock horror) the MS isn’t at the level you thought it was.
This revelation can sting, particularly if you thought what you sent off was the absolute best you could do.
Convinced the MS was more final stage than WIP, in your (humble) opinion, it was completed. You’d done the hard work and critiquing and you know for a fact there were no typos and you just needed another set of eyes to sign off on the okay (and your genius) so the MS could be sent off for querying, submission to that comp, or to self-publish.
But that’s not the feedback you got.
It wasn’t as polished as you thought. The story wasn’t as clear. The MC was (more shock horror) unlikable. There were still typos. Not one, but multiple, even though you’d read, listened, and spell-checked every chapter a million times (yep, a million times. You counted).
It’s deflating. It’s embarrassing. It’s a what-the-hell-do-I-do-now? crying-in-the-shower moment. That “finished” MS still needs work, and you have no clue what to do to fix it, or where to start. You have been given the key, though. That bad feedback that you want to dismiss so easily is where you start.
6 Ways To Make The Most Of Bad Feedback
1) Leave It For A Beat
Don’t respond to the beta, especially if it’s going to be with anything other than a thank you for their time.
Give it a day and then write back with your thank you and to let them know that you’ll be looking over their comments. You can also politely ask if it’s okay to come back to them with some clarifying remarks if need be.
Do not rant at them. Do not tell them they got everything wrong and how dare they say your MS wasn’t perfect because it was (there’s your humble opinion again).
They may have gotten some things wrong. They may have misunderstood what you were writing, but that’s not necessarily their fault. Something in the way you’ve written things could have caused the issue and you need to check for that possibility.
If it’s obvious from their feedback that they misunderstood, or if they’re raising issues no one else has, it’s likely they’ve given you feedback that you don’t need to use. If, however, what they’re saying is right, flying off the handle is not the way to go.
Sit with the feedback before writing back. Process everything before responding and go with that adage of not shooting the messenger. If you don’t, you could lose a valuable beta reader and/or friend.
2) Categorize The Feedback
When you’ve had the time to calm down, read through the feedback at least twice. Once you’ve done that, categorize it.
- Needs Improvement.
- Needs Fixing.
- Good Feedback.
If your beta’s feedback is based on their misunderstanding of what you’ve written, highlight it and make a note of why. It could be as easy as a typo or a dropped word messing up the meaning of a character’s explanation, which is an easy fix.
If a beta has flagged a paragraph because the wording tripped them up, the staging confused them, or the descriptions are over or underdone, categorize it as “needs improvement.”
Use this for feedback that you don’t agree with. It could be the beta didn’t like what you named your MC. Or they could have suggested cutting a scene for length’s sake, not knowing it contains important info that is needed to set things up later and they missed the significance (which happens).
This is for the feedback that is spot on and you’ve got no problem with fixing what needs to be fixed.
For your own mental health, if there’s any good feedback (and there should be), flag it and read it when you need a morale boost.
3) Feel Your Feels
Just as you’d be celebrating any feedback that praises your work, you need to embrace the parts that make you feel like you aren’t a good writer so that you can move on.
Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s not. Maybe you need to listen to the feedback, maybe you don’t. Feel it all, the devastation, the frustration, and then put it aside.
Sometimes, people won’t get what you’ve written, no matter how clear you make it. The way they approach things, their own life experiences, the way they would write a story, or what they’d want to see happen as a reader just won’t align with what you have on the page.
That doesn’t make them right or wrong, or you. Just go with what works for your vision of the story. You’re bringing it to life and you have the final say. If you know in your writer-heart-of-hearts how you want the story to be, trust yourself.
4) Go Back With Clarifications
Now that you’ve processed the feedback, categorized it, and felt your feelings, go back to the beta if you need to.
Sometimes, letting them know what you were trying to achieve, clearing up a misconception, or reminding them you had certain info in a specific chapter but they missed it, helps, and you may not need to make as many changes as you thought you would.
Another benefit of clarifications is that the beta can tell you more about the reasons they came to the conclusions they did. In those cases, it may be that you need to make an important mention bigger or add another reminder to a past event somewhere else in the story. If so, add those notes to your categories.
If your beta is open to you asking follow-up questions, remember not to go back defensively. This beta is trying to help you. They want a good book from you too. They have the distance to see your work without rose-colored glasses, so don’t dismiss what they have to say outright.
If they’re nice enough to clarify things for you, listen to them and use what you can to make your book as good as it can be.
5) Break Down The Changes
Remember those categories we assigned our feedback to? Now it’s time to take them and brainstorm your fixes.
After that, go scene-by-scene, and plan the changes you’ll need to make.
With a plan in place, you’ll see it’s not so overwhelming—although it’ll probably still feel that way.
6) Make The Changes
With your plan, you can now make said changes!
Work those words, once again, for the millionth time. Hope, once again, for the millionth time that this is the last time, and then get the MS out to another beta.
Eventually, it will be right. Eventually, the feedback won’t be all bad and your book will be ready to leave your editing desk for the query trenches, all the comps, and the virtual and real bookshelves of the world!
Just remember that it wouldn’t have happened without that bad beta feedback and you making the most of the invaluable help you were given.
— K.M. Allan