Last updated on November 30, 2017
I often encourage my clients and other writers to get feedback from alpha readers, beta readers, and/or critique partners or groups to improve their writing.
Unfortunately, this is not a perfect science, and even editors can disagree on whether this feedback is useful or not. Like reading “news” on the internet, as writers, we have to learn what feedback is useful and what is garbage.
If you can learn to wade through the good, the bad, and the ugly, getting feedback from readers and critique partners can be invaluable.
In this post, I give you some tips on how to deal with feedback in a way that will not only improve your current writing project but also help you to grow as a writer.
Tips for All Feedback
Having multiple readers can be especially useful for learning whether a certain piece of feedback will really help improve your work in progress. All readers are subjective, but how can we determine which comments and critiques are worth our attention?
A rule of thumb is to always pay attention when several readers give you the same feedback. For example, if three different readers tell you that a certain paragraph or scene is awkward, make sure to go over it until you can pinpoint the problem and smooth it out. If possible, ask those readers for specifics to find out where they stumbled over the text.
You can also use this rule for positive feedback. Mark sections to “leave alone” if several readers have lauded a certain sentence or paragraph.
When only one reader points out a problem, however, as the writer, you must be the judge. Look at the text carefully and see if you agree with the reader.
If it’s something as simple as a typo or misspelling, that’s an easy call.
If it’s something more broad like “I think you should kill off this character,” then you have a judgment call to make. Is it something that works for you? Do you think following this advice would improve the story as a whole or just cause other problems?
Never make a change just because one reader said so. On the other hand, never avoid making changes just because they are inconvenient. Really evaluate the feedback and then decide whether your reader’s suggestion would make your story better.
Tips for Conflicting Feedback
Conflicting feedback can be especially confusing, especially to a new writer. If half of your readers tell you one thing and half tell you exactly the opposite, what are you supposed to do?
First, try to distill exactly what element of writing your readers are having issues with. Take some time to either learn about or clarify that issue and see whether there are any resources you can find that the deal with it. Talk with a trusted writing mentor. The point here is to make the most educated decision that you can. If there is no “right” way to deal with it, then use your own personal preference. These preferences and writing styles make your writing unique and give it flavor.
In the end, it’s another judgment call.
Tips for Positive Feedback
As writers, we all love good feedback. When other writers or potential readers laud our work, we can’t help but glow. However, that big grin on your face isn’t really improving your writing.
You may think that positive feedback is worthless, but it can help you mark your progress as a writer and tell you when you’re moving in the right direction.
If you give your book to six carefully selected beta readers and they all have mostly positive things to say, then you are probably ready to move forward to the next stage. (See My First Draft Is Done! What’s Next? for an indie author guide to the stages leading up to publishing.)
On the other hand, taking negative feedback—or outright criticism—of your writing can be a real challenge. How do you keep a badly worded or insensitive review from making you want to stop writing altogether?
The first thing you need to do is step back and process the feedback.
Natural human reactions to negativity make it hard for us to deal with this kind of criticism, especially when it’s targeted at our creations. It can take some time to be objective enough about it that you can evaluate whether the feedback is helpful and determine what you should do about it.
Depending on how harsh the criticism is, this can take anywhere from a couple of seconds to several days or even longer.
Once you feel like you can face the feedback without screaming, you need to distill it to find out if it will be useful for you.
You may find that for whatever reason, the feedback isn’t feedback at all but rather needless trolling with no other point than to be negative. Anyone who is on the internet has run across the kind of people who leave spiteful comments and reviews just to stir up trouble.
How can you tell if your reader is a troll? Look for insulting language or comments directed at you as a writer or person instead of the writing itself. For example, take “I’ve never seen such dribble” versus “I’m having trouble connecting to the characters.” The first is insulting, but the second gives you specific, constructive feedback.
If you think that you are the victim of a troll, just move on, and make a note never to use that reader again. This is one of the biggest reasons for getting to know your readers and/or critique group well before handing over your writing.
You may find that the person giving you feedback doesn’t understand your genre. Be careful that you aren’t just saying this because you want to argue with your readers. See how their feedback compares to that of others before discarding it.
How can you tell if your reader is an amateur? Look for signs that he or she isn’t familiar with the genre. Readers new to a genre are often overly enthusiastic or extremely negative about tropes that are very common to it. For example, if your reader is “not into all this new agey stuff” and your book is visionary fiction, there is your evidence.
The Honest Brute
Here is the one you really want to pay attention to. The person who honestly (and without insult) points out the flaws and strengths of your writing is the one who can help you the most. Take the time to really evaluate what this person has to say as it will likely help you improve not only the book but also your skills as a writer.
When receiving feedback on your manuscript, always remember that this is your book. Own it, and own the responsibility for revising it in a way that you feel makes it better. Don’t let strongly opinionated readers turn it into something that you don’t even want to claim anymore.
In any case, whether the feedback you receive is positive or negative, considerate it practice for when your book or story is live and people start leaving reviews.
Reviews bring attention to your work, so although they lay you bare for comments and criticism, they are an essential part of the published writer’s life.
A lack of criticism can lead you to believe that you are flawless as a writer. Unfortunately, that in itself can lead to a degradation in the quality of your writing. Writers need to be open to new ways of learning, new techniques, and of course, criticism to keep improving.
How do you deal with feedback from readers on your own writing? How about feedback from editors?
From Wordy Speculations
“The Importance and Limitations of Beta Readers,” Jen Anderson, Clearing Blocks
“Writing Feedback: The Ultimate Guide to Working with Beta Readers,” Amanda Shofner, The Write Life