Early drafts of anything—novel, book proposal, screenplay, children’s book—are rarely ready for the prime-time of literary agents’ or editors’ in-boxes. For that reason, it’s advisable to get feedback on your work, to vet it and revise it before you send it out into the world for potential representation by a literary agent or potential sale to a book publisher.
For those going the self-publishing route, getting constructive reader feedback now can mean that your book appeals to more readers—or addresses more reader needs—when it’s out in the marketplace. So feedback is advisable for authors who are self-publishing, too.
1. Be appreciative of any feedback
The goal of getting feedback and revising your manuscript accordingly is to improve it before the pros or a broader audience sees it. Getting and acting on good feedback
So, first, some reminders:
- Reading and giving feedback takes valuable time—and being thoughtful about it takes even more time. Please appreciate your readers. Because all readers provide useful information.
- Reading and giving feedback is meant to help. Take in all feedback—no matter what the message, no matter how it’s delivered—in a spirit of thankfulness.
2. Remember: you want constructive, actionable notes
Writers whose friends and acquaintances read their work like to be told things like, “I really liked it!” or, even better, “I loved it!” (C’mon, admit it.)
“Liked” and “loved” are actually vague and subjective opinion and, while nice to hear, that’s actually not very useful to you right now.
What is useful—what you want—is for people to be thoughtful and constructive and honest enough to also tell you what’s not working in your novel. Notice I didn’t write “what’s wrong” —that, too, is subjective. The answers to the question “What’s not working for you?” is feedback you can use to improve your story.
3. Ask for / prompt for specific feedback
Tell your readers that you welcome their “like” and “love,” but you can really use some specifics about why they liked what they liked and loved what they loved. And what they did not.
Here are some prompts you might give readers before they read your work:
- Did you have difficulty understanding anything?
- Were you able to follow the plot or (for non-fiction), the flow of the information?
- Did you stumble over anything?
- Did you perceive any gaps in the narrative? Any places where you could’ve used more information?
- Did you have difficulty getting beyond a certain plot point or passage? Where was that?
- Did any passages strike you as slow-moving or boring?
- What did you think about the characters?
- Did any characters behave in a way that seemed “out-of-character,” as they’d behaved previously in the story?
There are many more questions you can ask, depending on the specifics of your book, but the general idea is to get your reader talking about what might ultimately need clarification.
4. Analyze the feedback
Now you need to seriously examine the feedback you’ve been so generously given. Analysis takes some time and thought.
When reviewing feedback, know that readers may not all be great at articulating what’s bothering them about When a reader says “I didn’t understand when,” “I was confused at the point…,” “What exactly was happening with…?” pay close attention.
If a person mentions to you any sort of dissatisfaction about a certain passage (or plot point or chapter or character) in any context, it indicates that there is a sticking point for that reader, something that bugs them.
If more than one person stumbles over that same passage—even if the exact feedback is slightly different or even conflicting—you have a plot (or tone or character or clarity or pacing…) problem you need to address. For example, “The part about the apocalypse seemed really long” and “I didn’t understand why the hero saved the villain during the apocalypse” points to the fact that your apocalypse needs work.
5. If you have to explain it, you really should change it…
When hearing feedback, some writers have a tendency to explain themselves and defend his/her writing or story or choices against the reader’s notes. (“I know it’s confusing but I want to keep the readers off balance,” “But the villain is meant to be a complex character,” “The scientific studies are conflicting…”)
Fight that urge. What you might be encountering is a disconnect between your writer’s vision and what the reader is experiencing. Solving for these disconnects is the whole purpose behind getting feedback — you want to ensure your own creative or informative vision makes it smoothly to the reader.
So, instead of getting defensive, get curious about what the reader is experiencing. Ask more questions, dig deeper. For example, you might ask:
- “What exactly did you find confusing in that section? Was it confusing you want to know more about what’s going on? Or confusing like “This is too confusing to make me want to continue?”
- Was it that you didn’t understand why the villain would help the hero? Or was it just that the writing wasn’t clear and you didn’t understand what was going on in that chapter in general?
- The scientific studies do show conflicting results — what didn’t you understand about the way I presented that?
Again, honor the time and effort it takes to read and give feedback by truly exploring it and taking it very seriously.
6. … but you get to make your own artistic choices.
The goal is to resolve the readers’ sticking points in a way that satisfies and still honors your creative vision. Yes, doing so takes skill and craft and you’ll be working on that, too.
Note that you might get suggestions: “You should make her kill the intruder, not just maim him.” “He should get set up on a double-date with her grandmother.” “It would be funnier if the character had Tourettes Syndrome.” Ultimately, of course, you’re the author—you can absolutely ignore specific suggestions or solutions even while you take seriously the reader’s impression or thought behind it.
If you’re unable to figure out how to solve for a certain problem, ask for specific feedback about that section from another writer whose opinions you trust.
Paying attention to thoughtful feedback can help you better engage your first professional readers— agents or editors or others who are critical to your getting that book published.
7. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
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