No matter what I’m writing — short story, novel, or something else — I’ll start with a first draft, do some amount of editing, and then start to feel the need for feedback. No matter how great you are at editing and revision, you can’t catch everything. In fact, if you’re me, you can’t catch a lot of things.
As I’m working on my serial novel, Razor Mountain, feedback is going to be interesting. While I’m going to start with a buffer of a couple completed chapters, I’ll be publishing as I write. Unlike my normal process, I’ll be interleaving the first draft writing, editing, and incorporating feedback for different chapters.
Regardless of the project you’re working on, getting feedback is critical to making your writing the best it can be. However, it’s important to understand that you’re not just throwing a manuscript over the wall to your reader and expecting them to toss back some notes. To get the most out of your readers, it can and should be a collaboration!
Who Is Your Reader?
When you’re asking for feedback, consider who you’re asking. If you have friends and family who are willing to read, that’s a fantastic resource. Many writers have a spouse or trusted friends who act as beta readers. You might also have writer friends, a critique group, or fellow writers on a critique website.
The largest differentiator between your early readers will probably be between “regular” readers and fellow writers. Readers tend to look at what they like or dislike about a story, and point out typos and grammar issues. Writers are much more likely to think about story structure or word choice, and to think about how they would do it were they writing your story.
If you use the same readers for several projects, you’ll get to know what feedback they’re good at giving. If you use a big online critique group or service, you might get different people every time. In either case, there’s a simple way to stack the deck in your favor and get more of the feedback that you want. Ask for it.
Know Your Weaknesses
First, think about what your own weaknesses are. What mistakes do you make? Writer, know thyself! The easiest way to do this is to pay attention when you’re editing. Keep track of the errors you fix and the things you improve.
For example, I love asides in the middle of sentences — like this one — and I have to restrain myself when it comes to em-dashes, parentheses, and sometimes colons.
I also tend to hedge when I’m not entirely sure about a moment in the story. For example, I might say that a character felt angry when or seemed upset when it would be more forceful to just say that the character was angry or upset. And then, I usually try to do away with that telling entirely, and show that the character is angry or upset through their actions or words.
If you don’t already pay attention to your editing like this, taking inventory of your foibles as a writer is a great way to improve. It’s also a way to build up a list of things for your early readers to look for.
What Are You Worried About?
When I write, there are some parts of the story that are rock solid. They’re straightforward and I know exactly what I want to do. I write them, and it comes out pretty well. Then there are other parts of the story where I’m less certain that I’m doing the right thing. I know there’s room for improvement. I feel like the character’s actions don’t quite match their personality, or the story is taking a detour, or the words just don’t fit together in the way I’d like.
You’ve probably had similar feelings. We all have parts of the work that we’re worried about, for one reason or another. That’s great. Those are perfect targets for your beta readers. Let them tell you whether you’re right to be worried, or doing better than you thought.
Asking For What You Want
Now we get to the crux of it. You have a list of your writerly tics and foibles. You know the parts of your story that you’re worried about. And you have some readers waiting in the wings.
If you have readers with a particular set of skills, you can always sic them on specific problems. Maybe you have a reader who is great with grammar and spelling. Don’t feel bad telling them to focus on those things. Don’t prevent them from bringing other issues to your attention, but cater to their strengths.
If you have readers who are generalists, or you’re not sure what their feedback strengths are, you can always include a few bullet point notes with your manuscript to guide them. Have them pay attention to a particular character that you’re unsure about, or particular scenes. Also consider whether you want to put these notes up-front at the start, guiding your reader to pay more attention to that particular thing, or at the end where they will prompt your reader to reflect on your concerns after they’ve finished reading.
You don’t always have to be extremely specific either. Maybe you’re worried that your comedic sidekick character, Phil, is unlikable. Rather than asking that directly, you might just ask how the reader feels about Phil. You can suss out their feelings without guiding them too much in one direction or another.
Guided Feedback is Great Feedback
Almost any beta reader feedback is going to be beneficial. When you find good readers, you need to take care of them and nurture them as a precious resource. You’ll find that they’re even more effective when you ask them for the kind of feedback you want.
Nobody knows your story-in-progress better than you do. If you have concerns about some particular part, there’s a good chance they’re justified. Use your beta readers to shore up those weaknesses and turn them into strengths, and your stories will be better for it.