Knowing how to handle beta readers’ feedback can make the process of writing a novel much smoother, and there are pointers that can help.
In my previous post on the importance of beta readers in novel writing, I said how important beta readers were for all authors, no matter how experienced they are, but getting feedback can be tough. Good beta readers will tell you what the flaws are in your writing, and that’s not always easy to hear, especially if you expected a few small things, then get a flood of major issues. It’s easy, and natural, to get discouraged when you hear about what isn’t working in your manuscript, so the most important thing you need to remember is that the aim of the feedback is to help you make your book better.
How to lessen the sting of feedback
- Before you read the feedback, remind yourself that:
- no matter how harsh it sounds, it’s been given in order to help you improve your book;
- receiving and dealing with feedback is an important part of the process of writing a novel;
- it’s better to have the feedback before it’s published than afterwards.
- Try to read the appraisal dispassionately. Don’t take it personally. It’s about your book, not about you.
- Let your feelings settle for a few days before considering where you will go next with it. What may seem harsh on first read, may seem logical and helpful a couple of days later.
- No matter what your beta readers say, applaud the fact that you have written a book, got it this far and have presented it to others for feedback. That takes determination, commitment and guts.
After receiving the feedback, you will have to look at your work again in the light of others’ opinions, and you will have to evaluate the amount of work ahead of you and, if there’s a lot of work needing to be done, you’ll need to determine if you have the commitment to see it through.
If you find the amount of work needing to be done a bit daunting, then ask yourself:
- How committed am I to publishing this book?
- Do I feel capable of making these changes?
- What study might I have to do in order to be able to make these changes?
- How much time and money am I prepared to put into it? (Unless you’ve already studied the craft of writing, you’re likely to be up for thousands of dollars worth of editing on your first book.)
- Are the issues so extensive that, even when fixed to the best of your ability, the story may not be strong enough to sell well? You may need to ask your readers this specific question. Of course, it’s not easy to predict sales, but books do need to be pretty strong to compete well these days.
You may need to put it aside for a period of time and let your readers’ comments settle before you can move forward. It’s also fine to decide that it’s more work than you want to do and shelve the project. You could consider it a practice run, and use what you’ve learned to improve your next attempt. Many authors have books on their computer that they abandoned at some point.
Evaluating the feedback
Not everything your beta readers say will necessarily be things that the majority of readers will pick up, but if one person has picked up on them, then others probably will as well, so unless you get conflicting opinions, I suggest trying to fix all the issues raised to some degree. Where there are conflicting opinions, I suggest going with the majority, and you can always ask the others how they feel about someone’s comment in the hope that they will shed more light on exactly what is not working and why. My book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine has some helpful tips on how to solve common problems, especially in terms of Showing instead of Telling.
If you’re really not sure about something, get another opinion, or just go with your gut feeling, but make sure that it’s intuition, not ego that you’re following. Acting out of an emotional reaction will not bring you the best decisions.
Giving up is not necessarily a bad thing. It can, in fact, be quite helpful. (See my recent post on giving up as part of the creative process.) When we’ve spent a lot of time on something, we tend to cling to the idea of finishing it, but just letting go of our attachment to a project, even if it is just for a few minutes, is helpful to give us some space from it, space in which we can see the whole situation in a more objective light. Giving up today, does not mean that you can’t go back to it later. Taking a step back is a great helper in any project.
Getting back to it
I copy and paste the emails with the readers’ comments into a document, then go through it and turn it into action points. So I work out specifically how I’m going to address the issues the readers raised. The list might look something like this:
- Del is annoyed that Yert got to the Ardmon throne room first. He had hoped to help Kirra’s family escape their fate. (This and the second and fourth point is designed to make him more likeable)
- Del explains to Kirra how he didn’t give the order, lead the assault or fire his gun in the slaughter of her family.
- Kirra has more resistance to falling in love with him.
- Make Del’s struggle with his role as Captain of the Guard and his feelings for Kirra clearer. He never thinks that he could kill her.
- Make the gardener Rosa’s father not her boyfriend.
- Make Kirra more concerned for her people. She thinks about them more and does spiritual practice for them. (This is to make her less selfish)
- Make Kirra’s feelings about slavery (and why it’s wrong) and the fact that the Torquor people see nothing wrong with it clear. She realises that she has to change their attitude to it before she can change anything.
- Make it clear that Rogon sees nothing morally wrong with slavery. The idea that it is wrong is new to him. He starts to see that when he begins to see her as a person not an object for his pleasure. Give more attention to his thoughts on this.
These are some of the points that came to me after digesting the beta readers feedback on Dispossessed, my work in progress. When I’m ready, I’ll get back to it. There is a lot of work to be done – even more than is mentioned here to do the story justice – so it will take a long time to get it to the next level, nevertheless, it will be better for all the work, and I’m grateful that I got such good critical feedback from my beta readers.
How do you feel when you read your beta readers’ feedback?
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