I’m certain of one thing in life: the ability to give useful feedback on a piece of writing is an advanced skill, maybe even an art. Some beta readers have it already, but even the gifted ones will look to you for guidance.
It helps to remember that as the writer, you’re the one in control of the feedback process. So don’t simply prostrate yourself before your beta readers: learn to ask for what you need.
Let me show you how.
What you (and your work) really need
How can you be a better writer and make your book the best it can be? I agree with US-based writing teachers Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff when they say that improvement comes when you’re presented with different kinds of reactions to your work.
In their excellent book Sharing and Responding, Belanoff and Elbow go into detail about the types of feedback their students find most useful. This work was conceived with academic writers in mind, so here I’ve adapted the approaches that I think are most likely to benefit writers of fiction.
Some kinds of feedback to ask for
One principle worth agreeing at the start is that any feedback should be framed not as fact, but in terms of the reader’s perception. So ask for statements like ‘I started to get confused when the orangutan disappeared from the lifeboat’ instead of ‘The scene with the orangutan in the lifeboat is really confusing’.
1. Summary and say-back
Here you ask your beta readers to summarise your story in their own words, or say what they think the main plot points are. This is an effective way to find out whether your book’s structure is clear enough.
2. What do you want to hear more about?
This question can help you in all sorts of ways. You can use it to add scenes to your work, inject more conflict, decide on the focus of your sequels, or (if you’re feeling brave), turn it around and find out which sections your beta readers want to see less of.
Ask your beta readers to tell you what kind of voice they hear in your writing, or even what kind of person they think your words sound like. Responses to this question can tell you whether your language and tone are engaging, and whether your narrator is credible.
4. Record of reaction
Invite your readers to keep a record of what passes through their minds as they read your work. For me, this is the most valuable form of feedback because through it you’re granted a detailed insight into the effect you’re having on your target readership.
5. Metaphorical descriptions
This is my favourite way to receive feedback. Ask your beta readers to think of a freestyle metaphor for your writing, or assign them a category such as ‘food’ or ‘weather’. Then sit back and enjoy as your novel takes on new life as a pile of dirty pants or a pangolin. Sounds silly, I know, but you’d be amazed at how this one can transform your view of your own work.
6. Criterion-based feedback
Here’s where you get to ask your readers’ opinions on anything that is bothering you. You might, for example, ask whether your fantastical beasts are horrible, pitiful or scary enough. Or you could request feedback on your dialogue. Criterion-based feedback covers any aspect you want it to – even the likes of spelling, typos and grammar.
How to handle feedback
If giving feedback is an art, knowing how to use it is an attitude.
The first thing to realise is that you don’t have to use it at all.
That’s not to say I advocate huffily ignoring every piece of feedback that challenges you. After all, if your beta readers have stuck to the guideline of giving feedback as a series of perceptions, every perception has validity.
But don’t forget that you’re in the driving seat.
Take every response seriously, and use your critical judgement about whether it will truly improve your work. If one reader doesn’t like your protagonist, that might not be significant. But if a lot of people object to your use of an omniscient narrator, say, you’d be wise to listen.
My overarching advice is not to become stuck in a rut. Even if one kind of feedback worked brilliantly for your first novel, it could be that the next requires an entirely fresh approach.