Writing can often be a solitary practice. Even if you’re collaborating with another author, it’s probably just the two of you who see the manuscript until you finish with the first or second draft.
Eventually, though, you’ll need to get others involved in the process, from editors and proofreaders to beta readers and peer reviewers. Feedback from readers is essential to making your manuscript into something that will appeal to readers.
However, not all feedback is useful. Have you ever handed a friend or family member something you wrote, only to receive “Looks good!” or “It could use a little work” in return? That is not helpful feedback.
But often nonprofessional reviewers don’t know how to provide you with useful criticism and suggestions. So, the task of guiding them falls to you. Here are a few suggestions for getting the most from reviewers and readers.
How much honesty can you take?
Criticism can be hard to take, and criticism of something you’ve poured your heart and soul into can feel incredibly personal. So, if you want honest feedback, you’ll have to prepare yourself for it.
Also, decide ahead of time how you will deal with the hurt if the reviews aren’t 100 percent positive (and they shouldn’t be if you’re getting honest critiques, since nothing is ever perfect). Maybe you’ll need to sit on their words and mull them over for a few days before you respond. Maybe you’ll need a third party to talk it over with.
No one method works for every person, so choose what works for you. The point is to plan ahead so that you’re not reacting emotionally.
Establish psychological safety.
Psychological safety is one of those fancy terms that have recently become popular, but it simply means providing an environment where your reviewers feel comfortable expressing their honest opinions, whether those opinions are right or wrong or whether or not it’s what you want to hear.
Often, friends and family are afraid to give negative feedback, either because they love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings or discourage you or because they’re afraid of your reaction based on past experience. But without constructive criticism, it’s difficult to grow and improve as a writer.
You can tell them with words that you want their honesty, whatever that may be, but the best way to make people feel comfortable sharing their opinions with you is to show them that you’re willing to listen to and appreciative of those opinions. That means listening, considering their words, and valuing what they have to say, whether or not you ultimately make use of their input.
Sometimes, amateur reviewers fail to give useful criticism not because they’re afraid to but because they simply don’t know how. Some people honestly think “That’s good” is legitimate feedback. So, you’ll have to guide them in what kind of help you’re looking for.
For general quality, you could ask them to rate it on a 1–10 scale. The numbers help to eliminate some of the ambiguity. For example, someone might say your story was good, but what they mean is that, while the sentences made sense, the story itself was boring and pointless. To another, good might mean that they loved it but there were a few typos.
When looking for specific areas to improve on, ask just that of your reviewers. What did they like most? What did they like least? What needs the most improvement? If they’re still reluctant to give negative feedback, ask them what one thing you could improve on.
Lead by example.
In an effort to elicit honest criticism, you can prime the metaphorical pump and begin by criticizing yourself. I’m not talking about tearing yourself down, but by mentioning some areas you’re trying to improve on, you help your reviewers get in a more critical mindset and show what you’re looking to receive from them.
Professional editors and reviewers won’t need such coaching, but it’s not usually financially feasible to hire a pro for all of your needs when it comes to reader feedback. You’ll often be working with people whose opinions and perspectives are valuable but who may just need a little guidance to express themselves in a helpful way.
By putting a little care and thoughtfulness into guiding your nonprofessional readers, you’ll end up with information to continually grow and improve your craft.
Rebecca has a passion for helping you fill the world with great literature and making sure said literature doesn't get passed over for the lack of a little editing.