Allen Ginsberg may have written by the mantra of “First thought, best thought,” but when it comes to many of us, intense bouts of revision allows the “best thought” to rise to the surface of our first drafts, which are often created in a get it down on the page any which way you can method. But between that first draft and the second (or third, fourth, fifteenth…etc.) there is a very important step—soliciting valuable feedback.
Getting feedback about your book, memoir, poems, or really anything you write is absolutely vital. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when you’re IN the forest, and it’s hard to see what’s missing and what’s working in your novel when you’re surrounded by reams of paper or buried in your working notes. And while each writer uses and seeks out feedback differently, the following pieces of advice have always served me well. I hope they help you, too.
Stephen King calls it having an “Ideal Reader,” someone you keep in mind as you write, whose voice is constantly saying, “Oh Stevie, you can do better than that.” Of course if your name isn’t Stevie that can get weird, but you know what I mean. This idea reader is hopefully someone who is willing and eager to read your work when you’re ready for them to do so, but this person should not be the only one. If you can develop a stable of reliable, smart, and honest beta readers, you’ll give your work a shot in the arm when it comes time to revise.
Honesty is the key element there. Having someone constantly say how great you are is doing you no favors, even if you are great. We all have areas where we need to improve, and if someone cannot see those areas, then that someone shouldn’t be one of you readers, or at least you shouldn’t weight his or her feedback as heavily as others. Now, if someone is telling you how awful you are all the time, you should probably cut that person from your life completely. No one needs that.
I often advise people (and I do this myself) to find a reader who is a writer or editor, someone with proofing chops and an understanding of the craft, but also find a couple of readers who don’t. My target audience when I work on a novel isn’t just other writers, it’s a wide swath of book lovers. Find people you trust who are interested in your genre but have no editorial background, and develop a strong writer/reader relationship with them. They’re your audience. The people who read on the subway and then crunch numbers all day. The people who bring a book for their coffee break at the oil refinery. The bus drivers with paperback in hand while waiting to pick up school kids. Listen to what they have to say. If you’re losing them in your rambling story, you’ll lose others too.
Also, ask people you already have some sort of relationship with. Asking a well-known author you only met once for a few seconds or e-mailing your work to your favorite magazine editor won't work. They're just as busy as you are, and without that relationship, it will be almost impossible to get a Yes out of someone like that. Plus, it could hurt your reputation if you become known as an annoyance in publishing circles.
Ideally you should send your readers the finished book. (Every time I write “finished book” I laugh a little on the inside, then cry a little…it’s never finished!!) This way when they respond with feedback they can give you thoughts on the entire scope of the book, the characters, the choices you made or didn’t. Plus, endings and beginnings are so tough to get just right, to start and end on the right emotional notes, so why wouldn’t you pass that on to beta readers?
But I have seen some authors hold back on the ending and only give out a story up to the climax. This way, the reader will say, “I think this is what is happening, and this is how I think it will resolve,” and you can compare how you envisioned the end with what readers are expecting. Of course you shouldn’t allow readers to dominate your every choice and write the ending for you, but it’s an interesting way to see how a reader is able to predict what you’re doing. And if they get it just how you imagined it, consider a twist, even a subtle one. A happy ending is one thing, an expected ending is quite another.
This is different for a lot of writers. I know some who seek out feedback before the book or story is finished. I can understand that for a nonfiction book, but I’m very uncomfortable doing that with fiction. I want to make sure the first draft of the story is all mine, and adjust based on feedback from there.
Others wait until the first draft is done and then pass it on to eager readers. I’ve done this (and I am doing this right now with a novel) and this is helpful because it gives you a break between the first and second draft. By the time the notes come back from readers, I have a list of my own changes as well and I’m pumped up for round two.
But sometimes I also wait until after a second or third draft before I release it to anyone. Letting a story sit in a drawer for a few months can work wonders. It plays out in your mind as you’re mowing the lawn, driving around town, showering, sleeping, weeks and months later. Putting a book in a drawer and waiting can be like putting seeds into the ground in April and watching little stalks poke out of the dirt in June. The story will grow on its own and the purpose and themes of the novel may become much more apparent to you later on. When that happens, going back in for the second draft with only your thoughts can help you develop a much stronger draft for your test readers to dive into. A clean, developed manuscript will be much easier for them to read and reflect upon than one riddled with errors and going in fourteen different directions at once.
The great thing about writing and reading is it can be done anywhere—obvious statement of the year. I will get into the specifics of the back and forth involved with soliciting feedback in the How section below, but I often suggest readers take their time with the book and read it in the comfort of their own home whenever they are able. Standing in front of them or hanging around while they read it is such an awful idea for everyone involved. Make it a no-pressure situation.
I like getting notes back in a separate Word doc, in track changes, or in the margins of the printed manuscript, but I advise writers to also follow up with the reader face-to-face. Take the reader out to dinner or invite her over for drinks in a comfortable environment afterward to talk about the book. Written notes will tell you specifics; discussions will reveal the emotions of the reader as they talk about the book. Both are valuable.
Why not? Soliciting feedback does nothing but make your book, story, poems, or essays stronger. If you’re shy about your work, that’s understandable. Being judged is hard to go through, but don’t look at it as being judged. The people you are giving it to should be trusted professionals, even the ones who aren’t also writers or editors, and who are eager to see you succeed. If your pushy Uncle Frank or your BFF from college keeps pestering you about “when that book of yours is going to be done,” you don’t have to share it with them. Keep ‘em in the dark and share it with the people who have shown patience and understanding for your artistry. They’ll show the same qualities in their feedback. Plus good readers will help spread the word about your book—free marketing!
If you have two or three trusted readers chosen and they are ready to read your work, handing it off to them the right way will help the process stay fluid and effective. Each method has pros and cons.
If you are working on a longer project like a book, sending a Word file and asking them to use track changes can be useful for you, but sitting at a computer and reading an entire book can become tiresome and can wear out their eyes. (Trust me, as a book editor for Writer’s Digest, I know!) This method might be better for short stories, poems, or sample chapters of a nonfiction book. You can also send a PDF, but if the reader doesn’t have Adobe Acrobat, they may not be able to leave notes directly in the text. Regardless of the method, if your reader is comfortable reading your whole project on the screen, feel free to send it this way, but make sure they know what they’re getting into.
If your reader is just giving you overall feedback and isn’t going to proof your book in any way, there is also software available to convert your Word doc into various e-book formats for Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. Just beware of scam companies who want to charge you a ton of money to convert it for you online. You may be better off sending your friend a regular PDF, which many e-readers can read if converted correctly.
Printing is a great way to let your reader take the book anywhere without developing a screen-headache and they can write right on the pages. Printing costs, however, are a pain. If you have a home printer, that will probably help with shorter projects, but unless you want to buy two ink cartridges per printout, you might be better off just bringing your novel to a print shop—except they will charge you an arm and a leg and some teeth and most of your hair. I once brought in a double-spaced manuscript that was around 400 pages long and paid $45 for one printout. Yikes. Companies are also getting wary of employees using printers for personal reasons (again, ink and paper can get expensive). So what to do?
A writer friend of mine (author Bud Smith -- I mentioned him in a previous blog) uses print-on-demand companies like Lulu and Createspace to print drafts in actual book form. Yes, you’ll need to do some formatting to get your book ready for printing—for example, if your book will use a 6 x 9 trim size, you’ll need to go to File > Page Setup in Word and adjust your document’s trim size, the margins, the gutter, add page numbers, etc. You’ll also have to go through the book again to make sure chapters start on their own pages, that the text flows correctly, and so on. Bud Smith also adds blank pages or pages with lines after every chapter for readers to jot down notes. Then you upload, print out individual copies for anywhere from $4 to $10 each (or more depending on length and printing options), and then ship them to readers. That may still seem like a lot of money (it does add up) but it’s better than paying $40 per printout and then more for shipping.
Just note, however, that many POD companies will make you assign an ISBN to the project, often for free, before printing, and in doing so there may be some legal mumbo-jumbo you need to read. These companies are expecting you to sell the book online and make a little extra money that way, so make sure you’re on solid ground before moving ahead with that method.
Finally, make sure you explain to the beta reader exactly what you’re looking for in their feedback beforehand. If you don’t, you may end up getting a “That was great, thanks!” e-mail, and that’s it. Write out some specific questions, both broad ones like “What do you feel are the major themes of the story?” and specific ones like “Do you think Aunt Stacy’s motivation for leaving Uncle Frank were clear enough in Chapter Six?” This way the readers will know how to respond when the time comes.
And as noted before, take all feedback with a grain of salt. If one person hates Uncle Frank (poor Uncle Frank) but someone else loves him, he might be a flawed character who needs work, or just a divisive character and those can be some of the best. Trust your own gut in that situation. But if everyone seems to get lost at the same point in the story, or no one understand why you cut the ending so short, then you have a problem on your hands. You’re the final judge, but watch for patterns in the feedback. If your audience speaks, be willing to listen, even if you don’t incorporate every piece of advice they offer.
Have any feedback stories you’d like to share? Leave them in the comment section below!
James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest, the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, and is the author of the short story collection The Cards We Keep and the poetry collection Lantern Lit, Vol. 1. He is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit www.jameshduncan.com.