Last week, I wrote about giving the best feedback possible. Now it’s time to discuss receiving great feedback. No, this isn’t about everyone kissing your butt! It’s about putting aside your ego and lovingly beating the crap out of your work until it’s better than you ever imagined.
Some of this advice complements ideas from the last post, but as a writer soliciting feedback, your job is more involved. Not only do you have to gather it, you also have to apply it to the greatest possible effect. You may then need to change how or from whom you solicit critique from in the future-
-but for now, let’s start at the beginning. You have a piece or a chapter done, and you want more eyes on it. Good! It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, you always benefit from ensuring there’s nothing lurking in your blind spot that unravels the plot or otherwise turns off potential readers. What now?
Remember that scene in Happy Gilmore when Happy enters a batting cage to face an onslaught of mechanical fastballs? When you bare your soul and ask others to critique your work, you must be every bit as fearless and immune to what’s thrown at you. (At the same time, there’s no shame in wearing a helmet.)
Always, remember, though: unlike baseball, the people slinging those fastballs are on your side.
When you have food caught between your teeth, are you upset or defensive with anyone who politely warns you about it? Do you take it as an affront? Hopefully not. In fact, you’re more likely to be upset if they keep quiet, and you wind up flashing a goofy spinach-riddled grin at your crush. That’s what I’m talking about with critique. What may feel like an attack is really just someone trying to help you put your best foot forward.
It’s tough to convince your ego of this sometimes. Ever write something you thought was killer, only to have it fall flat with everyone who looked at it? Even seasoned writers sometimes feel like they’ve endured a beating after a tough critique session.
Still- better you identify and fix problems now, before your crush happens past.
It’s time to find beta-readers. Friends and family are a good start, but you also need opinions from those who aren’t super-close to you, those who won’t be tempted to tell you everything smells like roses. Look for seasoned beta-readers at local writers’ groups and on social networks. If you’re joining a group cold, don’t shove your work under their noses right away. Spend a few sessions providing feedback for the other members, until you have a better feel for whether they understand your genre and provide strong advice.
When you do ask for feedback, explicitly invite the group’s honesty. Let them know you can take constructive criticism (and mean it).
To avoid the dreaded “It was good” review, give your beta-readers specific things to watch out for. Was a certain scene transition effective? What are their impressions of the main character? If nothing else, ask the readers to identify three things they liked and three things they thought could use improvement. Also state whether you want people to point out typos and grammatical flaws, or if you want them to put that aside and focus more on the plot, characters, etc.
Be open to discussion.
Ask if you can delve into your beta-readers’ comments. Their notes should be the starting point for a civil discussion where you invite clarification and flesh out ideas for improvement.
This isn’t a doctoral dissertation. You’re NOT defending your work from the criticism it received. By all means explain what you were trying to do in a certain paragraph/line, but don’t assume every misunderstanding is the reader’s fault.
Brainstorm together to make the suggested changes as awesome as possible. You can forge a lot of great ideas and friendships this way. A fun, spirited discussion not only inspires you, but also makes your beta-readers more eager to help you in the future.
All this said, you shouldn’t try to incorporate every single suggestion your beta-readers give you. We all have pet peeves that other people completely don’t care about, and you’ll never satisfy everyone. Place more weight on feedback that more than one person has made.
If one person says a certain line confuses them, but it doesn’t bother anyone else, and you don’t feel it needs to be changed, don’t change it. However, if nearly everyone says a certain part runs on too long, it runs on too long!
As you work with different beta-readers, you’ll find there are some people who “get you” and provide tons of great ideas. Stick with those who really challenge and inspire you, and place more weight on their opinions. They’re more representative of the people who’ll ultimately form your audience.
Do you have any tricks for getting the best feedback and making the most of it? Feel free to comment and let me know!