One of my neighbors has started dabbling in poetry and occasionally asks for feedback. She’s got a natural ear/eye for imagery but hasn’t studied the craft of poetry, so we take these opportunities to have mini-lessons on different aspects of writing. This week I played with one of her poems to demonstrate some possibilities for line breaks and stanza breaks as well as diction and conciseness.
However, in one place I inadvertently changed the intended meaning of the words. And overall my approach to the poem was a bit more ordered and compact than the author’s original intent. She actually wanted a sense of disorder and struggle. The poem wasn’t quite hitting the mark for that either, but it raised an important point about feedback: you must learn to discern which feedback to use.
I’m not suggesting you ignore opinions just because you don’t like them. I’m suggesting that you be clear on your intent for the piece of writing, understand who can offer you on-point feedback, and then use the feedback that best helps you achieve your intent.
To that end, here are four guidelines for effectively getting and using feedback on your book.
Be clear what type of feedback you are asking for.
Are you looking for conceptual feedback—“Does this book ring true for my ideal audience?”—or are you looking for skilled, technical feedback—“Is this book well written?”
Without guidance, readers will comment on whatever they notice—which may or may not be helpful. As a coach and editor, I approach a critique project as a blank slate, subject to any sort of feedback. But if you want feedback only on particular items—pacing, structure, storytelling—because you already know you plan to fix the chapter titles or do a search-and-replace on “good” and “very,” tell me that up front.
Similarly, if non-editor readers don’t have instructions, you may end up with “Nice book,” which gives you no actionable information whatsoever.
Choose the right reviewers.
Choose readers who are best equipped to offer the type of critique you need. Possibilities include writers, editors, critique groups, subject-matter experts, beta readers, sensitivity readers, friends, family and colleagues.
Family members and friends are often not critical enough, especially if they are not regular readers or feel obligated to give a favorable review rather than an honest critique. That said, it may give you some confidence to get their feedback first before going broader. (Or not. You know your own family!)
It’s critical to know what your target audience thinks, so by all means have some of your ideal readers give you feedback, especially individuals who read a lot. Caution: Your ideal readers may be able to say “like it”/“don’t like it” and maybe flag problem areas, but they may not be able to offer specifics about what is or isn’t working.
Skilled writers and editors are likely to have solid, valuable feedback, identifying problems as well as possible approaches to solve the problems. Cautions: Watch out for misinterpretations like the one I made (though that tells you something as well), criticism on immaterial issues for the sake of having something to say (sometimes a tendency in critique groups), and the tendency to be adamant about the “right” solution.
In general, if you can get feedback on your book from experienced writers/editors and beta readers who are part of your target audience, you should be fairly well covered. But do use subject-matter experts (technical SMEs, sensitivity readers, and so on) when appropriate.
Get feedback on big issues first.
On a manuscript critique I recently completed, my client was surprised when she read my report. “Oh!” she said. “Everyone else has basically been proofreading. You told me the big stuff I need to fix.” Proofreading is critical—at the right stage. But there’s no sense in spending time correcting the punctuation in a paragraph that may be cut.
The writing process is Ideate — > Draft — > Revise — > Edit — > Proof. It moves from big to small, rough to refined. As you request feedback on your book and assess what you’re given, focus on the biggest issues first—structure, content, gaps, tone. Sometimes the smaller issues—punctuation, grammar, word tics—are resolved as a result, but often they can simply wait until the text is firmed up.
Resistance to feedback is normal and, yes, sometimes futile.
For most of us (myself included), when we first get feedback, we bristle a bit. After all, how can anyone have the audacity to criticize our baby, our beautiful creation?
That reaction is normal, so let yourself react. Feel the resistance overnight or for a week. Once the sting has worn off, sit with the feedback. What is relevant? What is off-base? Whose opinion is worth listening to on a particular subject? Acknowledge that if you’ve received the same criticism multiple times, you probably need to adjust.
By allowing your emotions to surface and then taking some space to think, you can make a reasoned response. I once had a boss who compared this process to shopping for a new coat. Put it on, take it off, see how it goes with different outfits, get comfortable with it—then, if it fits, buy it.
Feedback aside, remember you are the ultimate judge.
With my neighbor’s poem, she chose a fine person to offer feedback (I do know a little bit about poetry). She did not tell me her intent of “disorder and struggle” upfront—nor should she have; authors don’t get to sit next to readers explaining what they’ve written. As a result, I gave feedback that was reasonable but not on target for the poet’s intent—which itself is useful feedback.
Remember: When asking for feedback on your book, you get to decide whom to ask, which feedback is useful, and how to apply it.
I love helping authors look at their work with fresh eyes. If you’ve got a book drafted and aren’t sure what it needs next, let’s talk about your intent and see if I can help. Get in touch at 919.609.2817 or firstname.lastname@example.org.