Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Receiving Manuscript Feedback

Last week I wrote about giving feedback. This week I'd like to talk about receiving it. We're flipping the coin, putting on the other pair of shoes, and have the First Aide Kit on hand.

I've said it before, writing is a personal process. But to be a published writer, you have to develop a thick hide to criticism and feedback. There isn't a single soul on this planet past, present, or even future, who is immune to both C & F. Like it or not, you'll get it. People love to talk and they love sharing their opinions, it's part of being human. No matter what stage of the game you're at, with regards to writing and publishing, you'll need and receive C & F.

Asking someone else to read your manuscript can be terrifying. I know. I tremble every time I send something out. We want our work to please our beta readers. Inwardly we're hoping for a wow factor. In some cases, we're also hoping to find out what is still wrong with the story--you know, that bit you can't quite put your finger on. The first step is, of course, to ask someone to read your story.

I don't recommend petitioning your favorite authors, big industry names, or even writer friends up to their elbows in revisions, contracts, or other duties that go with publication. You put these people in a delicate position. Those being critiqued can accuse these beta readers of stealing ideas, of being a jerk (just because they didn't love the story or the writing), or expect them to jump through hoops in order to get the petitioner a book deal. These professionals have enough on their plate already without having to cater to the whims and needs of the unpublished.

*If you know someone who's already in the publishing game and they offer to read your work (on their own initiative) that's an entirely different case.

We'd all love to have professionals help us skip a few corners and get our foot in the door. Most times, this won't happen. So where do you go to look for C & F help? Writers groups, conferences, conventions, online writing forums, and such. There's no shortage of places, you merely need to take the time to find one that suits you and dive in.

One suggestion I strongly feel should be a cardinal rule when it comes to C & F is if you want people to read your work, you need to be willing to read theirs. I've heard writers complain they aren't experts on C & F. You won't get any experience if you don't try. It's a cop-out excuse. Someone else is going to spend hours pouring over your baby, for free. Offer to do the same. We learn a lot by critiquing (see last Tues. post.)

Another good and fast guideline is to seek out more than one or two critiques. You aren't hiring industry professionals but fellow writers. These writers will give you what you need but in subjective doses. The more of these doses you get the more you'll discover patterns in the feedback. The areas that really need work will be apparent to most readers. Similar C & F from several beta readers is a red flag to you as the writer.

Remember that your beta readers are not the supreme authority over your story. They have subjective needs and wants as readers. Maybe they are really into paranormal but your story is straight up fantasy. Or maybe they hate certain settings, expressions, or plot devices. Sometimes beta readers are still new at the whole C & F process and tend to let their subjective voices try to change your story to how they would do it. Know how to spot this kind of feedback, don't think meanly of the givers, and ignore it.

Don't let your beta readers kill your voice. Don't let them rewrite the story for you. Don't be alarmed if one or two people absolutely hate your book.

But—watch the numbers. If several people hate your book, maybe it's doesn't have wide-market appeal or you are so green at writing you're boring them to death. If several people have issues with that scene about unicorns eating watermelon at a tea party while they discuss forest politics, maybe you need to take another look at it and see why those issues come up. If several people are noting grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors you need to pay attention to that too. Likewise with wrong word choice or unclear writing.

Over time you'll get a feel for whose advice you need and want and who's you don't. Some of my favorite beta readers are the ones that rip my stories to shreds to help me achieve clarity and plot progression. Some of my least favorite (whom I don't ask to read again) are those who clearly hate the genre I write in so why torture them or me with subjectivity issues?

Avoid the inclination to hate a beta reader that is harsh on you for the right reasons. Oh, we hate to think they're right. We scream, pull our hair, or shout at the computer for awhile. When we've calmed down and look at our story again we see it through new eyes and gosh darn it, that strict beta reader hit the nail on the head with their critique. Keep in mind that people usually want to read your work to help you out. Why would someone volunteer to spend hours of time and effort reading your unpolished work if their intentions weren't to help you?

Don't take C & F personally. This is where the thick hide comes in handy. When writing a story, throw your heart and soul into it. When receiving feedback, step completely out of your story and treat it objectively--even like a stranger. C & F is not aimed at you as a person. (Now I know that you do meet the occasional troll in some online communities that never has a nice word to say about anyone or anything but you seldom run into these trolls if you solicit a beta reader to look at your work in private or in a controlled setting.) Please don't think for a moment that you are worth nothing if everyone tells you to go back to the storyboard. You are worth something. The story just needs more time and hard work to match you.

I see all too often writers who give up after one or two bad critiques. Some writers outright refuse to take any C & F because they expected only praise. Usually this is the mark of laziness, acute self-doubt, or delusions of grandeur. You are going to have your eyes opened, painfully sometimes. Criticism tends to come in huge doses while praise is fleeting. Most people who sit down to write a story for the first time can expect not to publish that book. They're new at the game. They haven't done the leg work or gained the experience in order to produce a marketable book. It's the sad truth about writing that the general public doesn't tend to focus on or hear.

The trick is to take that C & F and learn from it. You haven't failed. Truly. You can now move forward and use your new knowledge to up your game. Don't give up if storytelling is really in your blood. If you wake up every day thinking about writing, you are a writer. Finding out that your baby isn't ready to be shopped is discouraging. Go ahead and rant, rave, or cry. This is a normal part of the process. Don't give in to self-doubt. Gag that little voice in the back of your head that says you'll never be a writer. If you want it bad enough, you'll do what it takes to get there. Ignore timetables, the Cinderella stories about other writers, and don't compare your progress to anyone else's. Learn and get back to work.

Beware C & F that tells you nothing constructive. Even the pros need editors and beta readers. If the people you've chosen to read your work do nothing but praise, it's time to find new beta readers. Writers need to stretch and grow. There is no arrival point. Search out other writers who will help you grow. Also, don't get addicted to praise. Don't be a dog under the table begging for scraps in order to be happy. Praise can deceive; lull you into a false sense of accomplishment and security. Revel in the snatches of praise you do get but don't let it go to your head.

Receiving C & F is a delicate thing. Be professional about it, even if you're a newbie. Don't argue back with your beta readers, don't go online and bash them, and don't smear their stories in revenge. Sometimes the initial feedback stings. Put it away for a day or two. Pull it out when you've calmed down and look at it again. Another cardinal rule should be: if you're emotional don't do anything. Take a break from writing and do something else you love. Let the feedback simmer and cool.

From personal experience, some of the harshest feedback I've gotten over the years has tended to make a better writer out of me. I've had to rewrite, revise, completely cut out, and even blow-up stories. I look at those early drafts compared to what I have these days and I smile. I'm forever indebted to the people who beta read for me and who have taught me so much about writing and about my own writing process. Sure, the negative reviews still smart, but I know how to deal with them now.

Knowledge is power, people. Don't deprive yourself. Seek out feedback, think hard about it, edit and revise, and learn.


  1. Great points. I know my first few critiques I did some of what you mentioned. I rewrote. I see now that was a mistake.

    I still hesitate to tell the writer what I don't like. However, I WANT to know what doesn't work so I can fix it.

  2. I never take bad criticism as a negative. I take it as an opportunity to think about what the heck I'm doing. Especially if the criticism is coming from more than one source. (As you pointed out, Joyce, that is a BIG red flag.)

    But, than again, my goal isn't to please myself. My goal is to entertain others.