The Golden Rule of “treat others how you’d like to be treated” applies to most aspects of our lives—including our author life. One of the best things we can do to find beta readers for our work (at least among our network of author friends) is to offer to beta read for others.
Inside the beta reading relationship, the Golden Rule applies to the feedback exchanged as well. As someone who has been fortunate enough to have had many beta readers over the years, I know that not all feedback is created equal.
We might implement 80% of the suggestions from one reader and only 10% of the suggestions from another. How likely are we to reuse that 10% reader again? Not very. Unless that 10% is brilliant, it’s not going to be worth our time to reciprocate and continue to beta read for them.
That question can be reversed too. When we read for others, are we closer to being a 10% reader or an 80% reader? If we provide poor feedback, the recipient is less likely to encourage an ongoing “beta buddy” arrangement, just as we’d do in their place.
So to maintain a group of willing beta readers, it’s in our best interest to ensure our feedback is truly helpful. Like the story of Goldilocks, we have to find a middle ground where we’re not too harsh or mean, not too soft or timid—but just right.
Even more importantly, we have to provide feedback that helps the author improve their story, not the story we’d write. Here are three tips for how to increase the helpfulness of our feedback and become a better beta reader.
Tip #1: Focus on Making Their Story Better
The right kind of feedback makes us invaluable to other writers. They’ll be excited to read our work in exchange. Some of my readers’ feedback is so good that I not only instantly see the problem they point out, but it also makes me eager to dive into revisions. That’s good. *smile*
So what makes feedback “good”?
My number one tip is that we must work toward making their story better. We shouldn’t focus our comments on how we’d do it.
How we’d do it is irrelevant. Our voice is not their voice, our goals are not their goals, our themes and worldviews are not their themes and worldviews.
The only exception to this rule is when something about their writing isn’t working for us. Maybe the writing is passive, maybe the characters lack motivations, etc. Then—and only then—can we provide an example and say, “This doesn’t work for me because of xyz. Maybe something like abc would be stronger.”
Tip #2: Suggest Changes Only When the Writing Doesn’t “Work” in Some Way
Just because the writing is different from how we’d do it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. For all we know, the impression we’re left with is the impression they wanted.
Once, a reader of mine made tons of word choice suggestions to my manuscript because they assumed I didn’t intend the impression I’d created. However, I’d used those specific words for subtextual foreshadowing of a major plot point later in the story, and now I felt bad the reader had spent all that time on irrelevant suggestions. They could have saved a lot of time by giving one comment along the lines of, “Words like a, b, and c are creating an impression of z, and I’m not sure that’s what you wanted.”
If the writing works, suggested changes like word choice or sentence structure aren’t helpful. Unless the writer asked us for line-by-line, copy-editing-level feedback, we’re more likely to mess with their voice than to provide useful information.
If the writing doesn’t work, we should focus on why it doesn’t work for us. Separating our thoughts on whether a section doesn’t work or if it’s just not how we’d word it can be tricky sometimes. So we should ask ourselves why we want to change the writing.
- Does the current wording take us out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, slow pacing, no conflict/tension, etc.)?
- Are the stakes, goals, motivations, etc. unclear or weak?
- Do we not like or care about the characters?
If we can’t come up with a reason, we should leave it alone.
Tip #3: Always Give a Reason for Suggested Changes
The only time I make a change and don’t give a reason is when I find a missing word. Those are fairly self-explanatory. *smile*
Every other suggested change has my explanation of why. With that reason, the author can judge whether my suggestion comes from me not getting their voice, misinterpreting something, being confused, etc.
If we don’t give a reason, crossing out their writing and replacing it with our own is disrespectful. On the other hand, if we have a real reason, even nitpicky things like suggestions about word choices and sentence structures are helpful.
Leaving a comment like “I’d use x word instead of y word” isn’t a reason. Again, we must respect their voice.
In contrast, “I don’t think the character would use x word (would they even know that word?). Y seems more like their voice” is a real reason. The author now has enough information to decide whether to make the change or not.
We know what qualifies as a “real” reason. We’d want to know if the wording is confusing or caused others to stumble. We’d want to know if a section is too wordy or slow. We’d want to know when a character is too whiny or harsh. In short, we should give the type of feedback we know to be more helpful.
Give the kind of feedback we’d like to receive. There’s that Golden Rule again. *smile*
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Do you have other tips for giving good feedback? What feedback have you found most helpful? What feedback isn’t helpful to you? How much does the quality of feedback you receive affect whether you reuse a reader? How would you rate yourself as a reader?Pin It