After you’ve finished drafting a manuscript and polishing it as well as you can on your own, for most of us, it’s time to reach out for fresh readers. Feedback from people who haven’t written and breathed and dreamed about this manuscript for weeks, months, or years. While often a critical step to elevate your manuscript to the next level, you’re not always going to agree with all of the feedback. Sometimes, the beta readers are just wrong.
I recently got all of the feedback from my beta readers regarding my space fantasy, so I opened up a bunch of tabs and read their high-level feedback and their notes on chapter one, back-to-back.
First You Have To Deal With Your Beta Readers
Selecting your beta readers can be a complicated process, but most of us are asking for feedback from people whose opinions we value. People who we know want us to succeed. I like to send my manuscript to a small group of 3-5 readers, some with a writing and craft background, and some who are just fans.
Once I get that feedback, I read through it, comparing and contrasting feedback from different readers. One reader disliking a section can be an outlier. If more readers think something isn’t working, I should probably look harder.
NOTE: All feedback is useful. You can see what works for each reader, what doesn’t, and what almost hits the mark. That said, readers often give suggestions on how to fix the issues they’ve spotted. No one knows your world or characters or story the way you do. The readers are usually right about what needs fixing, but often wrong about how to fix it. Figuring out how to make it all work is your job.
Next, I copy the manuscript into a new draft and start incorporating the feedback — my way.
Finally, once all the revisions are done, reread the manuscript to make sure the flow is still there, doing line edits.
Morgan’s Rule of Thirds
Can someone who’s barely got a publishing credential under her belt name rules after herself? Is it too much ego? *shrugs* While the proportions can vary wildly, especially if you’ve got a copy-editor beta reading for you, in general, I’ve found the feedback comes in thirds:
- 1/3rd is the easy stuff
- the line edits, the one-line clarifications or setups, the cleaned-up descriptions
- 1/3rd is the reader just not getting your point
- not all writers or stories are for all readers. That said, maybe there’s a way you could have set it up better? Or explained it more clearly.
- 1/3rd is the hard stuff
- the things you thought you fixed, that you were worried about, where it turns out, you just slapped a coat of paint over a rotten windowsill like a crummy landlord
How to Handle Feedback That Is Wrong
It’s easy to just throw away feedback you disagree with, but you’d be skipping a lot of places where your manuscript could improve.
Stage one – react
- Get defensive
- It’s normal. It’s natural. It happens to everyone. That said, get defensive in your head, or privately with a friend you can trust to vent to. In the moment, thank the person for their feedback and tell them they’ve given you a lot to think about — because it’s true.
- Sit on it for a bit
- Sometimes, if you wait for the initial wave of defensiveness and justification to pass, the reader might have a smidgen of a point.
THEN. When you’re ready to revise.
Stage two – your options
- Clarify why the story needed it your way
- Maybe the reader was right — because of what was on the page — and you just needed to set up the story better!
- Fix the issue – your way
- Okay, mayyyybe the beta reader had a point. But they were completely off on how to fix it. That’s okay! You can fix it in the way that you feel works best for your story.
Admit defeatFix the issue – as suggested
- Sometimes, after a good long think, you realize that the beta reader’s suggestion would actually work, but because of [reasons they didn’t even know]! So, use it.
- Skip that piece of feedback
- As I said above with my rule of thirds, beta readers don’t always get it right. Sometimes, they clearly read the story in chunks and completely forgot something that was explained 3 pages before.
With my space fantasy, two of my five beta readers hated my fairy tale narrator voice that I started each chapter with. And I went through these stages.
Of course, my knee-jerk reaction was to defend it. But, I bit my tongue, and really sat with it and thought about it. I bounced ideas off of a friend who’s heard a lot of the story brainstorming — but hasn’t read it. And I bounced ideas off of a friend who did read it.
I thought about why the beta readers might be right. The repetitive and rhythmic nature of the voice can make some people feel like they’re being condescended to as children. As the rest of the chapter wasn’t fully in that voice, because even I know it can get wearing, that transition might have been too jarring.
But then, I thought about removing that voice and making the entire story in a more modern tone and was ready to shelve the entire manuscript. Even though it didn’t work for all of my beta readers, I realized that the fairy tale tone is one of my favorite things about the story. The story just plain doesn’t work for me without it.
I plan to take the opening pages to a critique circle to see if I can make the transition between chapter-introduction voice and regular-chapter voice less jarring or to determine if I need to re-write the entire manuscript in the fairy tale narrator voice, because it matters that much to me.
You are the final arbitrator of your story. Even if you have a contract, if someone wants to revise your story in ways that don’t work for you, you can usually walk away — poorer, but sometimes it’s worth it.
Have you ever had to make a hard decision about whether to follow a piece of feedback or not? If you’re willing, let me know what it was, and if you regretted your decision in the end.