About giving creative feedback

Last week I spoke on an writer’s need for feedback, and I was speaking to the writer needing the feedback. If you missed it, I invite you to take a look.

This week, let me speak on giving that feedback to a writer, and this time I’m speaking to those wonderful individuals that are entrusted as Beta Readers.

First off, please oh please, never accept a manuscript you have no intention of reading. This might seem really basic, but let me say it again. NEVER ACCEPT A MANUSCRIPT YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF READING. It does an artist no good — and some harm — if you just accept a manuscript just to make them happy. It is better to tell them you can’t help them this time, far better in the long run.  Writers understand that when they send their manuscripts off to Editors and Publishers that their work will languish in a slushpile of other manuscripts waiting to be read.  Having a good close friend slushpile their work can be a devastating blow to their ego.  It can also have a chilling effect on your relationship with the writer too…

Second, and this is even more important, if after accepting a manuscript you intended to read, you discover that you just can’t finish it, return it with apologies. Do this as soon as you realize you will be of no help to the writer.  While its likely to sting the writer some, it will hurt far less than wondering why you quit answering their emails, IMs, phone calls, text messages, carrier pigeons, stone tablets, dispatches, pony express…  I digress, but the point is hopefully made.  While I’m talking about it, let me stress that it is equally important to keep those lines of communication — however arcane — open to help feed the fragile writer ego that has intrusted their baby to you.  Even if the best you can do is something simple like: ‘Been really busy lately and haven’t been able to finish yet, but I’ve gotten to the 4th chapter.  Hope to finish it soon.’  Whatever you decide to say, be honest.

Last week I urged the writer to be patient with the Reader.  The writer spent long hours into the manuscript and needs to give you a reasonable time to read it.  You should honor that trust by giving the manuscript the attention it deserves, not dribbles and the dregs of your otherwise busy life.  Try to finish sections if you cannot finish the whole manuscript in a single sitting.

Alright, you’ve cleared your schedule, put a do-not-disturb tag on your door, turned off the internet, set your iPhone to airplane mode, fobbed the kids off on an unsuspecting relative and have sat down to read the bloody thing…  Now what?  Take notes!  Record your thoughts and any questions you have that the piece that doesn’t address.  In fact, try to read it through at least twice.  On your first pass, skim and look mainly for glaring errors and questions and confusions.  On the second pass, take your time and try to find the answers to the questions you had on the first read through.  Any questions left need to be part of your report.  Don’t let that word scare you, this is not an elementary school ‘Book Report’.

Why two passes?  Why a skim before a careful read?  On that first pass look for points where you stop reading to scratch your head and wonder what you missed.  Quasi-interested readers will stumble on these points too.  On your second pass, you will be familiar with the work.  Perhaps you can answer your own questions.  If you do find answers to first-read questions, record them to discuss with the writer, they might not be the right answers.  Even if you can’t you need to be looking for problems and unanswered questions you missed the first time around.

A Beta Reader needs to know what the writer is looking for in feedback…   If they just need a sanity check before sending it out for editorial review or submission to a publisher, they need a fine-tooth-comb sweep.  Typos, misused punctuation, sequence errors (chapters/scenes out-of-order), missing sections, in other words, EVERYTHING YOU CAN FIND THATS SCREWED UP!  This is not really a proper task for a Beta Reader, but something a little more.  “First Reader” or “Ideal Reader” are terms thrown about in various circles.  A Beta Reader usually gets asked to do this but by that time the Beta Reader is more familiar with the manuscript.  In any case, it’s a little beyond the scope of this article however.

Most of the time when writers send manuscripts out to Beta Readers, they are looking for feedback because they have a story that is on life-support.  At this critical stage in the creation process, they are trying to find out if the story that lives in their head and imperfectly transcribed into a manuscript is really as great as they think.  Ok, maybe not quite that grandiose.  The writer has hit a level of their work where they need to know if they are actually doing something worthwhile or just wasting their time.  What is most helpful at this stage is an honest review of what works and what doesn’t.  What is really interesting and what is boring.  What is overdone and what is cliche.  What questions aren’t answered, and where scenes or characters don’t work.  While pointing out typos and grammatical errors is of some limited value, it really doesn’t help at this stage.  Here are some comparative examples.

“John doesn’t really seem to care about Martha at all, the relationship is wooden and cliche, it just doesn’t work.”   This is good.  It gives rather pointed advice on what is at fault.

“I hated the way John treats Martha.”  This is ok.  Not great, not really helpful, but at least its honest feedback.

“This sucked.”  Is not good at all.  I know it sucked, thats why I sent it out on a Beta Read.   Tell me why it sucks if you can.

“I found that you kept shifting tenses in the verbs when you get into the action sequences.”  This is really useful grammatical advice.  Shifting between Present and Past tense in your verb forms confuses readers and can lead to other errors getting overlooked by the eye being drawn to the non-standard usage.

“Pick a tense and stick with it.”  This is not useful.  Its more of a complaint than a constructive feedback.  It’s also an example of a flippant backhand quip that reflects that you didn’t read enough to show more respect for the esteem the writer holds you in.

“I do not think that word means what you think it means.”  Great line from Princess Bride, but not such a good thing to hear from a Beta Reader.  Humor is a great defuser, but follow it up with what word you’re referring to.  Consider if the next example were to follow this one…

“You have been using ordinance — i.e. Laws — when I think you mean ordnance — i.e. weapons and ammunition.”   Much better advice, because it outlines the error.  It’s actually it’s a two-fer in that you get the proper term and its meaning and the improper terms meaning as well.   Writers are not perfect — thats why Editors exist — so help your patron writer out by showing them why the word they use is probably a poor fit.  But tell them what their imperfect fit means to, that way if they were being obtuse you have covered both bases.

Alright, you’ve finished your two read thorough, taken lots of notes, and are ready to report your feedback.  How do you do this?  There is no hard and fast way.  Sometimes marking up a copy of what you were sent in different colored text is one way.  If your dealing with a physical printout, marginalia is good too(and one of my favorite obscure words).  Typing up a separate document with page/section/Chapter&Scene references is also good.   Be as complete as you can.  Be as honest as you can.  Your writer does not need a sycophant, they need honest feedback, even if it means you have to tell them the story is no good…  Especially when you have to tell them the story is no good.  You can be gentle if you feel the need to.  You can be brutal as long as your writer knows your not just ripping him to shreds for sport.  But it is paramount that you give honest feedback.   Being available for real-time discussion is a great bonus, and if your able to do so in person, its considered polite to bring the beverages to drown the sorrow or celebrate the good news.  After all, its the least you can do for the writer after put their story — and maybe even their soul — under your microscope.

Remember, as a Beta Reader you have a special role in the development of the story.  The writer has turned to you  for help in figuring out where their head-cannon and manuscript don’t line up.  And in the end you can have an impact on the final product.  You can help find plot holes, fix problem characters, and even drive the parts of the plot the writer has problems with.  Or you can do nothing, and encourage the writer to give up.  No pressure.

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