By Iola Goulton @iolagoulton
Last week I outlined four possible approaches to giving feedback when betareading for other writers. Giving complimentary feedback is easy. The hard part is giving critical feedback.
And what feedback you give may depend on how the author sees a beta read.
Some authors use beta readers as first readers, to identify and iron out developmental issues such as plot and characterisation issues. Other authors use beta readers after the book has been edited, to act as unpaid proofreaders, or first reviewers.
Neither approach is wrong—or right.But it might help to know which approach the author has taken before offering feedback. If the author is using beta readers to test an early version of the manuscript, then my view is that any and all feedback should be welcome. But the feedback should focus on the big picture:
- Is there a clear story question?
- Is there a clear three-act (or four-act, or six-stage) structure?
- Is there a clear character arc, including character goals, motivation, and conflict?
- Does the novel meet genre expectations?
- Does the author use point of view correctly?
- Does the author show rather than telling?
- Are there any recurring writing issues the author should be aware of?
But it's not all bad: this is all fixable. I can usually see the potential for a plot, a structure, and a clear character GMC, but they are hidden behind excessive repetition.
If the book you've beta read is an early version, then the author should be expecting feedback on these basic issues. As a reader, you should expect the writing to need work—it hasn't been line edited or copyedited, so it will need work.
But what if you're not the first reader? What if you know the book has already been edited, and it's still not stellar?
This is where giving feedback gets difficult.
Is the fault with the writing or with the editing?
If you're beta reading an edited book, you have to ask: is the problem with the writing or with the editing? Or both?
It could be that the author didn't know what kind of editing the novel needed, so hired the wrong kind of editor. It could be that the author hired the cheapest editor (who proofread when the novel needed a line editor).
Or it could be that the author hired an excellent editor, then ignored the editor's feedback. I've had this happen. I've copyedited or proofread books where I've given the author advice on how to improve the book, and they've chosen to ignore me.
If an author is self-publishing, the editing is the author's responsibility. They write the book. They select the editor. They choose whether to accept or reject the editor's advice.
(Traditional publishing is another matter. The author is under contract, and the publisher won't publish a novel that doesn't meet their standards. That might mean the author has to allow changes they don't agree with.)
So it's important to know whether you're a first reader or a last reader before you give feedback, so you can concentrate on the right things.
Giving FeedbackHere are my tips for giving feedback:
State Your AssumptionsIf you're assuming the manuscript hasn't been edited, say so. It's kinder than saying it hasn't been edited well (even if that's what you think). Then cite specific examples and sources of areas that need editing, so the author knows this isn't you being mean. It's you sharing knowledge.
Be ClearGiving feedback is not a time for obfuscation or eregious advice. Say what you mean, and say it clearly.
Cite SourcesIf you're giving feedback on a technical craft issue (e.g. plot, structure, characterisation, or point of view), then cite the source of your advice. Where possible, quote from a relevant craft book from a recognised author or publisher (e.g. James Scott Bell or Writer's Digest) rather than random blog posts or Pinterest pins (which might be wrong ... like that "101 alternatives to 'said'" pin).
Cite ExamplesIf there were parts of the manuscript which puzzled you e.g you couldn't tell which character was speaking, or you didn't understand something, then cite the exact example. It doesn't help the author if you say you didn't understand some things. It does help if you quote specific sentences and say what you didn't understand.
Focus on the WritingCritiquing a manuscript is just that. Critiquing a manuscript. Critique the writing, but do not critique the writer (which is one of the reasons I don't edit non-fiction—it's a lot easier to stick to critiquing the writing in fiction! So be kind.
Finally ...Finally (or first), remind the author that all professional writers go through an extensive revision and editing process. It's only the amateur who thinks a novel can be written in two weeks, and published the next. Seeking feedback from trusted advisors is an important and necessary part of being a professional writer.
The author friend who asked you to beta read is already several steps ahead of the pack. They've completed a manuscript. They've asked for feedback. Now they need to assess that feedback (from you, and from others), and incorporate the best feedback into their manuscript.
I hope that helps! What questions or suggestions do you have about beta-reading or giving feedback?
About Iola GoultonIola Goulton is a New Zealand book reviewer, freelance editor, and author, writing contemporary Christian romance with a Kiwi twist. She is a member of the Sisterhood of Unpronounceable Names (Iola is pronounced yo-la, not eye-ola and definitely not Lola).
Iola holds a degree in marketing, has a background in human resource consulting, works as a freelance editor, and has recently introduced an Website | Facebook | Instagram | Pinterest | Twitter