Beta Feedback Loop: Making the Most of Critique

Last week, I wrote a post on finding a beta reader for your story or novel, and how to make the beta reading experience fun and profitable for both reader and writer. This week, I want to talk a little about how and when to incorporate the feedback you get, in the hopes of making your story better.

Know Thyself (Well, Your Story, at Least)

Photo by ShowOffDundee.
Photo by ShowOffDundee.

To reiterate a point from my previous post: knowing what you set out to do with the work is critical to getting good feedback. By the time you’re ready for a beta read, you should know your characters, and your story, inside out. That one character… is (s)he a misunderstood hero? A villain? A glorified extra? What’s your main character’s story about, internally and externally? These are questions you should already have answers to.

If you don’t, then make that part of the process. Let your reader know that you’re shaky on a particular character or subplot. Let your reader know your worries, so they know what to look for when probing for weaknesses.

Set Your Ego Aside

If you’ve chosen your beta reader well, then you best saddle up for some body blows. Even if they love it, a good beta reader will have some problems with it — because there will be problems.  So be prepared for readers to hate characters you love, champion the side character you thought was a meaningless nobody, find your “fascinating” subplots a meaningless diversion, and your resolution possibly incomprehensible. Maybe worse.

I’ll be all right. You can take it. Do so gracefully and with a smile. Don’t come out swinging in defense of your beloved word-spawn — or, if you must, do it silently and to yourself. If you feel your story is being treated unfairly, open a discussion about it, but don’t get into a bitter argument that will only alienate you both. A reader’s reaction belongs to them, and you have a responsibility to respect it.

That’s not to say that you must accept their every criticism as gospel. Your reader may dislike that plot or character because they missed something vital — and that may mean that you didn’t emphasize it enough, or it just may mean that they missed it. It happens. That’s your cue to do some detective work. Talk to them, and find out if they did gloss that troublesome plot point.

It’s always up to you on what feedback to take to heart and what to ignore. That’s where this next step comes in.

Decide Your Deal-Breakers

To be blunt, if you’re not open to compromise and improvement, then having someone beta read your work in the first place is probably a waste of everyone’s time. But if you are, that still leaves the question of where you will and won’t compromise.

It’s easy enough to say “just be open-minded” — a noble goal, but one that ignores some of the complexities at work in the beta / writer relationship. The story you want, and the story your reader wants, may be two different things. They may make recommendations that could undermine or even completely alter the premise of your work. Their ideas may be great, but not right for the story, or terrible, and better than what you have now. It’s a minefield that you’ll both be running across, trying to meet in the middle for coffee.

That’s why it’s vital to have a solid grasp on what you’re trying to say before you submit your book for a beta read. If you don’t, you may find that the lack of intersection between what you want and what your reader wants can become a deadly chasm, and you fall into it believing that your book sucks, when in fact that may not be true at all.

Remember last week, when I said beta reading should not be entered into lightly? This kind of thing is why.

To Pander or Not to Pander

Photo by stoic.
Photo by stoic.

But what if the opposite of all that happens instead? Your beta loves your story. They especially love a particular subplot, character, or element. They want more. They demand more. And who are you to question a reader wanting more? You want to give it to them, right?

Not necessarily. Sadly, you need to be just as careful with praise as criticism, and judge carefully whether to sprinkle sugar all over the things your reader enjoyed.

Why?

Because sometimes wanting more is a good thing. Sometimes minor characters work because they have one charming scene and then vanish. Sometimes subplots work because they’re an entertaining diversion that lasts just long enough. If your reader wanted more because they felt something was underdeveloped or unclear, that’s a good sign you should probably revisit the material and consider adding to it. If they wanted more because they loved it and didn’t want it to end, that’s probably a good sign you should leave it alone.

The Pact

Beta reading — the good kind, not the “I liked it” kind — can be complicated and nerve-wracking. Is it any wonder that so many readers come back with “it was really good!” and leave it at that? Who has the time to engage on this level and navigate all these metatextual hazards?

Well, not everyone. And that’s why, if you have a good beta reader, you hang on to them with all they’ve got. Bribe them with chocolate. Send thank-you notes. But most of all, listen. Then decide for yourself what to do with the data you receive.

  • Not only have you enlightend me but you have terrified the hell out of me about when it comes my time to ask for Beta readers lol

    • Heh, sorry, Laura! Good feedback IS scary… but I really believe that bad feedback is worse. I’m hoping I can encourage people to give (and get) more of the good, useful feedback that writers need.

  • Once again, good sir, I believe you’ve nailed it. I find there’s a fine line between good advice that helps to address inconsistencies or problems in the story and chasing after the approval of others. And it’s also vital, as you say, to know what story you’re aiming to tell, lest your own vision be somehow perturbed by the micro-tides of the feedback experience.

    • You said it much more succinctly (and poetically) than I did. 🙂

  • Fantastic post, Dan. You’re completely right about the value of good feedback (even–and especially–if that good feedback involves massive revisions on your part afterwards). But as you said, a key part of going through beta feedback is determining what to listen to and what to consider, but ultimately gloss over. And going in with the right mindset and goals definitely makes the entire beta reading experience much more effective. All fantastic points.

  • I completely agree with what you say here. You should try shopping this out to the people who publish writing textbooks. If you substitute the phrase “beta reader” for “peer editor”, your message works for draft workshops as well.