Leaving Feedback

As writers, we like getting feedback on our stories. We’re excited about the worlds and characters we’ve created, and we can’t wait to share them with others. Many of us love reading other people’s works in order to provide feedback and encouragement, but the way we comment can have different affects on them as writers. Now, to determine the best kind of feedback to give, I presented 30 writers with the following questions:

Imagine you gave someone a piece of your writing (a chapter or so). You did not ask them to proofread or edit or critique you work—merely enjoy it, and you get three kinds of responses:

  1. Awesome! That was totally neat! LOVED IT! Check out my story here:…”
  2. Awesome action! A lot of stuff happening here. It was a bit hard to follow at times since so much was happening. For instance, were there four guards or three? Because I only saw them take down three guards, so what happened to the fourth? Other than that, really epic writing! I chuckled when Rex was shouting at the others, “Stop it! Stop it! You’re shooting the mummies!” “They’re already dead!” “They’re ARTIFACTS!” “Then come out, so we can shoot you without hitting anything else. It’s either you or the dead guys.” “Well, when you put it like that…” That was funny. Can’t wait to read more. And hey, if you’d check out my story, I’d really appreciate it. Would love to hear what you think! Anyway, looking forward to more of your story. Keep writing!”
  3. You forgot a period at the end of the sentence ‘He determined this was going to be a very long afternoon’, and you’re missing a word in this sentence, ‘he didn’t dare look up because the bullets were everywhere.’ Also, the action was too fast and unclear a lot of the time.”

Out of the three which would you prefer to receive, and which one would get you to read the individual’s story?

The results:

No one chose #1.

2/30 people chose #3 as their preference of feedback.

28/30 people chose #2 as the feedback they would want to receive.

Those who chose #2 said they would be more likely to check out the other person’s story based on the comment they left behind. Although several people said they didn’t like the person plugging in their own story.

Those who chose #3 didn’t say much other than the fact that if they were going to look for a proofreader or so, they’d go to that individual.

However though, the comment examples I used above are imperfect. When I conversed with the 30 volunteers of the experiment, a few of them were torn between #2 and #3. They appreciated the specifics provided in #3, but in the end, if they were choosing to forever receive a single kind of feedback based on those three choices, they preferred #2. However, if given the choice, they really wanted a combination of #2 & #3.

Here is what I’ve determined:

If you’re only reading a chapter at a time or so, as you begin the story, find what you like about it—if anything really catches your attention. Focus on that. If something yanks you out of the story, make mention of it, but in the beginning stages of this procedure, don’t focus on every little error—not yet, at least.

Once you’re established an understanding with the author, and they ask you to give more detailed feedback, that’s when you can start looking for more specifics. Also, the courteous thing to do is to send that kind of feedback privately to the author rather than publicly. Would you like someone to publicly point out all the mistakes you’ve made, or would you rather the issues be handled quietly?

Even when you’ve established such an understanding with the writer, be sure to maintain a balance between the negative feedback and the positive feedback. Too much negativity can be draining and discouraging, and that can be devastating to a writer.

Another to keep in mind when it comes to some structures of sentences, the writer might not heed your advice. Don’t take it personally. Don’t think of them as stupid or a failure. They may very well have a precise purpose for that structure which you, being too close to it and viewing it as an editor, don’t see. Their decision might not work with traditional publishers, but they may be self-publishing, and it will work. All you can do is offer advice but then let them make their own decisions. This takes stress off of you.

In the end, remember, you’re not their editor—not unless you two agreed upon that and the author is likely paying you for your services. Otherwise, it isn’t your responsibility.

Now though, there is the aspect of leaving feedback and requesting someone read your own story. What is the best way to do this? Simple: don’t make the request—at least not at first. Rather, be encouraging to the author, allow for conversation to flourish, and then you may politely request they check out your story. Sometimes there simply won’t be a right time for that. However, if someone is leaving you the gracious comments, the kind thing to do is go and investigate their story without them having to make the request. That way you can leave similar positive feedback, and the two of you can encourage one another and slowly build a relationship where you can help one another grow as writers.

In the experiment someone pointed out to me a few things that I think are important to mention: caps lock & shorter sentences make things sound more malicious than intended. Also, using text writing (‘u’ instead of ‘you’, etc) when leaving comments greatly discredits you as a writer. The author, whose story you’re commenting on, will likely not check out your story or look to you for any editorial feedback because it appears that you are lacking the basic fundamentals of writing. I’m not saying you are lacking those, but you’re giving that impression when you use such writing. If you want to be taken seriously, then write in a more professional manner.

What happens if you read a story that is poorly structured, horribly written, and absolutely confusing? Should you be honest and tell the person? Or should you just smile and nod, “That’s nice…”? Well, put yourself in their shoes. How would you like to be approached if your writing was that horrible? Perhaps you should privately contact the individual and hint at some improvements they need to make. Don’t present them with a long list of errors on the outset because that could be overwhelming and so discouraging they may quit as a writer. You may make note of a few things and ask them if they would like some help to improve their writing. If they say ‘yes’, then you can begin helping them. If they’re not interested, leave them be. However, let me warn you, if they accept your help, then be ready to invest a lot of time and energy in their growth. If you don’t have the desire to invest that in the person, you can always point them in the direction of a writing mentor/coach.

Sometimes though, the story is honestly so horrible, and you don’t have the time to even open a conversation with the writer to help them improve, so what’s the best thing to do? Don’t comment. As the common proverb states, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Of course, it is entirely up to you.

Now though, I asked the participants of the survey a second question, and it was this:

What do those comments tell you about the people who wrote them? (shy, confident, encouraging, intimidating, arrogant, etc)

Here is what they said about each person. Disclaimer: this is not based on a real individual. This is the views of multiple people according to the comments. Remember, in this scenario, only a chapter or so was read like on Wattpad where many others have their stories online too, and the author did not ask for proofreading, editing, or critiquing.

Comment #1:

Shy

Advertising

Self-centered

Has agenda

Doesn’t care

Uninvested

Not as helpful

Wants you to read them but not read you

Busy

Encouraging

Narcissistic

Arrogant

Didn’t even read

Bubbly

Fishing

Insecure

Clueless

New reader/writer

Not sure how to write good review

Skims

Not comfortable giving feedback/critique

Not into the story

Rushed

Friend/family

Excited but not well thought-out

Didn’t pay attention

 

Comment #2

Balanced

Approachable

Friendly

Constructive criticism

Positive

Encouraging

Genuinely nice

Honestly attentive

Detailed

Eager to help

Engaged

Interested

Cares

Actual reader

Knowledgeable

Conversational

Heartwarming

A bit vague

Excitable

Confident

Thoughtful

Happy

Practical/useful info

Mature reader

Not overly critical

Not editor

Wants what’s best

Valid criticism

Praised author with specific details

Genuinely interested

Helpful

 

Comment #3

Negative

Arrogant

Nit-picky

Looking for something wrong

Hyper-critical

Perfectionist

Close-minded

Uptight

Stiff

Cold

Terse

Standoffish

Quick, to the point

Confident

Helpful

Task oriented

Bad day

naïve

Unfriendly

Discouraging

No one is good enough

Useful info

Proofreader

Disinterested

Determined to give useful info

Didn’t read but rather analyzed

Editor

Critical thinker

Can’t turn off inner editor

Aggravating

Picky

Not encouraging to helpful in the long run

Bitter critic

Grammar nazi

Critical of each error

Intimidating

Now, some of these may be contradictory, but that’s what happens when you get the opinions of 30 different people. However, this is an overarching view of what people think of those individuals behind the such comments.

So, what kind of feedback do you find yourself leaving? And what impression does that kind of feedback give others? Do you like that impression? If not, change the way you comment. Take a moment to make the extra effort, and everyone will benefit.

Why is it important to leave feedback on others’ writing—especially positive feedback? Because that writer might be going through a difficult time in their life, and they’re extremely discouraged, but one kind remark from a stranger can completely change the outlook of their day. If you become acquainted enough with the writer to help them strengthen their weaknesses, it will definitely impact their life—and yours.

There’s enough cruelty out in the world and on the Internet. Why not try to be a bit of kindness for someone today?

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The Etiquette of Readers Part 2: Beta Readers

Last week we identified and discussed the role of Casual Readers. Now we’re going to focus on the more popular role of a Beta Readers.

While Casual Readers tend not to be writers, Beta Readers are usually on the path to becoming editors and are writers themselves. First thing to recognize about Beta Readers is there is not a one size fits all. You may not agree with someone’s method of critiquing because they’re looking at it all wrong, and they’re always negative, and you just can’t seem to do anything right. If this is the case, try getting another Beta Reader, but always do a trial run with them first. Send a sample of your writing, see how they critique. If you two seem to get along, then work from there.

With Beta Readers, it is up to them whether or not you send your work as a complete manuscript at one time or chapter by chapter. This is something the two of you must discuss. Simply be aware, the more you send, the longer it will take to get anything back to you. It is also important to remember that you should have revised and edited your work at least once before sending it to a Beta Reader.

With a Beta Reader, it is important to understand one thing: their job is to tear your work to shreds. Yes, this is difficult. It’s hard. It’s painful. However, it is important. This is also preparing you for when your work must go before an editor. It’s helping you understand your work better and develop thick skin.

Now, on this topic, there is something very important to realize. If you have people read your work, and they stop at a certain point and can’t read further, you must investigate—not only where they stopped but from the beginning all the to that specific point. Look at description, dialogue, character development, scene setting, plot development, writing style. Are the characters cliché? Are they too perfect? Are they relatable? Is there a moral issue in the story that’s causing the problem?

Most people won’t tell you why they didn’t like the story because they don’t know. Some might know, but if you’re stubborn and stuck in your way when it comes to writing, they’re not going to be very honest with you because it takes a lot of time and energy to explain to you the problem.

I don’t volunteer to read anyone’s writing anymore. If I can’t finish a story, I find out exactly why that is, and it’s usually more than one issue, but this one issue brings up this other issue which breeds another one and so on and so forth, and the writer is left thinking, “I can’t write!” And I’m respond, “No, you can! You’re very good at it, and you wrote an entire story which is an awesome accomplishment!” but then I’m lost at how to encourage them to step back, have faith, and tackle things one at a time.

If you’re confident in your writing ability and believe the story you wrote is important for the world to know, then nothing can tear you down. Yes, there are people out there who want nothing more than to completely rip writers to shreds. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into something or the importance of certain elements and specific scenes, they don’t care. I don’t understand those people, but when I encounter those people, I don’t bother to justify my writing or explain myself. They have a right to their own opinion, and no matter how many times I revise my work, it won’t make them happy, so I just nod and tell them, “Thank you. I will take it into consideration,” but then I’ll go back to my story and set the criticism before the characters and listen to them protest loudly, “Why would I do that?! What would my motives be? That makes absolutely no sense. No, no, and no!” And they cross their arms, threatening me with Writer’s Block if I even attempt to revise in the suggested manner.

This is why you must know why you wrote everything in the story, why it’s important to see how the pieces connect.

However, there are some unofficial guidelines we can all use.

WRITERS, if you give your work to a Beta Reader to critique, expect them to do several things:

  1. They will read your story from beginning to end in a timely manner.

  2. They will make notes on everything that jumps out at them.

  3. They will ask questions.

  4. They will point out errors.

  5. They will not correct or change anything for you.

  6. They are not your brainstorming buddies (unless agreed upon otherwise).

  7. If a Beta Reader cannot complete your novel for lack of time or simply disinterest in the story, you should not be offended but find another Beta Reader.

  8. You must remain professional.

  9. Honesty is key.

BETA READERS, if you volunteer to read someone’s work to critique it, there are a few things you must recognize:

  1. You are obligated to read their entire work and critique it in a timely fashion.

  2. If you cannot complete their work, you must inform the writer of this and explain why.

  3. Do not volunteer to read someone’s work out of pity especially when you’re disinterested in their story.

  4. Look for positive aspects of the story as well as the negative.

  5. You must remain professional.

  6. Honesty is key.

Now notice, I said Writer and Beta Reader should ‘remain professional’ and that ‘honesty is key’. WRITERS, your story may be your baby, but when you’ve reached this stage of your story, you must distance yourself from it and become professional about it. This makes any negativity toward your writing easier to accept and to view objectively rather than subjectively. BETA READERS, being professional while you work allows you to do your work properly without fear of the author lashing out at you and blaming you for your criticism. Even if that were to happen, you can take everything in stride and carry on.

Honesty is the most important element in this process. Writers must be straightforward and honest with their Beta Readers of what they expect from them and when they need the story’s critique completed and returned to them—set a deadline. Beta Readers need to be able to say ‘no’ when they have too much on their plate or when they feel their style of critiquing will not work well with a specific author. Beta Readers should be able to express their opinion without too much concern of how the writer will react since the writer should react responsibly.

Are these hard and fast rules? No. They’re completely unofficial, but they could help to eliminate stress and frustration on everyone’s part. You may approach this subject any way you want.

To summarize: while you are writing or in the middle of revising and editing but need encouragement, find a Casual Reader (or several) to be your cheerleader. Once you’ve revised several times and are now ready for the next step, find a Beta Reader and understand everything is about to get serious, so be professional, and keep honesty between the two of you. This will help you face the harsh realities of publishing.

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The Etiquette of Readers Part 1: Casual Readers

First, to clarify the title. The ‘readers’ implied are not the readers who pick your books up off the shelf and read. The readers I mean are those who work closely with you prior to publication. They are friends and family you let read your book in the process of writing it and revising and editing it, and they are those who will critique your work prior to you sending it to any publisher or editor. So I am not directing this to anyone picking up a book to read it for the first time. Everything I’m talking about is before the book is even published. Now, with that clear, let’s move on.

For writers, it is unnerving when our VERY first readers read our books before it’s even published. We might have written the entire story without telling a soul what it was about, or we might have told everyone we encountered about our story, but now is the time of reckoning—the time to see what someone truly thinks of it. Now it is time for the story to stand up and speak for itself—be the brilliant story you claimed it to be. Like you letting go of your child’s bike as they attempt to ride without the training wheels, you have faith they’ll find their balance and their freedom in being independent, but at the same time, you’re worried they might falter and fall and scrape their knee. Even if they do fall, you know you can’t rush to them and cuddle them and carry them into the house. They have to grow used to the pain of falling down, and they have to learn to get back up again. It’s part of growing up. The same thing applies to our writing.

Once we’ve written the story, we trust it’s ready for anything, but at the same time we’re terrified of being told that the ideas in our head are not entertaining, enlightening, inspiring, or original. We hate being informed our writing is cliché or boring or that people just don’t ‘get it’, so what are we supposed to do?

Let’s define some terms and then go into detail.

First up, we have the Casual Reader. This would be what I described in my previous post when you let a friend or family member read your story while you’re working on it (especially doing the revision/editing process). Their primary purpose is to be a cheerleader but also to wave a red flag when they’re confused at a point. You can let a Casual Reader read your work as soon as you finished the first draft or while you’re revising and editing your work.

Beta Reader: This is the individual you give your work to when you are ready for some real critiquing. You should have already done a revision or two or three and edited it as best you can. These are the people who are looking for inconsistencies, grammar errors, plot holes, and they will challenge your decision to have this scene unfold that way or that character to do that and not this. A lot of Beta Readers have the inclination of becoming editors, so they’re using this time as practice.

So let’s go into more detail about each kind of reader. Let’s start with the Casual Reader. Why let people read your work before it’s even completed and absolutely polished? One of the most irritating things I’ve discovered as a published author is working hard on a book, get it published, and the only response I get are vague like, “Oh it was a good story.” Now, to be fair, some are more definite in their responses, but still it’s easier to say “It was great,” rather than go into details as to why you absolutely loved all 600 pages of the book. Meanwhile, I labored hard to work that twist in Chapter 5, to kill that character in Chapter 10, to show the emotional and fundamental but silent moment in Chapter 26—doesn’t anyone appreciate it? I almost killed your favorite character, and all I get is, “Oh, that was nice.”?

Your Casual Reader will give you feedback you need to motivate you along the way. They will be your fans. You might not be famous with thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, but these few devoted readers will make you feel like the best writer in the world—not because they’re trying to make you feel good, but because they really enjoy the story and can’t contain themselves.

When you let Casual Readers read your work, don’t overwhelm them by sending in the entire story at one time but rather a chapter at a time. Letting someone read the story as a whole is like watching a movie. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it’s all wrapped up nicely where it may or may not have a sequel. However, allowing people to read it only a chapter at a time is almost treating it like a TV show rather than a movie—you drag it out. They get really attached to the characters, and that’s exactly what you want.

Casual Readers will give you feedback such as this (taken from a Casual Reader of mine who has given me permission to share):

Oh my gosh that is so AWESOME!!!!!!!!!! I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT!!!!! 😀 I especially love the part when Vixen asked the guardian to hold her glove thing and she knocked him out. I cracked up laughing on that one.”

“Don’t make me cry you cannot make me cry I cannot cry STOP MAKING ME WANT TO CRRRRRYYYY!!!!!” :'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(

Hahahahaha!!! This was hilarious! And surprising. You made me think that Ardden was going to be okay but who knows (except you) what’ll happen? I thought it awkward then hilarious when Lorrek found out Vixen and she disappeared so suddenly. And I so love it that everyone loves everyone yet they hate them so much.”

Finally I read it. I was so busy. I Love iiiiittttt!!!!! 😀 it kind of looks like Verddra is going to the good side, but you left a quote in there that Honroth said. Something about enemies. Anyway, it left me thinking that Verddra is acting good yet she isn’t.”

As you can observe, this kind of feedback is the best. It tells me in real time what my readers think and feel about characters, things they experience, and decisions they make. So if you want some responses from your readers, try sending it to them a chapter at a time and tell them in order to get the next chapter, they need to tell you what they think in detail of the chapter they read. This might not work for some readers because of time restraints, but communicate with them and see what works best.

Now, sometimes the Casual Reader will have questions, and that’s a good thing. Do not take offense or be discouraged when you get this kind of feedback. Remember, you’re letting the Reader read while you’re likely revising and editing, so you can always and honestly say, “It’s the rough draft.” In this context, errors to expected and forgiven. The Casual Reader is more like highlighting the AWESOME parts while tagging the vague parts. They are not the Beta Reader, so don’t expect them to give you too much detail as to what is wrong.

This is what you can expect from a Casual Reader. So, what kind of people are good Casual Readers? Not writers. I have about five Casual Readers, but only one is a writer of any kind. All others just enjoy reading. So find friends or family members who have the time to read, and ask if they’d be willing to read your story a chapter at a time.

I had fully intended for this to be one post discussing the Casual Reader and the Beta Reader, but as I wrote it, I realized it was getting long, so I’ve decided to split the two. Next week we will discuss the Etiquette for Beta Readers.

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