How to Get Effective Feedback from Beta Readers

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By now, everyone knows that I am a big supporter of using beta readers. I think they provide something to a piece that an editor can’t: The response of an actual reader. Yes, editors are readers –and obviously exceptional ones. But you’re writing your book for your average reader, and you need to know how a sample of them is going to respond to your story.

I’ve had good and not-so-good beta reading responses to my work. Why some responses are better than others doesn’t always depend on the quality of the reader. Sometimes, it’s your work itself. That’s the idea I’ve come away with after finishing my most recent chapter of The Making of a Story.

I’m nearly finished the final short story in “Chapter 13: Learning to Fail Better,” which is devoted largely to revision. Under “The Developmental Stages of a Creative Work” on page 550, she lists four stages of drafting a story that she has identified (which I have clarified after the dash):

  1. Initial Generating Stage – idea sketching
  2. Creative Revisioning Stage (Drafts 1 through 20+) –idea spewing
  3. Constructive Revisioning Stage (Drafts 2 through 20+) –the spewing has been shaped and is examinable
  4. Copyediting –polishing

After identifying these stages, LaPlante proceeds to bring back some comments she had made about the workshop method as a form of revision. In this instance, I’m equating beta readers with the workshop method when LaPlante states:

“It’s a fact that one of the worst things you can do to a piece is to assume it’s more complete than it is. And one of the most critical problems with the workshop method is that a workshop is generally best for critiquing manuscripts that have entered the constructive revisioning stage—which, in other words, are pretty far along. … Yet a good many stories are shown to workshops prior to this stage. They are critiqued as though they are more finished than they actually are. And nothing can be more damaging to a piece than to have it ‘frozen’ in place before it is ready. What’s critical is that a piece stays ‘fluid’ for as long as necessary to ensure that all the relevant material has been fully explored.” (550)

Looking at my personal experience with both workshops and beta readers, I have to agree fully with LaPlante –and I’ve never had this explained to me before, which is a shame. “This” being that you should only submit works that are near completion. Perhaps it’s assumed, but some of us are newbies and don’t know any better.

When I submitted my more developed pieces to a group, they were workshopped much more effectively than any of the rough pieces I handed in. I took away much more constructive feedback that I was able to use to figure out what wasn’t working in my story because I knew exactly what I wanted out of my story. Whereas the stories I essentially wrote the night before that received feedback on provided me with nothing constructive because both the readers and I didn’t know what to take away.

Before you can get outside feedback from betas or a workshop that is going to help you get to that final final draft, you have to have a strong understanding of your piece.

All that said, there is one rule of thumb I urge you to remember: You cannot please everyone. Repeat: You. Cannot. Please. Everyone. Under no circumstances should you try to implement every piece of feedback you receive. It’s up to you, knowing your story and what you want readers to take away, to pick and choose. If you have a strong understanding, you will know intuitively what to dismiss.

I was really happy to learn something from my reading and I hope I left you with something to think about!

P.S. This is my 200th post on Anxiety Ink! I’m humbled that I have been given the opportunity to write so many words here to an actual audience and that I am still able to learn and share what I learn.

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