How to Get Good Writing Feedback from Beta Readers

beta reader giving writing feedback in person

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Getting feedback on writing is as built in to the process of being a writer as breathing is to living. Except, writers don’t actually need feedback to survive, although many believe they do. On top of that, complications arise when writers naively venture into uncharted territory of requesting “feedback” without having a plan, without having a map of where they want feedback to deliver them, or without clear expectations of exactly what it is they hope to hear. Without any of these, negative ramifications are plenty.

As a writing coach working intimately with struggling writers to ensure they reach their dreams, my feedback is solicited all the time. I’ve learned to ask in return, “What type of feedback do you want? Do you want to know if the voice is clear? Are you wondering if your imagery works?” Then, when I offer feedback, I share, “This is entirely my own experience of what I’m reading…” I never act as if I’m the only authority because I believe writing and reading are mostly subjective.

Feedback scars run deep

Feedback can crush or inspire. Think back to a time you casually shared your work with someone (a poem, a chapter, a book draft), then excitedly asked, “So, what do you think?” Without skipping a beat, they responded, “Well, I guess it was alright, however, you really should have…” And before you know it, you have an Anna Wintour wannabe telling you all the ways your writing failed them. Any fragile air of pride you had — for making progress, overcoming procrastination, exploring a new form, tackling a dream… poof! immediately deflated.

How long do words of discouragement echo? How much credence do their words unjustly snag, even though you worked for months to accomplish what you presented? How motivated are you to continue writing? If you can recall the feeling of going from total hope to having none, how would seeking feedback figure into your future?

Why do you want feedback?

Start by asking yourself why you want feedback in the first place. An assumed answer might be, “to improve my writing” or “to discover narrative gaps.” Either or both may be true. Yet maybe, what’s really at the heart of a feedback request is hope for approval or validation. There’s nothing wrong with wanting recognition. There’s no shame in needing to be seen or heard when we vulnerably share our deep expression. Hearing a “Wow, that’s great!” fuels motivation and can inspire us to trudge on.

If you’re able to identify an honest why you seek feedback, you’ll be able to clearly articulate it to someone when you approach them with the request. Declaring your intention before inviting someone into a sacred space of sharing a subjective opinion mitigates feedback misfire. For example, my “why” might be shared as, “I’m in the draft phase of the first quarter of my book. I’m aware there are holes in the main character’s motivations — I just want to be sure that the way she’s behaving is believable so I can confidently move forward with her brazenness.”

What do you want to know?

Another element to consider about feedback is the importance of pinpointing the specific knowledge being sought to fortify “missing” elements — i.e., wrangling stray thoughts, disconnections between plot points, lapses in action between things that happened.

I believe writing comes from:
1. What we think
2. What we experience
3. What we want to say
4. What we actually write.

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Between these four elements, what we want to convey on a page may get lost in translation. This is where feedback is helpful. Something we think we wrote or conveyed may be missing from the page. Feedback might point out gaps — if we ask for this type of feedback.

So, when you ask someone for their thoughts, guide them into conveying reactions specific to the knowledge gap you’re trying to fill. For instance, “I thought I conveyed the logical order of her thoughts related to her big decision of moving from New York to Los Angeles. Did her line of thinking flow so that by the time she’d made her choice, you understood why?”

How will feedback be shared or received?

With all the available channels people use to communicate, how we ask for and receive feedback makes a difference. When I give or receive feedback on a project that’s important to either myself or my clients, face-to-face communication (including Zoom) is preferred. That way, there’s little room for thoughts to be taken out of context or misconstrued. The whole feedback loop is a touchy cycle. Words via email, words via text, words via phone call, words via Facebook messenger, each convey their own implied tone.

Once the “why” and “what” elements of writing feedback have been established, I share how it will be delivered. I might say something like, “Now that I’ve had a chance to review the draft specifically for if and how the main character’s thought process was clear related to her move from New York to L.A, I’d love to pass along my thoughts over a Zoom call.” How we communicate during someone’s vulnerable time is as important as what we communicate.

When is feedback helpful?

At what point in your writing process will feedback be helpful to either affirm, refine, or redirect your efforts? Are you on the front end of your writing journey? Somewhere in the middle? Close to the end? Even though we’re excited, our words may not yet be ready for the world.

Sometimes we get over-zealous that we’re finally working on our book, or that we’ve gotten over a creative quagmire. We’re so excited that we’re progressing at all, we want to declare it to the world. And that means we may figuratively run out into the streets, eagerly holding pages, ready to shove them into the hands of anyone who’ll read them.

But, beware: a crushing blow of criticism might kill motivation, whereas a helpful point of reflection may carry your ideas along. Affirming, refining, and redirecting are three main benefits feedback can provide to move a writer forward. Knowing where you are in your story will help clarify which you need.

Consider the source

Lastly, consider who’s giving the feedback. I’ve had many clients tell me they shared their work with who they thought was “quiet Aunt Ethel” only to be met by said Anna Wintour wannabe. If you’re working on a romance novel and share your draft with Uncle Joe, who’s a technical writer, just because he’s a writer too, he may not provide any useful feedback. Feedback can entirely depend upon who’s offering it.

Get clear about the type of feedback you’re seeking and consider if that person is truly capable of providing it. Get intentional about exactly what you want and from whom when seeking feedback.

Putting yourself out there, with your words, takes courage. Protect your process. Be mindful about why you’re asking for writing feedback, exactly what you want to know, how the feedback will be shared or received, and at what point in your process you ask for it. Having intentions and communicating them ensure a more productive feedback loop.

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