Whole-Novel Feedback and Critique
Finding good readers to give feedback and critique can be an important part of finishing your novel. They are a valuable tool to identify overarching plot holes, character development issues, and structure difficulties, as well as letting you know if it works as a whole. However, much like many other aspects of writing a novel, it isn’t a straight forward process and does involve some level of planning.
Pick your readers
Picking who you give your book to is the first step. Personally, I wouldn’t just put a blanket call out like, “Who wants to read my book?” While you will probably get a wide audience, it is the quality of feedback you need, not quantity of readers. You want a mix of people who are in your target audience as well as those that aren’t. The people who aren’t your primary audience will be able to provide an insight that others won’t, and it may allow you to tweak some elements, without changing too much, that could result in widening the overall audience. There’s also no harm in asking people for a specific reason. If you are worried that there are elements that might offend a certain demographic, or appear stereotypical, then ask people from that demographic to read it. The people on my list are all on there for different reasons. I have a mix of writers and non-writers, as well as people who would never read the book of their own volition if they saw it in a shop without my name.
One reason to consider keeping your selections limited and specific is that if you just send it out, a significant chunk of people most likely won’t read it. You’ll be wasting your time with them. There is also always the issue of copyright, as although you’re legally covered (and can take steps to ensure you have proof of this) you may still worry about strangers plagiarising your work. While this is not something that you should give much weight to in your decision making, it is worth considering if you are sending it to readers in a different country.
Set both parties’ expectations
Before you both agree to the arrangement, make sure that both of you are very clear about what the other expects. Set a reasonable deadline for them to complete the read. Let the reader know what kind of feedback you’re expecting from them. Are you satisfied with “I liked it,” or would you like a very detailed breakdown of what worked, what didn’t work, and why? Are you looking for big-picture critique or line-by-line proofing? Let them know before you start.
Remember that they’re doing you a favour
This doesn’t apply if you’re paying someone to read your writing (though, in that case, be sure to check for references and don’t go for the cheapest option), but if you’re getting people you know to help it’s very important to remember that they are doing you a favour. Don’t start chasing them up after a week or complaining that it’s taking too long. If you set expectations at the start and behave in a professional manner throughout, then if the person needs more time they can ask for it. Assuming that you haven’t got a deadline yourself related to the project—which you shouldn’t really, this process should happen before anything like that could occur—then what’s the harm in giving them some more time.
Discuss the feedback
What you get will vary greatly depending on who you asked to read and what you’re expecting from them. Personally, I want to discuss the points that the person has raised about the book. I also want to say thank you for the work that they’ve done so I’ll take them out for a drink to sit down together and go through it all.
The benefit of this is that it allows you and the reader to enter a discussion. If they’re saying something doesn’t work, they can tell you why they felt like this, and you can examine any possible changes that you could work into the story. This is not an opportunity for you to explain why they are wrong. It doesn’t matter what you were trying to achieve or what you thought you conveyed; if the scene, section, or entire book doesn’t work for them then it doesn’t work for them. That doesn’t make them right, but they’re also not wrong and you have to respect their opinion without arguing. Take the feedback on the chin and do with it what you will.
I’d also like to have a group meeting where everyone who did the reading gets together and we all collectively discuss issues raised. This may never happen but it’s something that I aim for.
Learn from the critique
Now comes the fun part. You’ve got all your feedback and you’re ready to edit your book again. For starters, don’t just automatically change bits because someone didn’t like them. Look at the feedback as a collective and see what elements didn’t work and figure out how to fix them, if you want to. You don’t have to listen to anybody; you probably should, but you don’t have to.
If you have conflicting feedback, then you have to make a decision. One person says a scene doesn’t work and another says it does. If you have five out of six saying one thing and one saying another you should probably listen to the five, but if it’s a fifty-fifty—or near enough—split then it’s a tricky issue. Ultimately, you need to choose, and it’s largely going to come down to personal choice; but make sure that you consider both sides of the argument before coming to a decision.
Before you begin
I’m putting this at the end because it’s the most important point when working with readers for critique and I want you to remember this one above all others.
Always send your readers a finished product.
If you know that there are issues with the book, or it’s a first draft, then don’t even consider giving it out. When you’ve done everything that you can with the book and it’s as good as you can make it, that’s when you send it out for feedback. Not before. They will, potentially, be able to see things that you have missed.
Feedback and critique is an essential part of growing as a writer, and selecting readers can be very useful in the completion of your book. They’re not essential, however. If you can’t find anyone then it’s not the end of the world. If you would like to find some but are struggling, join a local writers’ group and try and find people there. Most people are happy to take something like this on and it’s not uncommon that it’s done as a quid pro quo arrangement—you read my book and I’ll read yours.
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© 2018 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.