7 ways to get the feedback you want. (The solicited kind)
Whether you’ve just finished your first draft, or your belief in your half done manuscript is wavering, the ability to ask for targeted responses is a valuable skill to hone. There are as many points in the writing process to ask for feedback as there are opinions about your work. But how do you get the feedback that is right for your current point in the lifetime of your story?
1. Be honest with yourself.
The biggest and most important question to start with is what level of feedback do you really want. The answer will influence who, how, and what you ask.
It doesn’t matter whether you are seeking someone to cheer you on, or ask you increasingly complex questions about your world, or confirm a casual reader can find and connect the dots you laid out. You can be looking for someone to help you find where you jumped the shark, or check your narrative structure, or even seek out ghost-characters from name changes. As long as you are honestly acknowledging what you are hoping to receive in feedback, and applying it to the process of asking, you have a much better chance of getting the insight you want.
2. Be honest with your reader/listener.
What you want may depend on where you are in your process–both how much has been written, and how ready you are to receive “strong” feedback. Save your helper and yourself some trouble and be upfront about it. There is no shame in knowing what you need and asking for it–the problem comes when you pretend you want something else and apply none of feedback you’ve received.
If you just want someone to tell you it is genius because you’re itching to put it in the drawer and pretend it never happened, remember that fan clubs aren’t just for teenage heart throbs and aging rock bands. Writing can be a truly lonely endeavor if you forget to gather a few sycophants for the journey.
If you are at the edge of the first major revision and need a scathing critique so that you can see your work in a new light and make the sweeping changes that will make the work its best self, ask a trusted writer friend who won’t be afraid to watch your lip quiver.
If you need to make certain your pacing won’t bore the pants off your intended audience after the first few chapters because you have an alt-world info dump to slog through, find someone in your audience and bribe them with (insert age appropriate gift: baked goods, dinner, beer) to tell you if/when they get bored or excited.
3. Make a list of questions.
The more specific your needs, the more targeted your approach to feedback should be. You want to make this as convenient for the person helping you as possible. Write out a series of questions that guides your reader in the directions you need feedback.You could make this a formal worksheet, or a simple list of things to think about–whatever is right for your circumstances.
There are a couple things to definitely keep in mind. Tailor the formality to your audience. Make certain your questions are clear and concise. Do not lead them to your preferred answer: “She’s not terrible in this scene, right?” But rather ask how they are interpreting things: “What do you think is spurring her on in this scene and is it justified and/or believable?”
4. Ask follow up questions. Explore the responses.
Whether you receive answers in line with your expectations or far from them, it is valuable to ask another question or two in follow up. If the second answer isn’t as helpful, ask another reader—akin to a second medical opinion.
Particularly in the case of a second opinion, consider adding your question to the list for future test readers. If you need help weighing the merit of a comment/suggestion, or untangling exactly what it is they mean, you likely need more voices to sagely weigh in on the matter.
For example, reader “That One” tells you that your character was playing softball in the big, emotional scene because of the way you describe the action. You, however, thought that it was clear they were playing hockey (there isn’t checking in softball… right?). Assuming that “That One” has any knowledge at all of sports terms, you may want to make certain you ask “This One” and “The One Guy” to give their interpretation of the scene. Perhaps you didn’t realize that people in-the-know about softball lingo would accept confusion of “stick” for “bat” out of your character. The more eyeballs you can get on the passage(s), the closer you will get to a truly unbiased opinion on the matter and hopefully pinpoint where your intention diverged from their interpretation.
5. Tailor who you ask.
More than anything else, if you know the kind of feedback you want and are looking for, pick the right people to help. Expecting a ten year old to know the intricacies of digging a grave to fact check you isn’t going to yield the right responses.
Have questions about your younger characters? Ask kids. Have questions about characters with mental health issues? Ask a trusted friend or a doctor.
Do you have questions about the intimate details of your structure and its effectiveness? Ask a writer who you know is good at structuring their own work. Do you have questions about your target audience’s ability to catch things? Ask someone in your target audience to read and respond.
6. Acknowledge unsolicited comments.
All you wanted was to hear how awesome the scene was. They gave you their response and it included a rider. “It is awesome, but what would truly put it over the top would be…” any comments you gather can be helpful if you assess them correctly.
Did everyone tell you that you need more dialogue? Did the person obsessed with Greek mythology tell you that Athena would be the best main character so you should start over? Weigh comments supplied outside of your questions carefully but don’t dismiss them out of hand. They could be onto something. But we will come back to this…
7. Accept the help graciously.
No matter how useful the commentary was in this moment or based on what you thought you would get, make sure you compensate them appropriately. For other writers you could reciprocate by reading some of their work and offering the expertise you have (this only strengthens your own writing, by the by). For dedicated readers maybe you snag them the book they’ve been coveting. For those who utilize their professional talents–editors, subject matter experts, sensitivity readers–pay their fees. Overall, remember that any measure of gratitude will make it more likely that they will be willing to help again in the future–and may even be willing to help recruit further targeted audiences to your team for the next pass.
Also important, be respectful of the time and energy they put into giving you what you wanted. Even if they’ve given inane unsolicited advice along with the useful things or pointed something out that raised your hackles in the moment remember that they are trying to help you. Even if their suggestion is that your work isn’t in its final form and needs a lot more attention and care, accept the comments with a smile (tight though it may be) and let the information simmer–NOT FESTER–while you work on whatever portion of the draft comes next.
Being able to get the feedback you want is a very important skill to practice. If done right, it should always help to boost your excitement for working on the project. Keep practicing until you get there, but remember to lick your wounds and refocus if you missed your target the first time because ultimately the goal is to keep on writing and enjoying yourself.