Giving Negative Feedback

feedbackI beta read a lot.  In fact, I probably beta read almost as much as I read published books and stories.  A lot of the stuff I read is really good- some of it fantastic.  But some of it is also merely decent, and some of it downright dismal.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to give or receive negative feedback, but you will do both throughout your career (and your life), and it’s best to learn to do them gracefully.  This week, I’d like to write about giving negative feedback, and next week about receiving it.

This post outlines my personal style of giving feedback.  Yours may be different, and mine probably isn’t ideal.  (I’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments section at the end!  Pretty please!)  But this is the practice I’ve developed over the years and I think it’s served me pretty well.

When beta reading, I tend to return feedback in a fairly standard set of sections, whether my reaction was positive or negative.  When I didn’t enjoy the manuscript so much, I find that the standard format helps me to draw my own attention back from all the stuff that I hated and look at the document more objectively; more professionally, if you will.  Depending on the document, there are usually between four and seven sections, but they mainly focus on the following three aspects:

Writing Class Stuff  This area helps me pull my attention from all the stinky stuff because of its relative objectivity.  Are the characters’ motivations clear and understandable?  Did I find the worldbuilding believable?  There’s usually a fairly clear answer.  I’m pretty passionate about books (I have been known to fly into the occasion book-throwing, arm-waving, ranting fit that sends my husband fleeing for the door…), so having dispassionate things to write about first clears my head a bit.

Nitpicks  This is where I put the complaints that didn’t come up in the first section(s).  After calming myself down, this is easier to address in a way that won’t break someone’s heart and make them swear off writing (and me) forever.  In documents that need a lot of work, it’s not helpful to point out every single teeny weenie error and pet peeve; it’s hurtful.  Just pick the biggest problems- the things that bothered you the most, the things that messed up the story the most- and focus your attention there.  Remember, we beta to help writers make their stories the best they can be.  Railing on absolutely everything wrong discourages and overwhelms authors.  Not quite what we’re going for here.

Positive Aspects  This is where I put all the stuff that I liked about the story.  I always end reviews on an encouraging note.  Who among us doesn’t need a little encouragement?  Plus, knowing what they’re doing right helps a writer to know their strengths, which they can then extrapolate out into the rest of the story.  Try to note as many positive aspects as you can, but for pity’s sake, don’t lie and say you liked something unless you honestly did.

And then I close with an invitation for further conversation.  My reviews tend to be fairly long and in-depth, but it’s preeeeetty rare that an author doesn’t take me up on the offer.

I don’t always use this format.  If a manuscript is pretty polished and I have little broad commentary to make (or if it’s a short story), I return feedback as line-by-line notes.  And of course, if a writer sends along a list of questions with the manuscript, I answer them.  (Beta readers should always respect the author’s wishes.  If you’ve been asked to focus on story and character development, but instead you focus on spelling and grammar, you’re not helping.)

No matter how you format your review, always keep these things to keep in mind:

Be positive!  Even when you’re saying technically negative things, try to put it in a positive light.  This manuscript is someone’s baby and they put a lot of work into it.  Nobody’s work is perfect, and if it was, they wouldn’t be asking you for help.  Take pride in the opportunity to take something very important to someone, and help make it better!

Be honest!  These authors want to be professionals, so have the courtesy to treat them that way.  As important as it is to be positive, don’t ever lie in your review.  Misleading an author about the enjoyability or marketability or whateverability of their manuscript will only lead to more heartache further down the road.  Honest feedback is more important than warm fuzzies.

Be specific!  We’re not here to tell the author what to do or how to do it, but we are here to point out problems.  Even broad problems such as a meandering plot can be addressed using specific plot points.  Point out the problem and trust the author to find their own solution.

Be open!  Open yourself up to conversation.  Authors love to talk about their stories and explain their ideas, and it will give you further opportunity to elaborate on your notes- especially important if you had to do a lot of truncating in the name of staying positive.  Offering to continue the conversation helps the author feel their story is valued, and allows you to continue to help fine tune in a less formal (read: less intimidating) format.

Giving negative feedback is scary business, but everybody knows its value.  Negative feedback is what helps writers to fix the problems that we can’t see.  It shows us our weaknesses so that we can strengthen them, and helps us see where our stories need work- which is super valuable when we’ve already read it twelve times ourselves and just want the work to be done.  As un-fun as giving negative feedback can be, it is probably the kindest gift a beta reader can give a budding author.  Give it thoughtfully and truthfully, and your authors will thank you.

So what about you, readers?   How do you give useful, encouraging feedback on manuscripts that need a lot of work?  Let me know in the comments!

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