How to Evaluate Feedback from Your Beta Readers, CPs, and Editor
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
If you’re in the revision stage of the writing process, then you’ve probably begun to turn to outside sources for feedback, whether that’s a critique partner, beta readers, or a professional editor. (Or all of the above!)
But with so many people suggesting changes to your manuscript, it can be hard to know which ones to implement and which ones to leave behind. If you incorporate everyone’s myriad suggestions, you might lose the heart of your book or take it in a direction you didn’t plan. On the flipside, if you never implement any suggestions, your book may never reach its true potential. What’s an author to do?
In this post, I’ve lined up some questions to ask yourself and a couple of exercises to do when you’re trying to decide whether a certain piece of feedback is right for your book.
Before you can properly evaluate a piece of feedback, you need to get some emotional distance from it. Getting critiqued is hard! It always hurts at least a little, even for people who truly appreciate it. (In fact, I have an entire blog post about getting your edits back because of this.)
So first, read all the feedback. If any of it sparks a negative emotion in you—be that anger, resentment, frustration, or despair—then leave it alone for a few days. Don’t make any decisions yet. When your emotions are running high, you’re more likely to reject or ignore what might be incredibly helpful suggestions, or to make quick changes that actually need more thought and nuance.
Once your emotions have calmed down, it’s time to reread the feedback and get to work evaluating it.
Questions to ask yourself:
There are several questions you can ask to determine whether a piece of feedback is right for your novel. You don’t have to ask all of these questions about each bit of feedback—instead, save them for the ones you can’t decide what to do with. Often, just one of these questions will give you your answer.
Have multiple people mentioned the same thing?
If you’ve given your manuscript to ten beta readers and all ten of them have said that the pacing is too slow, then the pacing is probably too slow. Now, you do have to factor in whether you chose the right beta readers (Did you give your epic fantasy to a bunch of thriller readers? Not ideal.), but chances are that if the majority of your readers are saying the same thing, then it’s probably worth adjusting in the manuscript.
Does this feedback change the fundamentals or core values of the story?
The fundamentals or core values of your story are the messages and themes you want to deliver to your readers. If you receive feedback that wants you to change these, proceed with caution. It’s easy to lose the heart of your story if you’re not careful about the changes you make here.
For example, if one of the core values of your story is that being your true self is the key to unlocking your potential, then you’d usually want to reject feedback that would change this message. However, if you get some suggestions that would amplify this message, then you probably want to consider incorporating those.
That said, do take a moment to reanalyze your story's core values, especially if several readers are giving you this type of feedback. It may be that the story you've written doesn't actually match the themes you're trying to convey, in which case, you might want to adjust your themes rather than rewrite the story to match them.
Does this help me accomplish my goals for the story?
Similar to the previous question, but a bit less existential and more concrete. Every writer sets out with goals for a story, both big and small. They want their readers to experience certain emotions, learn things, like or dislike certain characters, etc. If you want your reader to feel sad in a certain scene, but they’re commenting that they laughed during it, then you know you’re probably going to have to rework that scene.
On the other hand, take a more critical eye to feedback like “There’s too many sad scenes in this book.” If making your reader feel sad is your goal, then removing some of the sad scenes would go against your goals, wouldn’t it? Then again, do you want your readers to be constantly sad throughout the book? Is the book so sad that most people would stop reading because it’s just too much? These types of comments are worth thinking through further, and maybe even worth asking your reader for more details.
Is this a matter of taste?
Every reader goes into a book with a certain set of reading tastes. Maybe they hate love triangles or they absolutely adore ambiguous endings. Ideally, you’d do your best to control for the taste factor when selecting your pre-publication readers, but this isn’t always possible. That’s where this question comes in.
Look carefully at comments that start with “I don’t like.” I’m not saying to reject all feedback that starts with those three words, but those comments are worth spending extra time on. Usually, if it’s a big, broad concept, like “I don’t like swearing in books,” then it’s probably safe to pass it by. But if it’s something more specific like “I don’t like this character,” then it’s worth digging into the reasons more.
Does this improve the story?
This one can be the hardest to determine, so I’ve saved it for last. Whether a suggestion improves the story, is neutral, or makes the story worse is highly subjective, and your answer may honestly change with your mood.
So this is actually best broken down into a few sub-questions:
Is the story smoother to read because of this suggestion? (Fixing punctuation errors, etc.)
Is the story easier to understand because of this suggestion? (Rearranging scenes, etc.)
Is the story more entertaining because of this suggestion? (Fixing dialogue or pacing, etc.)
If a suggestion definitely improves your story or definitely makes it worse, then it’s easy to figure out whether or not to use it. But if it seems like a neutral change, you may have a little more trouble deciding what to do. You may want to try a couple of the tips below.
Things to try:
If you’ve gone through all the above questions and you’re still not sure whether or not to use the feedback you’ve been given, there’s still more you can do to help make that decision.
Write as if you’re incorporating the feedback.
In a separate document, copy-paste a couple of scenes from your story and revise them as if you were taking your reader’s suggestion. Then take a break for a day or two and come back to reread your revisions. Sometimes the act of making the changes and the ability to see their actual effects in front of us makes the decision become clearer.
Do a thought experiment.
For bigger suggestions that affect more than a few scenes, it isn’t practical to write them out entirely. So instead, sit down someplace quiet and imagine the big change as if it was already in your book. If you were to make all your characters five years younger, for example, how would the plot change? Would it change at all? What about the overarching themes? Does this change open up new and exciting possibilities, or does it feel limiting?
Ask a trusted reader.
If you have a critique partner or beta reader whose opinion you value over anyone else’s, run the suggestion by them and see what they think. Not just a yes/no opinion, mind you, but an actual discussion of what they think the ramifications would be. They might have something to say that helps you make up your mind, whether they agree with the comment or not.
I’ve said this so many times throughout the blog, but I’m going to say it again: The most important thing to remember is that you are in charge of your book. Sometimes it can be confusing to sift through so many (often contradictory) opinions, but at the core is your story, your intentions, and your goals. You are the one who decides in the end what you’re going to do.
Remind yourself of that glimmer inside you that sparked this book idea in the first place, and use that as a guide for your revisions. That should help you determine what’s right for your story.
As always, you can ask me for any help you need on your manuscript. Just send an email to email@example.com to get your edits started!