Balancing Feedback From Multiple Beta Readers

It’s important to stay positive and confident about your work, but you also need to be realistic and honest about its weaknesses.

With multiple beta readers looking at a manuscript, there’s the potential for varying, possibly conflicting opinions. Not only do you have to balance their opinions and weigh them against your own, you have to do it with a critical lens. This is especially important when someone tells you that elements of your story, characters, pacing, structure, etc. didn’t work for them. Your gut reaction might be to strongly disagree. While you should stay positive and confident in your work, it’s incredibly important to consider that they may be right.You don’t have to take all your beta readers’ feedback. Or if you do consider taking it, you don’t have to take it to the same degree suggested. But you do need to be realistic and honest about your work and its weaknesses.

Before querying my manuscript the first time around, I had two beta readers. The second time, I had five. I just wanted more eyes, more perspectives, more feedback, because I wanted to get the manuscript right the second time around. The feedback I received from them was truly wonderful and insightful. I cannot stress enough how valuable their input has been for the story and for me as a writer. Both are better off because of them. 

But every reader has their own book preferences. Some love dialogue and want to see more action. Others want less dialogue and more internal character narration, or more scenery description to set the scene. When I’m trying to figure out whether to incorporate a comment, I take a step back and ask myself this question: is this better than what I’ve already written?

If yes, and it strengthens some character or story element, I’ll do the rewrites or make the additions. If not, I’ll leave it and move on. But sometimes a suggestion can inspire a new, alternative idea that is an improvement. 

However, if a scene drags because there’s too much or too little of something, that’s not just a question of preferences, it’s a real issue to address.

In those cases, I’ll consider a suggestion to cut the scene, but if I think it says something important about a character or sets up something later on, I might not follow that comment to the letter. What I will do is trim back some of the filler material that’s clogging it up or write more theme-building, value-adding content to make it more gripping. 

When a Reality Check Hits You Hard

If a tough love comment knocks you off your stride, take a step back and reflect. Once you have a clear head, ask your beta reader clarifying questions and talk it out. Their comments may have come across more harshly than intended.

Most of the constructive criticism I received was solution-oriented and delivered in a very thoughtful and reflective manner, which I love to read, and respond very well to. It makes me excited and energizes me to make rewrites.

But getting comments of the tough love variety can hurt. A LOT. Overall, I think I have a pretty good stomach for it, but if the delivery is more strongly worded than expected, it can really throw me off my stride, making it difficult to be positive or confident in my own work.

When that happens, and I can’t emotionally detach, I step back from the project and give myself at least an evening to absorb and process the information. I’ll talk it through with my husband, because he’s my go-to for story discussion and bouncing around ideas. Then I’ll do something mindless and relaxing, and get a good night’s sleep.

Only once I have a clear head, will I ask the beta reader clarifying questions or talk it out with them. The feedback delivery is usually more positive that way, and it helps me figure out to what degree to take the advice. And once I figure that out, and have a game plan, my overall positivity and confidence in my manuscript is restored. 

The truth is, everyone has different editing styles and ways in which they prefer to give and receive feedback. I’ve seen some writers say that beta readers who don’t care about their feelings are worth their weight in gold, because they won’t pull their punches and tell them exactly what their story’s problems are.

That’s not my style. And it makes me wonder: why does the delivery of the reality check have to be a punch?

Some writers prefer it that way. Or maybe they hate it at first and value it later. Maybe they need that kind of feedback to grab their attention and take it seriously. Personally, I think some of the best beta reader feedback is the kind that drums up excitement and inspires rewrites, trimming, and new material.

Yes, it’s crucial to tell a writer when something doesn’t work, and yes, not every criticism needs to be couched in a compliment sandwich. But I think criticism should be delivered constructively. Tough love that is all stick and no carrot feels more like a beating than genuine help. But to each their own.

All in all, working with beta readers is a balancing act between their opinions and your own, and being simultaneously positive and realistic about your work. When in doubt, take a break, reflect, and come back with fresh eyes.

How do you like to give and receive feedback? And what do you do when you have multiple, sometimes conflicting opinions about your work?

For more on working with beta readers see: Guest Perspective Series: Forging the Best Possible Working Relationships With Editors, Beta Readers & Writers. 

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