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Filtering Feedback: Working with Beta Readers

So, you’ve been working on your WIP for a while and you have a coherent draft. Maybe you’re a lucky son-of-a-bitch who can turn out a half-decent draft the first time, or maybe you’re like me and it’s actually your second or third draft. Either way, it’s officially ready for outside feedback. You fire it off to two or three trusted beta readers and anxiously await their notes. Then the notes come back and… they’re all radically different. One reader loves a particular plot point, another hates it. One loves your gritty main character, another finds them too unlikable. Well, what do you do now? Change the plot point even though one of the readers loved it? Stick with your lead character even though they alienated one of your readers?

I once read a tweet in which a writer lamented receiving differing feedback from beta readers, claiming that it meant none of them knew what they were talking about and that beta readers were pointless. Uh, okay. Or it means that beta readers are humans with opinions. By asking for feedback from more than one opinionated human you’re going to get more than one opinion. Like, by default.

I do get the frustration that comes with reading those opposing comments, though. Which notes do you listen to? Which do you decide not to include in your edits? The bad news is… there isn’t a definitive answer. It’s going to be different with every project, every draft, and every reader. But I have found there are a few practices that help me sort through the mess and get to the heart of it.

PRACTICES FOR FILTERING FEEDBACK:

  1. Read all the notes first. All notes, all readers. Don’t even think about starting edits until you have everyone’s notes and have read them all.

  2. Take a breather. I don’t mean like, five minutes either. I mean like, a day or two. Why? Because I’m sure you can already hear it - that little voice in your head going What the hell is she talking about? That plot point is FINE. She’s just not reading carefully enough. That little voice is your defenses slamming up. You’re gonna need them to come down before you can make a rational decision here, so read… then take a step back.

  3. Read ‘em again. You’ve already seen these notes, so they shouldn’t sting anymore. If they still do… well, if you’re anything like me, take special note of the comments that sting the most. They’re probably poking the most legitimate holes - that’s why they sting. Because deep down you’re upset that your reader found a weak spot in your story.

Now that we have calmed and rationalized our defensive brain, we can get to work! I always start with the notes that point to the biggest problems and work my way down to the easy stuff from there. With our defensive tendencies reined in, we can use reason and our Writer Gut to pin down the changes that feel right.

Note, I didn’t say the changes that we like the best, or the easiest changes. Sometimes the changes that feel right also feel a lot like a kick in the teeth at first… because you know it means you have to rewrite a whole act, or cut one of your beloved characters, or make some other massive change. But that’s the great thing about writing, isn’t it? If we royally screw something up on one draft, there’s always another draft where we can fix it.

A FEW NOTES ABOUT LISTENING TO YOUR WRITER GUT:

  1. Make sure it really is your Writer Gut and not your Lazy Ass. If your “gut” is telling not to make a change because it involves a significant rewrite… examine that feeling carefully.

  2. Also… make sure your Writer Gut is not really your Tender Heart. By that I mean, are you resisting a good note because it would involve axing a particularly witty line, or a side character you are partial to? “Kill your darlings” is an overused old chestnut, but it’s valid. For me, I prefer to cut & paste my darlings so I can use them later, if the right scenario comes up. Also just to make my soul feel a little better that I’m not just deleting them outright.

  3. Your Writer Gut will get stronger with every edit. Chances are it’s already strong af, actually, but you’ll get better at actually listening to it.

  4. The Writer Gut will always get you in the end. Why? Because if you decide to go with your Lazy Ass or Tender Heart on a few notes this draft… well, when you give it to your next round of beta readers, guess which parts they’re probably gonna pick out as trouble spots? Exactly.

That’s that! At the end of the day, beta readers (and critique partners, and professional editors… etc. etc.) are just humans with opinions… But that’s why you asked them for feedback, isn’t it? Because your readers will also be humans with opinions, and you want to make sure you’re giving them the best read possible.

Do you have any tips for working with beta readers? Feel free to drop a note in the comments, or tweet me @mj_kuhn!

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