If you are a writer, asking for feedback on your writing is inevitable and, more so, indispensable. Bringing in an outside perspective can enrich the text and generate ideas for improvement. But sometimes, it might also result in unhelpful feedback. To avoid it, narrow down your goal in asking for feedback and keep it in mind when reaching out to a beta reader or editor. For instance, consider if you want to hear a general critique, diagnose specific issues (e.g. a chapter or a character’s development) or check if your writing conveys the intended message.
Minimise the risk of unhelpful feedback.
It is easy to receive unhelpful feedback on your writing if you do not structure your request right. For instance, The Mom Test book, which discusses asking for feedback in a business setting, describes three types of bad (not useful) feedback:
- compliments (‘I enjoyed reading it;’ ‘I love it!’),
- generic feedback (‘I would buy this book.’),
- and unsolicited advice (‘Have you considered doing it this way?’).
Supportive family members and friends might not provide a critique that will help you make the argument or the flow stronger. Also, they might not indicate that you communicate your ideas clearly enough. That is why every writer’s to-do list should include reaching out to someone who would be their target reader or editor specialising in their topic. Without the ties of familiarity, a beta reader or developmental editor may be able to provide more direct, honest and, above all, constructive feedback.
So, the golden rule of asking for constructive feedback:
|When reaching out to a beta reader or editor, narrow down your goal in asking for feedback.|
For instance, you might want a second pair of eyes to examine a specific, problematic section or chapter. Or you seek to understand the reader’s general impression of the draft. Whatever your goal is, formulate your questions accordingly.
Request general critique.
Open questions such as ‘What did you think?’ may not provide as many constructive answers as one would hope. Even if you only want a general critique, you need to ask open yet specific questions, for instance:
- What is working right now?
- What do you find confusing?
- What changes would you suggest for my next draft?
Diagnose problem areas.
If there are parts you find particularly bothersome or where you are stuck, ask exactly about those. They might include a section, a chapter, a book ending or a character’s development. To drill into them from an even more micro perspective, try the highlighter method and ask your reader to break down a particular page, section or paragraph. Also, you could ask them to highlight parts which were clear in one colour and use a different colour for the confusing bits.
Do a comms check.
If your goal is to confirm that what you think your argument is and what the reader understands as your argument are the same thing, you could ask questions such as:
- What is the argument in the text?
- What am I trying to say in this text?
- What is the conclusion of the book?
If the reader or editor responds with an argument close to what you had in mind when writing the text, then you know you were able to communicate your ideas effectively. On the flip side, if they come up with something different, it will narrow down your areas for improvement.
Another question you might want to add is:
- What patterns do you notice in my writing?
Editing the text yourself is hard, and asking about patterns could help you discover aspects of your delivery that you overlooked. For instance, an editor with more distance to the text could easily spot the author’s tendency to start the paragraphs in the same way or use repetitive vocabulary (which might be hard to notice for the author).
Self-editing is challenging when you are too close to the text, and you might not always be able to get constructive feedback on your writing from friends and family. Sometimes, asking for a perspective of a developmental editor might be the best solution.
I have experience critiquing non-fiction manuscripts at different levels of development. If you would like to discuss your manuscript or receive a free sample edit, contact me (and remember to use my early bird discount!). Or follow me on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn or join my newsletter for more self-editing and writing tips.