How to Use Reader Feedback to Improve Your Writing

by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod
@CarlaJDouglas  @CKmacleodwriter

This post originally appeared on May 28, 2014 at The Book Designer.

Self-pubs: Your readers are trying to tell you something. Here’s how to get the most from what they’re saying.

I know I need to edit my book, but I don’t know where to begin. — Indie Author

Step 1: Start with the Reader

We hear this comment frequently from self-publishing authors. Completing a book-length work is exhausting, and the last thing you want to hear when you finish your first draft is that you need to start again, this time with revisions.

You might not realize it, but the place to begin is right in front of you — it’s the reader you’ve had in mind since you began your first draft. That reader is talking to you, and if you can figure out exactly what he’s saying, he can act as your guide in the revision, or self-editing, process.

As Hugh Howey says, “Indie authors are maniacally focused on the reader … Indie authors are doing well because they know it’s all about the reader…. It’s the reader, stupid.”

So start with the reader — the reader can direct you to the problem spots in your work, if only you’ll listen. Not only that, but careful attention to what the reader is telling you can help you improve your writing.

Where do you find readers? Well, there are your beta readers, and there are reviewers. Both are giving you feedback about your work. If you’re about to publish a book, you’ll have beta reader comments to work from. If you’ve published a book already, then you might also have reviews to scour for information.

Finally, if you haven’t previously published a book and you don’t have beta readers yet for your current work, don’t despair. You can read others’ reviews … and learn from their mistakes!

The point is, the information is out there. But you need to learn how to use it.

Step 2: Do Things in the Right Order

The Editing Continuum

In her book, The Indie Author’s Guide to Book Editing, Sarah Kolb-Williams points out that the order of things matters. A big-picture edit, for example, needs to happen before a word-level edit. In other words, when you’re at the beginning of the editing process, typos should be the least of your concerns.

We said something similar in a previous post: order matters, and as you begin the editing process, you’ll save yourself time and endless frustration if you keep this order in mind:

Big-picture —> Paragraph level —> Sentence level —> Word level

If it helps, try thinking of the editing continuum as something similar to the order of operations in arithmetic. If you perform addition and subtraction before addressing division and multiplication, you’ll end up with a meaningless jumble. Similarly, if you attend to spelling and punctuation or dialogue and characterization before you’ve resolved issues in the plot, your results will be disappointing at best.

Recap:

1. Focus on the reader and what he says he likes about a book—and pay special attention to what he doesn’t like.

2. Order matters (see above). Don’t even think about correcting typos until you’ve got your big-picture and paragraph level ducks in a row.

Keeping these two items in mind will position you to use valuable reader feedback to your best advantage.

Step 3: Use Reviews to Improve Your Writing

Interpreting Reviews

At last, you’re ready to apply feedback to your manuscript. This is the hard part. You know where to find feedback and you know the order of revisions. We can hear you asking, “What now?”

When beta readers, readers, reviewers and editors—editors are readers, too!—offer constructive feedback, what are they actually telling you, and how can you use that information to improve your writing?

It’s possible to read what reviewers say and figure out what kind of attention your manuscript needs. Situating your manuscript on the editing continuum will also help you to determine the order in which to address things.

We searched through reviews on Amazon for examples of constructive feedback. Readers won’t necessarily tell you that you need to focus your attention on in a big-picture edit, for example, but they may suggest it. The table below interprets examples of reader feedback, so that you can see how you might identify what you need to improve on.

Once you know what readers are telling you, you can do something about it. The Google search engine is your friend, here. There is lots of great information about the craft of writing fiction on the internet. In the right column of the table, we’ve suggested some search terms you can use to find information that will help you.

*Note: As we searched the Amazon reviews for examples of the four levels of editing, we encountered surprisingly few references to typos and spelling errors. This wasn’t the case even a year ago, when comments about careless proofreading were frequent. As we’ve said before, the landscape is changing—self-publishing authors are listening, and they’re taking measures to produce professional, polished books.

How to Use this Information

You’ve received some great reader feedback, or you’ve found reviews of others’ work that might also apply to yours. And, after identifying the trouble spots in your writing, you’ve found relevant resources to help you sort things out in your manuscript.

You’re on your way.

But making revisions is slow and difficult work—don’t try to rush things. Acknowledge that your book will take time to develop, and your attention to detail now will pay off later. Keep in mind, too, that integrating all this information is complex, and it may take more than one try to get it right.

Tackle items one item at a time in an order that makes sense—straighten out the plot and fill in the holes, for example, then address pacing. Through experience and practice you’ll learn that you can’t achieve the pace that will keep a reader engaged unless you dismantle all the infodumps standing in the way.

Yes, there’s a lot to learn and it’s hard work, but if you listen to what readers are telling you, you’ll become more aware of your writing strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately, you’ll also become a better writer.

Image by Found Animals Foundation

Related Links

How to Improve Your Writing With Macros: Tips for Beginners
3 Ways to Pare Down Your Prose
5 Things Editors Know About Readers
How to Get Helpful Feedback from Beta Readers

8 Proofreading Tools for Beta Readers

FeedbackBy C.K. MacLeod
@CKmacleodwriter

This post originally appeared on August 14, 2014, at Tech Tools for Writers.

Many self-publishing authors use beta readers to get feedback on a book before publication. You don’t have to work on paper; you can use a computer or a tablet to “mark up” or make notes on an author’s manuscript. Below is a list of tools for beta readers. An author may send you a manuscript in a variety of formats, so I’ve included options for several file formats.

File Formats

Sometimes it will make sense to convert the author’s file to another format. Many of the proofreading tools below will read PDFs. You can save an .rtf, .doc, or .docx file as a PDF with Microsoft Word or WPS Writer (free). If you have a stylus for your tablet, you may be able to mark up text like you would on paper. This table will tell you which tool will read which file format. I summarize the features of the tools below.

Tablet Apps

Adobe Reader (free)

  • Reads PDF files
  • Available for Android and iOS
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs, and comments
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Works well with a stylus
  • Search function, so you can search all instances of an error

iAnnotate

  • Reads PDF files
  • Available for Android (free) and iOS ($9.99)
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs and comments
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Works well with a stylus

WPS Writer (free)

  • Part of the WPS Office suite
  • Available for Android and iOS tablets and phones
  • Reads .doc and .docx files
  • Track changes
  • Comments
  • Find and replace
  • Voice search
  • Syncs with desktop version so you can alternately work on a computer and a tablet

Computer Apps

WPS Writer (free and paid)

  • Part of the WPS Office suite
  • Reads .doc, .docx and .rtf files
  • Track changes
  • Comments
  • Robust find and replace
  • Wildcards
  • Pro version can run proofreading macros
  • Syncs with the tablet app version so you can alternately work on a computer and a tablet

Adobe Reader XI (free)

  • Reads PDFs
  • Used by professional proofreaders
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Allows you to load PDF stamps into the software (see below), so you can mark a variety of proofreading errors with symbols instead of with comments
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs and comments
  • Robust search function
  • Read-aloud feature so you can listen for mistakes that your eyes might miss

PDF XChange Viewer (free)

  • Reads PDFs
  • Used by professional proofreaders
  • Drawing tools for mark-up
  • Allows you to load PDF stamps into the software
  • In-text highlights, strikethroughs and comments
  • Robust search function

Adobe Digital Editions

  • Reads epubs
  • Use ADE if the book has already been professionally formatted for e-readers
  • It’s not possible to mark up in ADE, but you can copy sections of text into a word processor and mark up the changes there—procedure explained by Rob at 52 Novels

Kindle E-ink Readers and Apps

  • Reads mobi files
  • Use this method if the book has already been professionally formatted for Kindle e-readers and apps
  • Highlights
  • Notes
  • A bit clunky—see How to Proofread on a Kindle for the procedure

App or Desktop Version?

Computer software tends to have more robust search functions than tablet apps, but it can take a while to figure out how to use the drawing tools to mark up the text with a mouse. Proofreading stamps are a shorthand for proofreading errors, and tend to make the proofreading process faster. Use them if the author knows what they mean (or provide the author with a glossary of symbols, if you like). Note: As far as I know, stamps tend to only work in the desktop versions of proofreading software.

Proofreading stamps
My stamp library; blue stamps by Adrienne Montgomerie

If you want to imitate the pros, you can import* proofreading stamps into your proofreading software or design your own. Louise Harnby of the Proofreading Parlour offers a collection of British proofreading stamps for free, and you can find American proofreading stamps on the Wiley Publishing website. Do you have a favourite proofreading tool not listed here? Tell us about it in the comments below.

*To learn how to import proofreading stamps into Adobe Reader XI or design your own, see this video by Adrienne Montgomerie.

Image by Alan Levine

Related Posts
How to Proofread Your Book Like a Pro, Part 1
How to Proofread Like a Pro, Part 2: Checking Your Formatting
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5 Things You Should Know about Working with Beta Readers

BetaReader

by C.K. MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Image by aussiegall
If you’re a self-publishing author, you’ve likely either read or been told that you need to hire an editor. But a professional edit costs money, and while self-publishing gurus will recommend that it’s money well spent, not every author has the wherewithal for such an investment.

 Strange words coming from two editors, right?

 If a professional edit isn’t currently in your budget, what do you do? Answer: find a beta reader! While beta readers are not editors — they likely won’t have the training, years of study, practice, or the inclination to snuggle up with The Chicago Manual of Style, just for fun — we do think that they can be helpful additions to your publishing team.

Profile of a Beta Reader

 The point of acquiring beta readers is to garner information that will help you write a better book. So ideally, at least one of your beta readers should be the kind of person who’d be most likely to buy your book. Why? Their response to your book will help you gauge which parts of the book will work for your audience, and which parts may not.

 We also recommend that you find a beta reader who knows more about writing craft than you do. (As editors, you knew we’d say that, right?) Think about it. One of the best ways to get better at anything is to get feedback from someone who’s more skilled and knowledgeable than you are. And if you can find a beta reader who has read lots of books in your genre and has a clear understanding of how your genre works, you’ve struck gold.

Where to Find Beta Readers

One way to find beta readers is to work your social media platforms. If you’ve been spending time to develop a positive online presence and a reputation for being helpful, an unforced opportunity to ask for help may present itself.

 If you’re still building your author platform, consider joining a site like Scribofile, where you can offer feedback on other people’s writing to amass “karma points,” which you can then spend on acquiring feedback for your work. Wattpad is another option for finding beta readers. You can upload your book and write a compelling blurb that inspires people to read and respond to your book.

 Local writing or critique groups may be an option for face-to-face feedback. Go to meetup.com to see if there are “crit” groups in your area.

Working With Beta Readers

Now that you’ve found your beta readers, consider the rules of engagement that will help you to create a healthy working relationship. Authors don’t usually pay beta readers, so any interaction needs to be positive and affirming. Presumably, this won’t be your last book, and treating your beta readers right will leave them open to helping you out next time, too.

Don’t Give Them a Draft

Your beta reader is still a reader — a reader who might tell other readers about your book. It’s important to treat your beta readers right, and that begins with what you ask them to read. Don’t give them your first draft. In fact, be sure that what you give them is the very best writing you can produce on your own. Write your draft and set it aside for at least a week. Go back to it and rewrite it if you need to. Then set it aside for another week — again. Revise, revise, revise, until it isn’t remotely possible for you to do any better.

Your Manuscript, Their Way

Before you send your manuscript to your beta readers, ask them what format they’d like it in. Beta readers might want to print your manuscript or read it on a Kindle. If they prefer the latter option, send them instructions for how to get your manuscript on an e-reader. Do whatever you can to remove any obstacles that will prevent your beta reader from carving out time to read your book.

Give Them Guidance

Let your beta reader know what kind of feedback you’d like from them. Develop a checklist with questions you’d like answers to. Do you want readers to comment on the strength of a character, or the organization of a concept? If you create a specific list of questions around content, beta readers won’t spend their time punctuating sentences. Adapt your revision checklist to meet the needs of each book your write.

Don’t Take it Personally

Remember, it takes a great deal of time to read and respond to a book. And your beta readers will have opinions that might sting a little. Be gracious for any feedback a beta reader gives you, even if you don’t agree with it. Ask yourself, “Will addressing this comment make for a better book?” If so, take their advice and apply it to your next revision. If not, whatever you do, don’t defend yourself. Your beta reader already knows your position (you’ve done as you’ve seen fit, as evidenced by your manuscript) but they don’t agree. Thank them for their comments and move on.

Return the Favour

Remember, you’re not paying your beta readers to read your book. They’re offering feedback because they want to help or they’re interested in your book’s premise or topic. If your beta reader asks you to be a beta reader in future, seriously consider returning the favour. And when it comes time to publish your book, give them a mention in your acknowledgements. Everyone likes to see their name in “print.”

Beta readers can play an important part in helping you create a better book — particularly at the revision stage of writing. After you’ve revised your book, based on their feedback, and once again made your book the best it can be, you’re ready for an editor (you knew we’d say that, right?).

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How to Get Helpful Feedback From Beta Readers

Beta-Reader

by Carla Douglas
@CarlaJDouglas

Sending a finished manuscript out to beta readers has become a routine step in the self-publishing process. 
Beta readers can provide crucial feedback about whether your book is ready to go public, and authors know this.
It’s one thing to get readers to agree to give your manuscript an assessment; it’s another thing entirely to make the most of the precious time a beta reader spends with your material.
So, you’ve found one or more avid readers to take on the task of giving your book a first read. What next?
Read on: below I discuss how to get information you can act on from your beta readers.

How to Ask for Feedback

You’re asking your beta readers for feedback. But what does that mean? Be specific. At the very least, include a checklist so that your readers are paying attention to the kinds of things that concern you most.

Fiction

For fiction manuscripts, focus on the aspects of your book that you are least confident about.
For example, if you’ve struggled with dialogue in your novel, include a question or two about it, such as, Is it always clear who is speaking during passages of dialogue? or Does dialogue successfully advance the plot and/or help to develop character?
Encourage beta readers to write their observations and comments either in the checklist file or annotate your file.

Nonfiction

For nonfiction manuscripts, your focus will be somewhat different. People read nonfiction for information and understanding—guide your beta readers with questions about the clarity of your content and how it’s presented. You might also ask about how the book as a whole is organized.
In nonfiction, the tone of your writing is more important than you might think. The wrong tone can put a reader off early in a book—don’t be afraid to ask your beta readers about this. If you have a subject-matter expert who’s agreed to read for you, then customizing a checklist/feedback form specifically for that person is a good idea.
So, what would such a checklist look like? Below is the checklist that was sent to beta readers for Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast.

For both fiction and nonfiction, let your beta readers know that they needn’t pay too much attention to things like typos and formatting. You’ll cover these items later when your book is copyedited.
Your beta readers are doing you a huge favour. Giving them a checklist to guide their feedback will help them help you.
Image by goXunuReviews

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