How I Receive Feedback From Beta Readers

I’ve wanted to make a post about getting feedback from my beta readers for a while now. As we all know, there’s no better motivation to write a blog post than almost being too late to do it at all (which is why I wrote a 3500-word post about Graduating from University on my graduation day).

That’s pretty much the case here, since I actually started writing draft three of my novel today (at least, at the time of this post actually being started – 21 April, for what it’s worth). Unfortunately, I do have some level of artistic integrity, so I’m not going to rush this post in an attempt to make it relevant to my own process.

There’s a lot here that I think I can touch on that will be helpful or interesting, so I’m going to take my time with it (I just wish I’d started this a week ago).

In this post I’ll be talking about my recent experience with beta reading, followed by some general advice on how to get the most out of it.

A Fate Entwined Background

It’s the story about a girl who is told she will save the world, then told that she will not save the world, because they think her brother can do it on his own.

First Draft

I started A Fate Entwined on June 10th 2019, so about ten months ago now. I had the idea swimming around for a while before then, but I was waiting for my university intensive that would include ten days of solid writing in a quiet classroom. All up it was about 30 hours of writing, and I smashed out the first act (30k) of draft one. I went into the class with only some loose worldbuilding done, the magic system planned and a “first chapter” that I had decided would need to be completely re-written. Other than the premise and the names of the two central characters, I had pretty much nothing.

The intensive ended and I entered the four-week semester break intending to finish the draft. I didn’t quite get there but had another 40k by the time uni came back around. We started working on major projects and I hoped to get mine done within a few weeks. It was halfway through the twelve-week semester that I officially finished the 110k first draft. I let it sit for a while (about six weeks) and focused on my big exegetical essay.

Second Draft

During that break, I was coming up with fresh ideas and things to change about the book. Once I felt ready, I dove back into it and got to work. I turned in my major project (chapters one and two of the second draft) and set a deadline for the close of 2019. Several people were interested in beta reading and I wanted to get it to them as soon as possible.

Although I didn’t hit my personal goal of December 31, 2019, I had the second draft (144k) finished in January of 2020. I sent the manuscript out to several people and nervously waited. And waited. And waited. It seemed like forever, but in the end, it was about three months, so that’s pretty reasonable.

What Didn’t Work

Okay, so the book definitely isn’t as bad as this. This car can’t be fixed. My book can be… hopefully.

The feedback I got on my manuscript was definitely not what I expected. Turns out, I have a lot of work to do. But hey, that was the whole point of getting beta readers.

Protagonist Be Crazy

The most common thread throughout it all was that my protagonist was almost completely unlikable for most readers. Her moral lines are incredibly blurred and she gets away with some seriously questionable actions. For a book written in first person, that’s not a great starting point. What I’d intended to write as a morally flawed character who could grow by the end of the story came out closer to a villain than I’d expected. It was hard to take, but once enough people mentioned the issue, I recognised that it was a legitimate problem.

There were, in fact, very specific parts of the book where people found themselves disliking her. It got to the point where I was reading feedback and knew a certain scene was coming up, so I prepared myself for the comments of “This makes me really dislike Andra.” Message received, my hard-working beta readers.

Secondary Characters Lack… Character

I have a general rule when it comes to feedback: two people need to agree on the same point before it’s legitimate. A lot of the time, I’m the second person that agrees. If somebody says something I totally disagree with, I’m allowed to ignore it unless another person makes a similar comment. At that point, I know that it’s something to take more seriously, at least.

This is definitely a case of the former. Although a few people rarely mentioned that the secondary characters left something to be desired, nobody hammered this point home harder than a co-worker who offered to read the book. In his own words, he went “full beast mode” on this point, and I actually really appreciated it. Again, it wasn’t easy to take, but I knew that he was totally right as well. Neither of the secondary characters do anything to drive the plot forward. They’re just there as companions, and given that a large part of this book is about travelling, that’s a big issue.

I’ve got some plans for those characters, but I can’t exactly talk about them here. Because that would be, you know, spoiling the book.

Act Two Is a Mess

This is probably the hardest one to change, but it was one of the more consistent criticisms. Act two of this book is long and a bit disjointed. This was actually an issue that I had solved before most of my beta readers got back to me, because I was able to have discussions with a couple of early birds who raced through the manuscript.

Having said that, it took a long time to get the structure of this act right. It involved a few spreadsheets and multiple drafts of outlines. The main problem I had was that the protagonist gains most of her magic in this part of the book, so spacing out the learning of new powers became a problem, especially when I was trying to cut four or five chapters for the sake of word count.

Overall, I think most of my beta readers actually enjoyed the content of act two, but it did drag on a bit and doesn’t adequately set up act three at all. I actually wrote an entire 13,000 word outline, and a few days later received some more feedback from a uni friend. After reading his essay on the book, my newest outline seemed inadequate. So I got back to work and wrote another one, which I’m hoping will have everything balanced out.

What I Did Right

Positive reinforcement is like a gallon of cool water in the middle of the desert. It’s pretty good.

Female Protagonist

I’ve found that people are generally pretty surprised when they find out that I’ve written a book from the 1st person perspective of a woman, given that I am definitely not a woman. One of my biggest inspirations for this book is Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy (and other trilogies, but nobody’s ever heard of the Realm of the Elderlings). FitzChivalry Farseer is my favourite fictional character and his 1st person narrative was written by a woman. Now, I know that women tend to write men better than men write women, but I figured why not give it a shot?

Thankfully, not one person said that my female protagonist doesn’t read like a woman, so I’m grateful for that. I had pretty much a 50/50 split between men and women for my beta readers, so I’m pretty sure that someone would have pointed it out if I had a problem there.

Magic Is Awesome

The most consistently positive feedback I got was that the magic system is working really well, or close to it at least. It was probably the most fleshed-out part of the book when I started, including a full chart of 120 different emotions. It was a lot to play with and some people did get a bit lost in all the details. That would be fixed if there was a colour chart in the front of the book, but I didn’t give it to my beta readers because… well, colour doesn’t usually make it to paperback.

Nonetheless, I got some good feedback on the magic and hope to make it even better with my third draft.

Plot Twists Worked

A couple of years ago, a published author on Twitter held a little competition, with the prize being that she’d read and give feedback on someone’s manuscript. To my total shock, I actually won and got a big critique of Incarnate. She mentioned in her overall feedback that my “plot twists were masterful”, so that was pretty cool. I tend to think I do plot twists pretty well; that seemed to be the case with A Fate Entwined too.

A few of my beta readers definitely saw one plot twist coming and found themselves frustrated that the character hadn’t worked it out. On the other hand, other people seemed to think it was the best twist of the book. I’m not entirely sure what to do about that, but I’m hoping that bringing it forward a little bit will help.

My main plot twist surprised even my most astute reader (who picked up on pretty much every subtle clue for future plot twists), which was great to see. There are three big twists in the whole book and I’m glad to say they all worked to some degree, at least.

My Fight Scenes Rule

Another fairly consistent point of feedback was that the fight scenes were really good. This was a massive relief because it’s basically impossible to tell if you’ve written a good fight scene on your own. I asked everyone what their favourite scene of the book was and most responded with one of the main fights. Combined with the magic, people really enjoyed those story beats, so that’s a relief.

The Solution

I spent a few days like this. Think, think, think… brain blast!

Listen to Your Feedback

Every writer’s first instinct when receiving criticism is to be defensive or shut down entirely. You might read your feedback and hate it. That’s fine, but you owe it to the people who spent hours reading your book to consider every single comment and suggestion they made, even if for only a moment.

My personal word of advice for getting the most out of feedback: read it at least twice. I tend to do an initial read where I don’t think deeply about the advice given. I’m just making myself aware of it and getting over my initial fear that the book is rubbish because someone didn’t like chapter 7. A few days later I’ll have a more critical look, really digging into the feedback and seeing what I can take out of it.

By softening the blow through an initial read, I open myself up to be more receptive to advice later on. As I mentioned earlier, I generally need two people to agree on a point to consider a real change, but I can be one of them. If Clancy suggests I kill off a character but nobody else suggested that, I’m free to ignore it, since all readers have their own personal tastes. But if I think that’s a great idea, then I might just got ahead and do it.

I was going to name this section Listen to Your Feedback (Sometimes), but ultimately decided against it. If somebody has read your entire novel (or even a short piece of work), they’ve done you a favour. So be a good writer and listen to all their feedback, even if you think it’s bad. That doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Just don’t let a beta reader’s hard work go to waste.

Take Time to Reflect

I think this is the most important thing with all writing, whether it’s a novel, short story or a blog post. I took six weeks between drafts one and two, then two months between two and three. This was crucially important, even though I was going insane waiting to get back to writing.

During my excruciating wait, I disconnected from the story I had written and started reconnecting with the story I wanted to tell. It’s how I added an extra 30k to my second draft. And about half of the changes I’m making for draft three have come from my own mind. The other half are from my beta readers, or from issues they pointed out.

So let yourself disconnect. Give yourself time to forget what exactly you wrote on the page. It’s painful, but you won’t regret it.

Beta Readers Aren’t Editors

A beta reader’s job is to tell you what isn’t working for them. It is not their job to provide solutions to your problems. Some of them might offer solutions, and that’s fantastic, but you shouldn’t expect it. By all means, if someone hated your ending, feel free to interrogate them to find out exactly why, but ultimately you’re the writer, so you need to be coming up with the solution.

If your beta readers are willing, feel free have a conversation with them and ask what would work better in their eyes. There’s nothing wrong with outsourcing ideas, provided they are fine with it. At the end of the day, though, it’s just you and your keyboard. You wrote a whole novel! Surely you can come up with a way to fix the villain on your own, now that you know why they aren’t working.

Don’t Despair

So, your beta readers pointed out a lot of issues with your actual writing? You’ve got bad metaphors and terrible grammar? That’s fine because you’ll get better. If this is your first novel, congratulations on writing a novel and having others read it. That’s what you’ve been dreaming of, right? If it’s not your first novel, then look back on your last project and consider your progress.

You can even see the progress between drafts, most of the time. Think about how you’ve developed as both a storyteller and a writer. In my second draft, I repeatedly wrote bare instead of bear and fowl instead of foul. I’m an idiot, I know, but I learned my lesson after four people pointed that out several times over. That’s two massively embarrassing mistakes out of my way.

I learned why I need to introduce my antagonists earlier and how to set up my third act from the first page of the book. As both a wordsmith and a storyweaver, I’ve learned a lot. Even if I have to throw this book into the fire, I’ve learned something from it.

But the good news is that most of the time you won’t have to burn your manuscript. Instead, you take the feedback, sift through it for the best pieces of gold in there, get back on your horse and ride straight to the bank to exchange them.

Your next draft will be better. Your next book will be better. And one day, you’ll get all of the ingredients right, almost entirely by coincidence, and before you know it, you’ll be at your first book launch. That’s when you’ll open your book to the acknowledgements and see the names of your beta readers there. You’ll thank them, no matter what advice you got. Because they read your book before it was cool.

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5 thoughts on “How I Receive Feedback From Beta Readers”

  1. It sounds like you have some insightful beta readers and a great system for dealing with their feedback.

    I was interested to hear your issues with your protagonist being too close to a villain. On my current read-through I’ve found my MC less likeable than I’d intended, so I’m going through and trying to cull her most self-centred thoughts. Fun times!

    1. The Semi Columnist

      It was definitely not an issue I expected to find. Writing in first person, I guess I was just way too close to the character to see it. I’m glad it was pointed out because she did have a seriously questionable moral compass in draft 2.

      Having less written thoughts for your point of view character is generally a good way to start cutting down words anyway, but if it can make your protagonist more likeable, that’s a double win.

  2. Pingback: How to Finish a Novel in Twelve Months – The Semi-Columnist

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