To Help Get Your Novel Published - Use Reader Feedback Wisely

woman and man sitting speaking to woman who is standing; all in casual clothing
Writers groups and trusted advisors can offer the feedback you need.. Getty Images

Many aspiring authors overlook a critical step to getting a novel published - getting and incorporating constructive reader feedback.

Early drafts of anything—novel, screenplay, children’s book—are rarely ready for the prime-time of literary agents’ or editors’ in-boxes. For that reason, it’s advisable to get feedback on your novel, to vet it and revise it before you send it out into the world for potential representation by a literary agent or potential sale to a book publisher.

Of course, for those going the self-publishing route, getting constructive reader feedback now can mean that your novel appeals to more readers when it’s out in the marketplace, so it advisable for self-published novelists, too.

Follow these rules to get great reader feedback and increase your chances with great reader feedback.

Rule #1: Don't Ask Your Mother

... or your friends. Friends and relatives read through the lens of affection and give feedback with an eye to not offending. They say things like, "I loved it!," “I thought it was great!” or “I can already see the movie version!” or "Wait - was I your inspiration for the beautiful sister?"

But “loved” and "great" are vague and subjective opinion and, while nice to hear, it's not very useful to you right now. Some suggestions of people who might be willing to read, whether for free (whether for credit or an exchange of favors) or for a fee:

  • "Beta readers" with whom you've built a relationship on Goodreads or other online reading or writing communities.
  • A writing group in your community - you will return the reading favor.
  • Librarians or local booksellers
  • Members of an association related to your genre or subject. 
  • People with expertise in any subject matter you're covering. For example, if you're mystery is set at the Indy 500, you'll want to get a read from a race car driver or, at very least, an enthusiast.
  • Paid, professional readers who have experience with book publishing and your genre. The Editorial Freelancers Association may be able to refer you.

Rule #2: Honor the feedback as "help" not "judgement"

It takes time and effort to give feedback, though it's not always easy to take.

So it helps to view feedback not as "judgement," but as a necessary step on the path to a publishable novel. That means, take it very, very seriously. Even the most casual reader has something to contribute - he or she is "audience" and his/her impression gives you insights into how others might react. 

And honoring your reader also means not dismissing their insights by trying to justify what they didn't understand.  So don't diminish the reading effort by offering excuses like:

 

  • “But I want to keep the readers off balance.”
  • “But the villain is meant to be confusing - she's 'complex'.”
  • “But it’s my own personal artistic vision that I can’t compromise.”
  • “But the apocalypse will be pretty long, I’m sure."

Instead, look deeply into the part that’s not sitting well with others - it's a sign that your intended point is not getting through to the reader.

And that you need to address it, so... 

Rule #3: Invite constructive criticism; ask "What's not working for you?"

What is useful—what you want—is for people to be thoughtful and constructive and honest enough to tell you what’s not working in your novel. Notice I didn’t tell you to ask “What do you think is wrong with my novel?” That, too, is subjective.

The answers to the question “What specifically doesn't work for you?” is feedback you can use to improve your story. Here are some prompts that will get you closer to good feedback:

  • Did you have difficulty understanding anything?
  • Were you able to follow the plot?
  • Did you stumble over anything? Did you have difficulty getting beyond a certain plot point or passage?
  • Did any passages strike you as slow-moving or boring?
  • Were all the characters believable? Why / why not?
  • Did any characters behave in a way that seemed “out-of-character,” as they’d behaved previously in the story?

There are many more questions you can ask, depending on the specifics of your book, but the general idea is to get your reader talking about what might ultimately need clarification.

Rule #4: Listen to what your readers are saying and not saying.

Now you need to seriously use the nofeedback you’ve been so generously given. Try to listen to what people are not saying.

A reader who is not a pro might not be able to exactly put his or her finger on what's wrong. For example, if a person mentions to you any sort of dissatisfaction about a certain passage (or plot point or chapter or character) in any context, it indicates that there is a sticking point, something that bugs them. Here are some examples of what a reader might say, and the "translation."

  • “I didn’t understand why Katie would even go into John's apartment in the first place.” (Translation: This sounds like a character problem - you haven't given Katie enough motivation or you haven't explained the motivation well enough.)
  • “During the fight scene, I was confused about who was hitting whom.” (Translation: You need to write your action more clearly.)
  • “The part about the apocalypse seemed really long” (Translation: You're bogging people down by not holding their attention - maybe too much detail.) 

Rule #5: Pay closest attention to the "repeat" stumbling blocks.

If more than one person stumbles over that same passage in your novel, you have a problem you need to address. Note that your readers might articulate their thoughts in different ways. For example:

  • “I didn’t understand why Katie would even go into John's apartment in the first place.” 
  • "I thought Katie was just plain stupid."
  • "I wanted to know more about Katie's childhood."
  • "I didn't get the part about Katie and the ring from the Cracker Jacks."

—could all mean that you need to work more on Katie (your personal favorite character!), so that you're communicating her goals and motives more clearly. 

 

Rule #6: Readers tell you the manuscript problems; YOU find the solutions.

This is your creative endeavor, your readers might propose solutions to what they feel are weaknesses, but you get to make that call. So when you get suggestions:

  • “You should make Katie kill John, not just maim him.”
  • “I know! Katie and John should be on a double-date with someone who happens to have a gun.”
  • “Katie's outburst would be more understandable if she had Tourettes Syndrome.”

—you can absolutely use the notes, or choose not to. As the author, it remains to you to resolve the sticking point do it in a way that satisfies you and honors your creative vision.

If you ignore early, thoughtful feedback, you do so at the peril of engaging other readers—readers who might be agents or editors or others who are critical to your getting that book published.

For more the resources that can help whip your manuscript into shape, read about types and costs of commonly available editorial services.

And when you’re ready to send out the novel, learn how to find a literary agent for your book.

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