Writers: Get The Right Kind Of Feedback!

I’m thrilled to share this article written by my friend, fellow author, and book editor, Belinda Pollard (@Belinda_Pollard). Enjoy!

FEEDBACK-DP_33667065_xsThe right feedback at the right time is the secret weapon of every successful author.

Of course, an editor would say that. But I’m also a writer, and I love good feedback on my own work.

I’m calling it feedback, not just “editing.” It would be wonderful if every author hired great editors, but I’d never urge anyone to risk their family’s food and shelter for it!

Whether you hire an editor or recruit volunteer beta readers to critique your manuscript, you need to know what to ask for at different phases of the process.

Read this paragraph, it’s important!

I’m always hearing about writers who expected one type of feedback, and got something completely different.

The names for different phases of editing vary from country to country, publisher to publisher, and even editor to editor. The best solution is not to rely on the label.

Ask lots of questions of a professional editor. Be certain you understand exactly what they are offering to do for you, no matter what they call it.

With a beta reader, taking time to chat can help ensure that you get what you need, and no one’s time is wasted.

What to look for in an editor or beta reader

Over the years, I’ve noticed characteristics of people who excel at different types of feedback. If you don’t know your editor/beta reader personally, their blog, social media interactions or published writing can help you get a feel for their personality.

Or if all else fails, Just Ask. 😉 A professional editor should know which phase they are best at. An experienced beta reader probably knows, too.

Phase 1: Development

Developmental feedback is for the early stages of a book. Perhaps you have a few chapters and an outline, or a first full draft. You need someone to value the strengths, identify the weaknesses, and develop a vision for the latent possibilities.

A “developer” doesn’t correct typos and grammar. There’s no point – it’s too early. Good developmental editors and beta readers tend to be:

  • widely-read, certainly in the genre in which you are writing, but hopefully other genres too. They ideally read literary works, trashy fiction, classics and modern books, memoir, biography, non-fiction. They draw unlikely inspiration from all those different genres to help make your book come alive.
  • They are lateral thinkers and problem solvers. In fact, they’ll often come up with solutions that are a little, well, weird. But we’re aiming for the kind of weird where you say: “Wow, I’d never have thought of that, but it’s brilliant.” Not the kind where you think: “Oh dear, is she off her meds again??” 😉 (If their blog posts are so “out there” you can’t figure them out, it may be a sign you won’t get value from their comments on your manuscript either.)
  • They are “big picture” people, more interested in reshaping the forest than worrying about the individual trees. They might even write scurrilous blog posts about why grammar doesn’t matter. (Yes, I confess. Developmental editing is one of my own favorites.)

Phase 2: Redevelopment

Your book is finished, or you think it is, but you’re not sure if it’s working. You have a full first self-edited draft, or you may be up to Draft 2 or 3.

  • Someone with an eye for redevelopment can help you see how to reorganize the content you have, to make it work harder and smarter. They look at the overall structure (which is why I call them “structural editors”).
  • Expect that you will do a lot of rewriting after “redevelopment”, and therefore there’s not much point asking them to correct typos. You’ll be creating a lot more typos before you’re finished! (Don’t worry, we all do that.)
  • “Redevelopers” often have similar characteristics to the “developers” listed above, and the tasks can overlap too. What you end up with will differ because your book is more advanced.

Phase 3: Consolidation

Your book is now up to its final draft. It may have had multiple beta readers/editors in the earlier phases. Now you need someone to go through your book line by line, read every letter of every word, correct typos and grammar, make spelling and punctuation consistent, and “massage” the expression where it needs a little help.

I usually call this one “copy editing”, but you’ll find widely varying definitions of that term! So let’s just call it a “consolidator” for now. 😉

  • A consolidator has a more detailed eye. Their own writing has very few typos (everyone has SOME). They have a sense of precision, are well-educated in English, and possibly even know what a gerund is and why it matters. 😉
  • If you use a beta reader for this phase, ensure they work in a way that allows you to see the changes they’ve made (eg, using Track Changes in Word). Take care not to let them drown out your writing “voice” with excessive correctness – you can always reject a change.

Phase 4: The final polish

Every publishing pro I know calls this phase “proofreading,” so let’s just call it that. 😉 Be aware that it’s not the same as any phase of editing.

All editing or beta reading is complete, you have made the final corrections to your final draft, and your book has been formatted for either print or ebook. Proofreading happens immediately before publishing.

  • A proofreader has a very detailed eye. They read every letter of every word, every punctuation mark, every page number. They are looking at the fleas on the squirrels on the trees in that forest!
  • They are looking purely for errors and omissions, not making value judgements about what might work better.
  • The best proofreaders I have ever worked with have been pedants. I want them to say I should have used “whom,” even though 9 times out of 10 I’ll ignore it (because it doesn’t suit the conversational style of the book, not because they are technically wrong).

Belinda-Pollard_OpBelinda Pollard is the owner of Small Blue Dog Publishing in Brisbane, Australia. A former journalist, she has been a specialist book editor for 19 years, and a publishing consultant for 12. She is the published author of biblical meditations and a Varuna Fellowship winner for fiction, but eats too many chips and cannot get her dog to walk calmly on a leash. She works with (and loves) both traditional and indie publishers. Her free ebook, Should I Self-Publish? gives hints for deciding when to pay and when to use volunteers for feedback on your book.

Readers, what is your experience with getting feedback on your manuscripts? What have you learned that you can share with us?

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14 Responses to Writers: Get The Right Kind Of Feedback!

  1. Anne R. Allen June 30, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    What a great piece, Belinda! I’m going to bookmark it and send it to every newbie who asks me what an editor does. .So many people think it’s just looking for typos. 🙂

    • Belinda Pollard June 30, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

      So true, Anne! Glad you found it useful. Your posts are always eminently bookmarkable too. 🙂

      And many thanks to Molly for having me as her guest today.

      • Molly Greene June 30, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

        My pleasure, Belinda. Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing this post!

  2. joybelle2012 July 1, 2014 at 2:07 am #

    Thanks Molly. In the end I guess its up to what you can afford to pay someone and how much you trust your own judgement.
    I’d love to get someone to clean up my mistakes, but up until now I’ve done it all myself, -mostly, although my husband is a big help. He can pick out typos and spelling mistakes at a single glance, as he is used to checking legal documents and his skills with cutting and pasting for a cover are remarkable. He also works from home, so I have scanners, various kinds of paper and other office equipment at my disposal, which all helps.
    The downside is that doing it yourself takes time, time that most writers would prefer to spend on their writing.
    But I have mastered Smashwords now and I think that with all their rules and preciseness, one does get to turn out a smart document in the end, -at least I hope so.

    • Belinda Pollard July 1, 2014 at 5:25 am #

      Hi Joybelle, how wonderful that you’ve got a good proofreader under the same roof! Don’t forget though, you don’t have to pay beta readers, and they can provide input on bigger issues than typos. But best wishes for your publishing adventures, however you choose to proceed. 🙂

      • Terri Borman July 1, 2014 at 10:44 am #

        Can you recommend a good beta reader that you mentioned on this post?

        • Molly Greene July 1, 2014 at 11:02 am #

          Hi Terri! I’ll jump in and say that many authors start with friends and family as volunteer readers initially, then move to swapping mss with other authors. This is where critique and writing groups come in – the perfect source. I know Belinda will add more when she has time!

  3. Ruth Harris July 1, 2014 at 5:26 am #

    Belinda, thanks for explaining—with clarity—what editors do and what writers can expect.

    The editor-writer relationship matters. A writer without an editor is Mutt without Jeff, the Rolling Stones without Mick, or Barnes without Noble. IOW: crucial!

    • Belinda Pollard July 1, 2014 at 5:30 am #

      Thanks Ruth, with your extensive experience, I’m sure you really do know the value of good editing. May many more authors discover it. Even with beta readers, if we brief them well and respond wisely to their comments, a manuscript can be greatly strengthened. 🙂

  4. Laura Zera July 2, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    My words of wisdom: Everybody’s squirrel has fleas. And sometimes it takes multiple sets of proofreading eyes to find them all.

  5. Autumn Macarthur July 6, 2014 at 6:32 am #

    Thanks for an informative post, Belinda! I’m looking for a proofreader now, so it’s helpful to clarify exactly what I need.

  6. Belinda Pollard July 6, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

    Hope it helps you know what to ask for, Autumn. 🙂