We spent a great weekend at the Wordstock Literary Festival in Portland, Oregon talking with authors about books. One theme came up in a variety of forms in conversation after conversation: I am finished or nearly finished with a draft of my book and I can’t get good feedback about making the revisions it needs to make it ready for publication.
Two people told us they had submitted books to agents only to have them sent back with notes that said, “Needs editing.” A number of authors said they were tired of having family and friends read their manuscript only to have them say, “This is really good!” or “I really like it.” Not helpful! Others belong to writing groups which have rules that all comments on members' work be supportive and encouraging, so they can’t get real critiques of what they have written. One gentleman said he had posted his draft online for people to review. I asked, “So, are you getting good feedback?” The answer was a swift, “No. None!” All of these writers were clearly frustrated.
If you’re a writer who wants ideas on how to revise your work, you need to understand that most people don’t know how to offer useful suggestions. That doesn’t mean they can’t. It just means that they need some help from you about how to do it. You need to tell your readers what you want to know. It’s best to give them specific questions you would like answered. Here are a few examples:
Check for completeness. Ask: What are three questions you wish had been answered in the book?
Check for clarity. Ask: Where in the book did you find things that were unclear or difficult to understand? What made them difficult?
Check for understanding of the book’s ideas or theme. Ask: What was the book’s main idea? What parts of the book helped you see it most clearly?
Check for cohesiveness. Ask: If you could cut one thing out of the book what would it be? Why?
Check for the effectiveness of your storytelling. Ask: What was your favorite scene and why? Which scene did you like better, X or Y? Why?
Using these questions your readers will know what to look for and be able to give you specific answers. You can look at their responses and know what may need work as you revise your draft.
You can formulate your own list of questions. Two important suggestions about such a list: 1) Don’t make the questions too technical. Most of your readers may not be able to tell you much about whether the limited omniscient point of view works effectively. Make the questions simple and direct. 2) Don’t ask too many questions. Three to five is about the limit. Beyond that people see the task as too onerous and the quality of feedback declines. If you have more areas where you need feedback, consider different short lists of questions for different groups of readers.
People want to help. If you make it clear exactly what you want them to tell you about, they will give you useful insights into the strengths of your manuscript and some areas that may need some revision to strengthen the next draft.
Of course, we always recommend that you have a professional editor look over your book before you move on towards publication, whether you are sending the manuscript to an agent or acquisitions editor at a traditional publishing house, or you are self-publishing.