The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

Frankly, not everyone has the knowledge, experience, and good taste to generate and articulate useful feedback. However, telling your early readers how to help you is by far the best way I’ve found to ensure usable critique. Grooming early readers is a tricky business. However, through trial and error I’ve narrowed down what I need to three core ideas.

First, don’t worry about hurting my feelings. So long as your criticism is constructive, actionable, and is a critique of the art and not the artist, you’re helping.

Second, write down what you are thinking in the margins of the book as you read. It’s not very often that I get to see inside the head of a person experiencing my story for the first time.

Finally, tell me the good, the bad, and the indifferent. I need all three to make my book the best it can be.

Many authors, agents, and editors I’ve met have expressed the view that “brutal” criticism is the best way to help an author improve their manuscript. While I understand the intent and spirit of that attitude, I have found that delivering only harsh criticism tends to be more discouraging than helpful. I need to know what I did poorly so I can fix it. We’re in agreement there 100%. However, I also need to know what I did well so I don’t break those parts while I am fixing the bad.

Did my space battle drag on? Fine, I can fix that by cutting description to tighten the pacing. However, if I had a moment of brilliant imagery that engaged your senses and interest, I need to know so I can make sure that it doesn’t fall victim to my editor’s knife. Telling me good things isn’t about boosting my ego (though it does help), but rather about helping me make the best story possible.

The “indifferent” part of the request is a bit more complicated. Fundamentally, my job as an author is to build reader investment and empathy. I need my early readers to tell me about the characters and plot points that they didn’t engage with so I can make them care in later drafts. While an experienced writer or editor would do this as a matter of course, non-writers often don’t think to mention it.

I have found that giving a group of people a manuscript and the instructions “tell me what you think,” rarely yields useful results. As much as your friends want to help you, your early readers will only be able to give you what you need if they know what that is in the first place. As in many other social situations, I have found that being straightforward and clear with your expectations and needs is best. Ask for what you want and you have a better chance of getting it.


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