Sunday, 10 January 2010

Being an Active Seeker of Feedback

Right. You've selected some potential readers, handed over copies of your precious manuscript, and have arranged a meeting when they're going to give feedback. Stop. Think beforehand how you're going to react, because your behaviour will dictate whether the exercise was good, or a waste of everybody's time and energy.

The thing is, your friends love you. They must do, because they've just given you at least 8 hours of their time to read your manuscript. The last thing they want to do is upset you. So, if you give any hint that they have just skewered you right through the heart, they will back off and start murmuring platitudes. (The best one I've heard was some poor soul who apparently commented on the worst novel I've ever read that it was 'almost good and nearly interesting'.) It's like the friends and family you see supporting some pretty average singer on the X Factor; either they're seriously deluded when they claim their grandson/best friend/baby brother is brilliant, or they love them and don't want them to be hurt. If you really want feedback to make your novel better, you're probably going to have to accept with a smile some comments that make you want to die.

Come prepared for this, and prepared to steer your reader. Asking them if they liked it is just asking for the answer yes. Besides, you don't want to know if they liked it (unless they're prepared to offer money for it) you want useful feedback you can act on. So prepare some questions that will encourage them to expand. A possible list might include...

Which was your favourite/least favourite character?
What did you like/dislike about them?
Were there any places where the pace seemed too slow/too fast?
Could you understand what was going on and where all the time?
Could you picture the characters/locations?
Did the plot make sense - did you ever get lost?
Was there anything you particularly liked/disliked about the story?
If you had to sum up the novel in three words, what would they be?

You're more likely to get honest answers to questions like these so be prepared to hear some things you don't like. But, even if you're in agony inside, remember that it's all useful information that you can choose to act on or not. Don't get drawn into an argument about how X was obvious, listen, make notes and then later on decide if you want to make changes. Writing is all about re-writing and good feedback is golden.


Blossom said...

Hi Sarah,

The list of questions to ask readers is great – much less random than a general, 'Well, did you like it?' It will make readers think about what they've read. I particularly like the three words to sum up the novel.

For the last few weeks I've been discovering that writing is all about re-writing. I had no idea I could cut the flab, rewrite and still retain the heart of the novel. Nothing that's gone to the Out Takes folder has been truly missed ... and I'm sure the novel is now in better shape before it goes anywhere.

Loved the Joyce quote from today's blog.


Anonymous said...

Excellent and thanks very much. It all seems so obvious now you've spelt it out!

Ann Patey

Marci said...


I love your blog! It's very informative and helpful.

When you give your manuscript to someone to read, do you give them your questions at the same time so they can pay attention to answering them as they go or do you wait until they are done to ask them your questions?


Sarah Duncan said...

Blossom - great to hear you're enjoying the re-writes, it's my favourite stage and you're spot on about how you can cut and cut and not miss a thing. Way to go!

Ann - Very glad it helps - perhaps you'll be able to try some questions on Billy and your m-i-l.

Marci - I'd suggest waiting until they've had a chance to read the whole thing before wading in with your questions. At the heart we want to know what a reader thinks of it all, not someone who has been taking an exam! More seriously, I think knowing the questions before might prejudice their response to the book, and it's that that you want. Hope this helps - and thanks for the nice feedback.