In a previous post, I discussed how alpha readers and critique partners can benefit a writer working on an early draft. But as a writer, you can also benefit from being an alpha/beta reader or critique partner yourself. Reading and analysing other people’s work will help you learn to identify different aspects of writing (style, voice, description, action, dialogue, grammar, etc.) that contribute to a good story. It will also help you identify when feedback you receive is subjective (one person, for example, might like stories rich in environmental details, another may prefer minimal detail and fast action, whilst a third person may be more interested in the characters’ interactions and internal thoughts) and when it is flagging an issue you need to resolve.
Becoming a reader or critic can be a daunting prospect, however, especially if you’ve never done it before, or your only previous experience was for a book report at school. Perhaps you feel under qualified to be a reader, or you’re not sure where to start or what type of feedback to give? Don’t let either of these scenarios put you off. If you read something and have an opinion about it, good or bad, then you are qualified to be, and are capable of being, a reader.
When you’re putting together feedback for a writer, try to give them your impression as a reader, rather than a fellow writer. Focus on details you, as a writer, would find useful if you were the one receiving them. Think in terms of story elements:
- What was your impression of the plot? Did you find it unique, enjoyable, a good twist on an old theme, too similar to other stories you’ve read, or too weak to keep your interest?
- What was your impression of the characters? Did you like or dislike each character? Did you care about what happened to them? What was your impression of the character as a person? (Mentally or physically weak/strong, arrogant, ambitious, caring, helpful, indecisive, vindictive etc)
- What was your impression of the setting? Could you picture it in your mind? Did it feel alive, or more like a cardboard cut-out stage dressing? Was too much time focused on setting, slowing the story? Did you find your mind drifting at all?
- What was your impression of the action? (action being any movement in the scene.) Could you visualise the characters as they moved? Did the action flow with the story? Or did it feel like it got in the way? Was there a lack of movement, leaving everything feeling static?
- What was your impression of the dialogue? Were you absorbed by it, eager for every word? Is there anywhere where it sounded awkward or unnatural? Was it too stop start? Did the characters repeat information too often? Or did they talk about things that seemed irrelevant and slowed the story down?
It may not be possible to comment on each of these areas for every piece you read, especially if you’re helping someone with a book and reading a scene or chapter at a time. But try to mention at least one of these elements each time you give feedback so the writer can see how their work is coming across to readers.
Also, work in a balance of positive and negative comments if you can. It is often easy to overlook the good writing and focus on what doesn’t work. But when all a writer is receiving is negative feedback, it can feel like he or she is taking a virtual pummelling. This can make a writer question their choice to write, particularly if the writer is new to the art, hasn’t found their niche yet, or suffers with mental health issues. Yes, the publishing world can be tough, but that doesn’t mean we, as writers, shouldn’t support each other and offer each other encouragement. Again, try to give the writer the same kind of feedback you, as a fellow writer, would appreciate.
More Detailed Feedback
By focusing on the areas mentioned above, you can put together a solid, helpful piece of feedback. But the more details you can provide, the more useful your feedback becomes. Spending a few minutes to give this extra detail can also avoid potential frustration and confusion.
When you reference an issue with a writer’s style, plotting, or character development, quoting a section of their work showing the problem can make a big difference.
I recently received some feedback for one of my books which, on the surface, appears helpful:
“Some of the descriptive passages bog down the pacing, though the pacing is pretty good overall.”
It is clear from this that the reader found some of the description slowed the story and got in the way. The fix, then, would be to go through the book and slim down some of the descriptions. But which descriptions did the reader mean?
- Is she referring to the scenic descriptions, where I introduce a new area or event, showing a broader picture to help with world building and create atmosphere?
- Or is she referring to segments of description placed between action or dialogue, added to show a character’s reaction or add movement to an otherwise static scene?
- Or perhaps it’s not a particular type of passage, but rather the way it’s written. Perhaps it’s overly wordy, doesn’t flow well, or forces the reader to pause to envision a badly described moment.
- It could also be something else, something I, as a writer, am blind to.
But if the reader had provided a single example to show me what she meant, I could then pinpoint the issue and better decide how to tackle it. Adding an example quote, or referencing a particular section, only takes a minute or two, (it can be done with a comment if reading in word, or you can make a quick note of the issue in notepad (or equivalent note taking software) and copy/paste the quote at the same time,) but it will avoid any potential frustration or confusion, making it easier for a reader to see the issue you’re talking about.
This can also apply to positive comments. If something makes you laugh, quote it and tell the writer. If a description is particularly vivid, or an event triggers a strong emotional response, do the same.
Tell the Writer Why
Sometimes knowing where the issue lies isn’t enough to help a writer solve a problem. If a writer doesn’t understand why something isn’t working, it makes it very difficult to put things right.
Some things to ask yourself when you’re working out why something doesn’t work for you:
- Are you missing vital information, resulting in the plot not making sense?
- Does someone act out of character for no apparent reason? (A meek person suddenly taking charge, or a villain showing uncharacteristic compassion.)
- Does a word or sentence cause you to stumble, knocking you from the story?
- Is something making it difficult for you to engage with a character?
- If an event was disappointing or anti-climatic, what made it so?
Here’s another example of feedback I received:
“Overall, the descriptive imagination is super but it overshadows the plot, which is thin and could be more developed.”
A thin plot is damning for a story. Without plot, everything else falls flat. The problem is, the book in question doesn’t have a single plot, it has five interwoven plots, plus a few subplots. None of my other readers (alpha or beta) have had an issue with a lack of plot either. So why did this reader find the plot thin?
Unfortunately, she didn’t tell me, which leaves me guessing where it went wrong.
- Did she come into the book assuming there would be a single main plot running through it and dismiss everything else as filler?
- Did she expect a standalone story, rather than one woven across a series, leaving her disappointed and expecting more?
- Was my foreshadowing and plot development too subtle, leaving gaps the reader’s unable to fill?
- Or am I and the my other readers wrong? Is there, in reality, little to no plot?
Even is she hadn’t told me why the plot was thin, if she’d told me what she believed the plot to be I could identify what areas of the plot are missing.
Reading the book again may or may not help me resolve the issue. Every writer has blind spots, areas where they think they’ve told or shown the reader something that hasn’t come across, or where they believe an action or event has come across one way, but where readers see it differently.
Drilling into why something isn’t working can take time, and sometimes you may not have the answer, just a sense something is wrong. But whenever you take the time to explain why an issue bothers you (or why something works), you help both the writer and yourself. By asking’ ‘why?’ with a work you have no emotional attachment to, you will learn how to do the same thing with your own writing.
When you identify a problem in a story, should you suggest an alternative sentence/scenario/plot choice?
I’ve seen some readers say they don’t offer alternative examples because it’s not their job to rewrite someone’s work for them. And to an extent, this is true; it’s not a reader’s job to rewrite or edit. But this argument overlooks one important fact. The alternative examples aren’t there to be snatched up and used, they’re there to help the writer understand and learn.
Sometimes, explanations don’t work, either because you can’t say why something isn’t working, or because the writer fails to understand the answer. But if you back your comment with an alternative example to show what you’re trying to say, it can both help the writer understand and learn and avoid potential confusion for you both.
It’s also good practice for you as a reader—a chance to challenge yourself to see if you can come up with something better.
Finally, whether you choose to give short feedback or take the time to go into detail, remember to be specific. Use the characters’ names when you refer to them. Mention specific events, actions, or dialogue that caught your attention. Refer to twists in plot, key moments, or the resolution. This lets the reader know that, yes, you read the work, and you paid enough attention to notice the details.