In part one, I talked about when to ask for feedback. If you missed that post, you can find it here.
However, the next major issue that people have with feedback is knowing what kind of feedback to ask for. If you scroll through /r/writing’s stickied critique thread, you’ll notice that quite a few of the posts just say, “any feedback at all” or “whatever advice you feel like.” Almost all of the posts that just get dropped in (and are removed for not being in the critique thread) say the same thing.
While this scattershot approach may seem like a good idea, it often ends up being a waste of time for both the author and the person providing the feedback. Generally, critique needs to be handled in a particular order, or it’s not worth much at all.
This corresponds to the three types of editing: Developmental Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading.
The first step for feedback is developmental. Whether you’re hiring an editor or just asking a friend for help, you need someone (who knows your genre) to go through the book and look for problems with the characters, plot, and structure.
Sometimes, these problems will be easy to spot. Even though you’ve gone over the whole book multiple times (because you followed my advice from before), you’re going to have blind spots. One of the most common that I’ve seen is that you know a character’s backstory but didn’t put any of it on the page. So when the character makes a pivotal decision, the reader is blindsided. Another common issue is that you’ve already planned out what happens in the next book, so you’re spending time foreshadowing, even though the reader just ends up lost.
The reason this has to come first is that it results in significant changes to the book. It’s rare that developmental editing doesn’t change at least 5% of the text, and it commonly results in 10% or more being changed. If you’ve had people spend time proofreading that 10% (and you’ve gone over their changes), all of that time is wasted.
A subset of this is beta readers. Plenty of people will say that they want beta readers before they go to an editor, whether it’s to save costs or to fix the big, obvious problems so that the editor can work on the smaller ones. However, beta readers should generally come after a single person (whether you’re paying them or not) has gone over the book for developmental editing. The reason is that you’re asking for a significant time commitment from a bunch of people, whose advice will vary wildly in quality. It’s better to have a single person go through and work on the major issues, then use beta readers on things where you’re not sure. Because some of this is just a judgment call, where you’ll defer to the wisdom of the crowd.
I’ll cover beta readers specifically in a later post, but one of the most important things for beta readers is that you give them specific questions to answer as they go through the book, rather than just asking them for everything they see. What you especially don’t want is a beta reader suggesting massive changes to the book just on personal preference or a beta reader who is going to go through and proofread.
However, if you can’t afford a developmental editor and don’t have a friend who can fill in the role for you, your best option might be to use 10-20 beta readers and average their suggestions to figure out what’s good advice. If you’re doing this, it’s critical that you include a questionnaire to find out what their experience is in your genre, how many books they read, what their favorites are, etc. If you’re writing high fantasy, the opinion of someone who hasn’t picked up a fiction novel since high school isn’t worth as much as someone who reads LotR twice a year and preordered the latest Brandon Sanderson novel.
After you’ve had developmental editing (and perhaps beta readers), you’ll have to go through and incorporate the feedback. At that point, some people start over, going back to their developmental editor, finding a new one, or even looking for new beta readers. Once you’re confident that you’ve completed the major structural changes to your book, it’s time to move on to
This is the point where you can’t really crowdsource. If you can find a friend who is extremely good with grammar, you might be able to get help from them, but copyediting is generally the point where an editor is indispensable.
What you’re doing here is going line by line through the manuscript to make sure that it flows well, makes sense, and is consistent. It’s often the most time-intensive part step, since it requires rewriting a significant portion of the text and figuring out what the author was trying to say.
This is where you’ll generally have a list of character names for your editor to reference, along with notes about them (especially if they have particular dialogue quirks). It’s small picture stuff. If someone has a particular accent in chapter 3, they should have the same accent when they pop up again in chapter 6.
The copy editor should fix spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors as well, according to the Chicago Manual of Style (if you’re publishing in the US).
It’s also something that you really only want one person at a time to help with. If you have two people work on it, just about everything they do will be duplicative. Best case scenario, they’re fixing things the same way. Worst case, they fix them differently and you have to decide which you like better. Either way, it ends up taking at least twice as long for two people to do it, without a huge increase in quality. If you’re having a friend help, you might have another friend go through it afterward to be sure that they didn’t miss things.
This is where asking multiple people for help becomes a really good idea. At this point, you’ve certainly had at least two sets of eyes on the book, but it’s hard to catch everything. Even when you pay a professional proofreader, it’s almost certain that some mistakes will be missed.
By this stage, you’re not looking for any kind of big picture mistakes. If you see one, of course, you should probably fix it. But, ideally, the errors will be things like typos, misspelled words, or misplaced commas. Again, this should be done with reference to the CMOS, but even people who haven’t read the manual can be helpful in finding errors.
Of course, while getting the feedback is hard enough, accepting it and incorporating it is a battle on its own.