Inside all meaningful work is the seed of something great. But not everybody can see it at first! That’s where beta readers come in handy.
However, not all critiques are created equal. Remember, your work is NOT a popularity contest. Let's face it, not everybody likes every fiction genre, and not everybody needs every personal development book. You simply want to make sure your work resonates with the audience that's right for you. When you first start float your manuscript, it's important to find readers you trust and understand their perspective.
It's important to distinguish comments that will make your work better, from comments that will weaken your unique voice.
You want to connect deeply with your core readers. In order to find two or three great beta-readers, you might have to kiss some frogs. That’s why I designed a map. In order to get to the good stuff, I sift all the critiques I get through four levels.
1. It’s Them Not You
Get these out of the way immediately. Anyone who is overly negative or positive belongs in this category. This includes the people-pleasers who give you facile compliments, and the people who struggle with insecurity and decide to take it out on you. You can recognize them because they have a similar reaction to every story on the table, although the intensity of their response depends on how much they´re triggered. Feel free to discard their comments. It’s them not you.
These people might be a little difficult to distinguish from the first group because they still leave a lingering emotional charge, but their comments aren’t shallow, so you can’t just blow them off. That could either mean they were rude, and you’re still not over it, or it could mean that they offered you a poignant lesson that’s not easy to digest. Take a moment, and if it’s the latter, move it to the next group.
A group you’ll want to hold onto are what I call “the teachers.” I’ve worked as a teacher for almost a decade and understand them well. Some teachers can be so focused on helping that they hand you back a story dripping with red ink, and they forget to mention what they liked about it because they assume you already know it’s good. They honestly don’t realize that this is what you most want to hear. Even though they focus on the negative, they do it with all their heart. They’re harsh but they’re trying to help. There’s often useful information. Hold onto them for further discernment.
4. Constructive Criticizers
I strive to stay in this category every time I enter a workshop. I start with the positive. Experts do this, not because we’re nice but because we’re pros. The only way to synchronize with a writer’s vision is to consciously acknowledge what’s working. Once you understand where the writer is going, you can help guide them there with the constructive feedback they need. I think it's reckless to splatter your opinions all over someone's work without seeing the big picture. But not everybody thinks like that, so it's good to objectify the different kinds of feedback. That's what I do.
After you’ve weeded out the helpful comments from the dross, you’ll want to go through one more level of evaluation before you decide what you can actually use. As I said, writing is not a democratic operation. You are the dictator of this enterprise and you get to say what stays and what goes. When searching your notes for the real gems ask yourself:
• What encouraging comments inspire me toward my next draft?
• What suggestions point out problems I couldn’t see for myself?
After you’ve gone through all that, you’ll have a small but valuable pile of stuff you can really use.This is a game of quality not quantity and a quality beta-reader can point out issues that you might never see for yourself that would inevitably block you from connecting with your audience. And that’s priceless.