5 ways to get honest feedback on your manuscript

“I want your honest opinion, as long as your honest opinion is that it’s flawless and brilliant.”

In our last installment, I pointed out that friends and family members are more likely to give glowing evaluations of your work than total strangers. They can’t help it. They like you, so they want to like what you’ve done.

Does that mean you shouldn’t bother to show them anything you write? That you should skip directly to professional editing? Not at all. While you’ll need editing eventually, I recommend hitting up your buddies before hiring somebody like me. The trick is to solicit feedback in a way that inspires objectivity and honesty.

How do you do that? Glad you asked.

1. Be humble

You’re on the eleventh draft of your manuscript, and you’ve meticulously reworked and polished every sentence. Intellectually, you understand that criticism is a necessary and important part of the creative process. In your heart, you think you’re done. What could there possibly be left to change?

Hey, maybe you’re right. Time will tell. In the meanwhile, though, try to keep your glowing self-assessments to yourself. If a friend isn’t as dazzled by your writing as you show yourself to be, he won’t want to be the one who brings you crashing down to earth. If you act as though you expect suggestions for improvement, you’ll elicit more honest responses.

“I’ve gotten as far as I can on my own,” you say as you hand off the manuscript. “I need other people’s perspectives to take it to the next level.” Try as hard as you can to believe those words. They will serve you and your book well during the next round of revisions.

2. Be confident

You’re on the eleventh draft of your manuscript, and it just isn’t coming together the way you’d dreamed it would. What made you think you could do this? You need help and lots of it. Intellectually, you understand that writing takes a lot of practice, especially if it isn’t your area of expertise. Emotionally, you know that the inevitable criticism you receive will crush your soul.

You may be correct about how much work you still have ahead of you. (It’s okay! There’s no shame in that!) In the meantime, though, try not to wear your insecurities on your sleeve. If a friend realizes how much her true impression will hurt you, she may refuse to offer anything but praise.

There’s no need to pretend you have confidence in your work if you don’t. You can, however, act confident about your ability to handle negative reactions. “I know there are a bunch of things wrong with this,” you tell your prospective reader, “but I’m not sure how to fix them. Your suggestions would really help!”

3. Specify what kind of feedback you want

You’re on the eleventh draft on your manuscript, and quite a few people have already weighed in on previous iterations. Most of them hated your resolution; they thought it was too dark. But a small handful loved the way you tied everything together, and they tended to be the ones who truly understood what you were trying to accomplish. After a period of reflection, you’ve decided to keep the ending the way it is.

Mention stuff like this to your new readers going in. “Just so you know, I’ve decided I’m happy with the conclusion and I’m not going to change it. If you could just tell me anyplace the wording seems off, or where I could flesh out the characters more, that would be great.”

Eliminating areas of potential criticism is a kindness to your readers, as it prevents them from wasting their time trying to diplomatically phrase advice you’re going to ignore anyway. It also benefits you. Some friends will be reluctant to give more criticism than praise; they understand the value of an honest appraisal, but don’t want to be too harsh. Now they can limit their negative evaluations to the elements of your manuscript you’ve identified.

4. Set the bar high

People are often predisposed to love anything their daughter/son/mother/father/spouse/friend wrote. To the best of your ability, you need to nip that instinct in the bud. Tell everybody to pretend someone else is the author. Tell them to imagine they were flipping through the pages in a bookstore. That will prime them to demand as much from your manuscript as they would any other book.

5. Be gracious

No matter how much you psych yourself up for pointed criticism, it’s not going to feel good. Resist the urge to argue. Thank your readers for their time. Tell them you’re going to let the critiques sit for a few days while you process them, and then do so. When you’re calmer, you can (nicely, calmly) ask clarifying questions about their reactions. If you handle the less-than-optimal assessments gracefully, you’ll be more likely to get honest feedback the next time you need it.

* * *

While they aren’t a substitute for professional editing, friends-and-family critiques can be highly useful. Do your best to help your first readers be objective, make them feel safe about sharing their true impressions, and thank them for their efforts. The more you use high-quality feedback to help you level up, the less work your manuscript will need at the editing stage … and the less you’ll need to spend.

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