Are Your Readers Trying to Tell You Something? How to Use Reader Feedback to Improve Your Writing

by Joel Friedlander on May 28, 2014 · 16 comments

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By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

“I know I need to edit my book, but I just don’t know where to begin.” — Indie Author

Step 1: Start with the Reader

We hear this comment frequently from self-publishing authors. Completing a book-length work is exhausting, and the last thing you want to hear when you finish your first draft is that you need to start again, this time with revisions.

You might not realize it, but the place to begin is right in front of you — it’s the reader you’ve had in mind since you began your first draft. That reader is talking to you, and if you can figure out exactly what he’s saying, he can act as your guide in the revision, or self-editing, process.

As Hugh Howey says, “Indie authors are maniacally focused on the reader … Indie authors are doing well because they know it’s all about the reader…. It’s the reader, stupid.”

So start with the reader — the reader can direct you to the problem spots in your work, if only you’ll listen. Not only that, but careful attention to what the reader is telling you can help you improve your writing.

Where do you find readers? Well, there are your beta readers, and there are reviewers. Both are giving you feedback about your work. If you’re about to publish a book, you’ll have beta reader comments to work from. If you’ve published a book already, then you might also have reviews to scour for information.

Finally, if you haven’t previously published a book and you don’t have beta readers yet for your current work, don’t despair. You can read others’ reviews … and learn from their mistakes!

The point is, the information is out there. But you need to learn how to use it.

Step 2: Do Things in the Right Order

The Editing Continuum

In her book, The Indie Author’s Guide to Book Editing: How to Find, Hire, and Work with the Right Editor for Your Manuscript, Sarah Kolb-Williams points out that the order of things matters. A big-picture edit, for example, needs to happen before a word-level edit. In other words, when you’re at the beginning of the editing process, typos should be the least of your concerns.

We said something similar in our post last month: order matters, and as you begin the editing process, you’ll save yourself time and endless frustration if you keep this order in mind:

Big-picture —> Paragraph level —> Sentence level —> Word level

If it helps, try thinking of the editing continuum as something similar to the order of operations in arithmetic. If you perform addition and subtraction before addressing division and multiplication, you’ll end up with a meaningless jumble. Similarly, if you attend to spelling and punctuation or dialogue and characterization before you’ve resolved issues in the plot, your results will be disappointing at best.

Recap:

  1. Focus on the reader and what he says he likes about a book — and pay special attention to what he doesn’t like.
  2. Order matters (see above). Don’t even think about correcting typos until you’ve got your big-picture and paragraph level ducks in a row.

Keeping these two items in mind will position you to use valuable reader feedback to your best advantage.

Step 3: Use Reviews to Improve Your Writing

Interpreting Reviews
At last, you’re ready to apply feedback to your manuscript. This is the hard part. You know where to find feedback and you know the order of revisions. We can hear you asking, “What now?”

When beta readers, readers, reviewers and editors—editors are readers, too!—offer constructive feedback, what are they actually telling you, and how can you use that information to improve your writing?

It’s possible to read what reviewers say and figure out what kind of attention your manuscript needs. Situating your manuscript on the editing continuum will also help you to determine the order in which to address things.

We searched through reviews on Amazon for examples of constructive feedback. Readers won’t necessarily tell you that you need to focus your attention on in a big-picture edit, for example, but they may suggest it. The table below interprets examples of reader feedback, so that you can see how you might identify what you need to improve on.

Once you know what readers are telling you, you can do something about it. The Google search engine is your friend, here. There is lots of great information about the craft of writing fiction on the internet. In the right column of the table, we’ve suggested some search terms you can use to find information that will help you.

Quotes from current reviews on Amazon.com
How to Use Reader Feedback to Improve Your Writing

*Note: As we searched the Amazon reviews for examples of the four levels of editing, we encountered surprisingly few references to typos and spelling errors. This wasn’t the case even a year ago, when comments about careless proofreading were frequent. As we’ve said before, the landscape is changing — self-publishing authors are listening, and they’re taking measures to produce professional, polished books.

How to Use this Information

You’ve received some great reader feedback, or you’ve found reviews of others’ work that might also apply to yours. And, after identifying the trouble spots in your writing, you’ve found relevant resources to help you sort things out in your manuscript.

You’re on your way.

But making revisions is slow and difficult work — don’t try to rush things. Acknowledge that your book will take time to develop. Your attention to detail now will pay off later. Keep in mind, too, that integrating all this information is complex, and it may take more than one try to get it right.

Tackle items one item at a time in an order that makes sense — straighten out the plot and fill in the holes, for example, then address pacing. Through experience and practice you’ll learn that you can’t achieve the pace that will keep a reader engaged unless you dismantle all the infodumps standing in the way.

Yes, there’s a lot to learn and it’s hard work, but if you listen to what readers are telling you, you’ll become more aware of your writing strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately, you’ll also become a better writer.

Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas
Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing are Contributing Writers for The Book Designer.
They are also authors, copyeditors and proofreaders who work with and instruct self-publishing authors.

You can learn more about Corina and Carla here.

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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    { 14 comments… read them below or add one }

    P.H. June 2, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Thx for the tips. Great article. There are great guidelines in this to share with beat readers too!

    Reply

    Carla Douglas June 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Hey, P.H.:

    So glad you liked the post! And if these guidelines can help you get the most from your beta readers, that’s wonderful.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment,

    Carla

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg May 28, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Good ideas! I have a perma-free book with quite a few poor reviews. Most of them say the same thing – the book’s boring and has too much backstory where nothing happens.

    So a couple months ago I went back into it and cut out about 15,000 to 20,000 words. You know, boring political talks, guys riding horses and talking about past wars, and eating, lots of eating.

    Yeah, maybe I’m not as sucessful [sic] as the Prosperity Guy, but I think responding to readers is a good idea when deep down you know they’re right, and many say the same thing.

    Reply

    Corina Koch MacLeod May 28, 2014 at 11:00 am

    Greg,
    Good for you for having the courage to consider what your readers might be telling you. The kinds of issues your readers are suggesting you address are big-picture issues, aren’t they?

    And that’s led me to wonder about a few things. Typos, while annoying, may not cause a reader to stop reading a book, but a big-picture issue might. Big-picture issues become obstacles that get between your message or story and the reader. Where a typo is a pebble in your shoe, a big-picture issue is a boulder in your path.

    (Self-)editing is so much more than hunting down typos.

    What do you think? Do you think that certain unaddressed editing issues carry more weight with readers, while others may not? I’m grappling with this question myself.

    It seems like you’ve put a great deal of effort into fixing your book. Has enough time passed to determine whether your efforts made a difference to your readers?

    Reply

    Greg Strandberg May 28, 2014 at 11:10 am

    The 1-star reviews have certainly slowed, but then the perma-free downloads have as well.

    I think what helps the best is the approach you take to new books, based on feedback you’ve received on old. You never have to stop tweaking a book, but at some point you have to move on.

    That’s the nice thing about print books, there’s more of a sense of permanence to them. I’ve certainly rushed out a few books knowing I could go back later and fix things.

    Sadly, I don’t always go back. Plot holes or leaving boring parts in is always easier to justify than a string of typos, especially if they’re not misspelled words.

    If you do go back and readers start to leave reviews saying things like ‘there’s potential, not that bad,’ or ‘going to try Book 2′ then you’re probably doing something right.

    Reply

    Corina Koch MacLeod May 28, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    You raise a good point, Greg.

    With digital publishing, you always have an opportunity to go back and fix something. But at some point you will need to decide that your book is done and move on to the next one.

    Carla discusses the “curse of digital publishing” on our blog in the post, How Do You Know Your Novel is Finished? (http://bit.ly/1rhu5uZ) Like you, she suggests that the feedback you get from readers is sometimes best applied to your next book.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Reply

    Carla Douglas May 28, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Hey, Jason.

    Thanks for your input! It’s so true — the more beta readers you can recruit to provide you with feedback, the better. That way you can identify the trends and the bits of advice that might not have much weight.

    Bottom line: respect your beta readers by delivering a quality manuscript — they’ll thank you for it by delivering quality feedback!

    Best,

    Carla

    Reply

    Jason Matthews May 28, 2014 at 6:47 am

    You’re right–they’re invaluable. And more beta readers are better than fewer imo. The thing to look for is consistency in the comments. It’s easier to pay attention when two or three people make a similar mention about an issue than when one reader makes a comment that you have to sit back and ask, “Do I agree with that?” It gets interesting as opinions are valid, but people tend to disagree so that gets factored in.
    I like the macro to micro technique you mentioned also. No need to focus on typos until the story works.

    Reply

    Roberta Pearce May 28, 2014 at 5:44 am

    Great article! Very helpful.

    A couple of points [not being contentious, but purely in the interests of edification]: I once was asked to beta read a novel that the author [admittedly] had not edited, but was looking for the “big-picture” feedback. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give this feedback as the novel at “word level” was so incomprehensible that I couldn’t get more than a few pages in. If you’re an author, give your betas the cleanest MS you can.

    Also, regarding the reduced number of Amazon reviews noting editorial errors: some reviewers making such observations have been harshly criticized by others, and many readers are reluctant now to post reviews that are not wholly positive.

    Reply

    Carla Douglas May 28, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Hi Roberta,

    Thanks!

    You’re absolutely right — give your beta readers the most professional, finished draft you can manage, or they’ll run away in frustration! I’m curious: did you tell the author about your inability to get past these distractions?

    I hadn’t considered the sometimes contentious culture that exists on Amazon’s reviews, so thanks for pointing that out. I hate to think reviewers are intimidated by others on the site, but I do know it happens.

    From my own experience, though, I am also finding fewer typos, spelling and grammatical errors in self-published books than I did a year or two ago.

    Curiously, I’ve heard a couple of comments recently about the increased number of typos in traditionally published books. More evidence of publishing’s shifting landscape, perhaps.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment,

    Carla

    Reply

    Roberta Pearce May 28, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks for your reply, Carla!

    I did inform the author [very politely] that I felt the work wasn’t ready for betas, and edited a dozen or so pages to demonstrate basic rules of dialogue punctuation [which was one of the biggest problems] and a variety of other generalities that could bring some coherency to it. The author responded with equal politeness, and thanked me for my time. I know it wasn’t deliberate shoddiness, merely a misunderstanding of process – and of course, when we read our own writing, we understand it perfectly, don’t we?

    I’m glad that you’re seeing an improvement in quality of SPs, and I don’t doubt your word on it at all. I’m quite newly exposed to SP culture, if you will, so have no empirical evidence [or inclination] to disagree! As you allude, error is going to exist in everything, as it’s the human condition.

    I agree, too, that there are more typos now in traditional pubs. Actually, malapropisms are on the rise: “taught” rather than “taut”; “inference” instead of “implication”, for instance. An easy-enough thing to miss. The “shifting landscape” is seen on news sites of reputable papers and magazines, too – in part, I think, because the speed with which material is produced interferes with thorough proofing.
    [I am so going to read this later and find a typo!]

    Thanks again, Carla!

    Reply

    Carla Douglas May 28, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    Roberta,

    Thanks for your reply. This is all new territory, isn’t it? So glad to hear that your interaction with the author (as a beta reader) was carried out with polite deference!

    You really nail a couple of things: that it’s about a process that’s still being defined (no one really knows the rules, do they?) and that we all know exactly what we mean! This made me laugh, because that’s what editors do: point out that actually no, others don’t know what we mean.

    About typos, etc., in traditionally published books: I’ve had conversations with a few people about this, and they agree they’re on the rise. I welcome your input re malapropisms and usage — who knows what this all means? I find it fascinating to chart the progress of self-pubs alongside the changes that are taking place in traditional publishing.

    Thanks again for your contribution to this discussion!

    Reply

    Ernie Zelinski May 28, 2014 at 4:22 am

    I have a different approach.

    Forget about perfection. There is no such thing. I have found that the majority of the 1-star reviews on Amazon are by negative people who find one thing wrong with the book and forget all the positive ones. This is where this quotation applies:

    “Pay no attention to the criticism of people who have never themselves written a notable work.”
    — Ezra Pound

    In the same vein, this advice from one of my favorite writers:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    For example, my international bestseller “The Joy of Not Working” had over 150 spelling errors when I first self-published it in 1991. It wasn’t until three years later when the book sold over 30,000 copies and when I did a spell check that I discovered those spelling errors. Did this impact the sales to the book? Very little, near as I can tell. The book still sold over 5,000 copies in print last year, 22 years after it was released, and will make me over $20,000 this year.

    This has alwasy been my motto (Enjoy the previous typo):

    Do It Badly — But at Least Do It!

    This approach has helped me get published in 22 languages and 29 countries, a total of 111 book deals with foreign publishers, all without using a North American foreign rights agent. It has also helped me sell over 800,000 copies of my books.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 275,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    Reply

    Carla Douglas May 28, 2014 at 8:03 am

    Hi Ernie,

    Thanks for your comment! And congratulations on your publishing success. Clearly, you’ve solved the marketing and discoverability conundrum — at least for your own titles!

    I agree — many 1-star reviews are unhelpful and curmudgeonly, and I wonder why those reviewers even bother taking the time to spew their venom. They’re like the trolls who comment on blogs and online news sources, and should probably be dismissed out of hand.

    Sometimes, though, even a 1-star review shines a light on something you haven’t considered. Reviewers can help you see your writing through a reader’s eyes, and positive or negative, it’s information worth noting. One negative comment might just be a grouchy reader. Two or more? To me, that looks like a pattern, and I want to pay attention.

    I also agree with what you’ve said about perfection. No book is perfect, and for some writers, the fear of not being perfect prevents them from even beginning. Thanks for pointing this out!

    Regarding typos and spelling errors: maybe readers aren’t as put off by these as we think they are, and will forgive a book its typos if the content is well-written and engaging. The thing is, often the saying “we don’t know what we don’t know” is true — that’s why I recommend doing everything you can to make a book as professional and error-free as you can.

    Appreciate your weighing in here!

    Carla

    Reply

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