One of the first things I learned when I got into writing was that I was supposed to ask others to read my stories and give feedback on them. Apparently it wasn’t enough that I’d written something – others were supposed to give me their opinions on it and I might even have to [gasp] change things. It was implied my story might not be perfect, and that I would need the help of others to identify opportunities for improvements.
In fairness, that’s actually kind of reasonable.
Writing is hard, and you often get completely wrapped up in what you’re doing. You spend a lot of time with your characters and your story, and it’s easy to forget that a first time reader won’t be nearly as familiar with your creation as you are. They may not even be all that interested to begin with.
So how do you find out if your story is good enough?
Well, you ask someone to read it and tell you.
When I put it like that, it sounds pretty simple, and it sort of is. Unfortunately, it gets complicated real fast.
Giving feedback is easy. Giving good feedback is not. Receiving feedback can be emotionally draining, and accepting it difficult. Acting on received feedback can be both. Even deciding whether or not to act on the feedback you’ve received can be a challenge.
Too much feedback can be confusing, and too little can be misleading.
In short: feedback is hard too.
What can you do to make sure you get good feedback that you can use to improve your story? I’ve got two tips for this:
- Find someone who enjoys the kind of story you’re trying to tell.
- Ask leading questions.
People are people, and not everyone will like the same kind of stories. In the same way, there aren’t any stories that everyone likes.
It stands to reason that there are plenty of people who won’t like your story – not because it’s bad, but because of what it is. That’s natural, and there’s no need to get worked up over it. Forget about those people and focus on those who like the kind of story you’re trying to tell.
If I’m writing a novella about a young woman with relationship issues, I won’t ask for feedback from someone who’s only interested in hyper-realistic, epic sword and sorcery trilogies. The genre may still be fantasy, but the stories are very different.
This is why I try to make a point of telling my readers that if they don’t like the story, they shouldn’t force themselves to keep reading it. I want to avoid having someone read my story out of some sense of obligation. They might try and do it as a favour to me – because they’re my friend or because they’ll feel bad if they don’t. It’s a very nice gesture of them to try, but in the end it’s going to be a waste of both their time and mine.
I don’t want feedback from someone who’s forced themselves to read my story just to be nice.
No matter how good a friend they are, I’m not going to add epic dragon battles to my little relationship novella – and no lasers.
Talk to people, both online and in real life. Find out what they like, and ask if they might be interested in helping you out. If you’re uncertain, perhaps give them a sample to try – maybe the first few chapters.
Writers or Non-writers?
Depending on how comfortable you are with your writing and storytelling you may or may not want to ask another writer for feedback. Writers may be able to identify issues that a non-writer will only experience as a vague sense of wrongness. On the other hand, writers may get hung up on little details of craft and technique that a non-writer won’t even notice.
A non-writer may happily inform you that they only found a few spelling errors, while a writer may express grave concern over your passive prose and excessive reliance on adverbs. Either may or may not be helpful. It’s up to you to try and identify what you need.
Obviously, there’s nothing to stop you from asking more than one person for help. Just keep in mind that if you ask too many people you may receive contradicting feedback, and that’s a right nuisance.
If you’re asking a writer for feedback, they’ll probably be able to identify at least some of the issues with your story for you. If you’re asking a non-writer that may not be the case.
Over time, I’ve found that asking questions is a good way to help my test readers give me feedback I can work with. It’s a good way to get them started on thinking about the story, and they may end up answering questions I didn’t ask, which can be immensely helpful.
I don’t have an ultimate list of test-reader questions to give you, but I’ll share some of the ones I’m using at the moment. Hopefully they’ll inspire you to ask your own test-readers the right questions for the story you’re telling.
Once upon a time…
At the very beginning of the story, before even the first chapter, I ask the following three questions:
- Do you care? This is the most important question of all. If the reader doesn’t care, then what reason is there for them to keep reading?
- Do you understand? I’m usually fine with if the reader doesn’t understand everything. However, there’s a difference between not understanding something because it’s meant to be a mystery, and not understanding something because my story is confusing. If there’s too much the reader doesn’t understand, they’ll eventually stop caring.
- Can you relate? This is similar to the previous question in a way, but focused on characters specifically. I’d like my readers to be able to relate to my characters. If they can’t, chances are I’m doing something wrong. It could also be I’ve got the wrong reader for the story, but I’m not confident enough in my writing yet to say when that’s definitely the case. If my reader can’t relate to my characters, why would they care about them?
For each of these questions, there is also a follow-up question: Is there any part of the book where you don’t care, or don’t understand, or can’t relate? If so, where? I need to know.
…happily ever after
At the end of the story I add a longer list with more specific questions. Most of these are self explanatory, so I won’t go into detail about why I’m asking most of these. If anything’s unclear, or if you’re curious about why I’m asking something, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.
Generally though, there are two reasons for each of these questions:
- I want to know the answer.
- I want to get the reader thinking about what they’ve read.
Here we go then, some example questions:
- How do you feel about the main character?
- Do you feel like you have a good impression of who they are as a person?
- Do you understand why they’re acting the way they do?
- Can you relate to them?
I then add similar questions for any other character that’s important to the story.
- Did you enjoy the story?
- Did it make sense?
- What was your favourite part, and which was your least favourite part?
- How long did it take until you felt you had a good grip on what the story was about?
- At what point were you able to predict how it was going to end?
- How do you feel about the ending?
- …and about the beginning?
- Do you feel like the story was different from what you expected when you started?
Some of these questions are really big, and the answers can have a lot of impact on how you progress with the next draft of your story.
Here is where I ask about specific scenes and whether or not they make sense – or work the way I want them to. I’ve picked a few examples from a story I’m currently chipping away at.
- In the fourth chapter, during the telephone call, do you feel like Alene’s reactions are believable?
- In the thirteenth chapter, the escape from the hotel, does it feel like the story flows naturally, or does it just come across as a list of events in chronological order?
- In the nineteenth chapter, on the gallows just before the hunt, did you expect Harry to do what he did? How far in advance did you figure that out?
That’s it for this time. I hope I’ve given you something to think about, and perhaps even some advice you can make use of.
What’s your own experience with test-readers? Do you have any? How many? Do you work with the same ones repeatedly or do you regularly seek out new ones?
I tried to make it clear how important I think it is to find a test-reader who’s into the kind of story you’re writing. Do you agree with that, and if not, why?
In the list of questions above, some of the examples are really big questions, while some barely matter at all. Why is that so? Why do you think I ask someone if they’ve enjoyed the story when it’s really quite likely they’ll say yes and then leave it at that?
Do you use questions like this with your test readers, and which ones are most important to you? Did I miss any?