Cover of Thanks for the Feedback

Image from Goodreads

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you’ve probably noticed that I looooove to break things down: “writing” isn’t just “writing,” it’s a collection of skills ranging from grammar to description to character building. You can’t just ask for an “edit,” because there are levels of edit.

So it’s no surprise that I love thinking about how there are multiple kinds of feedback.

I’ve been reading Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well because I wanted tips on giving feedback. And, er… that’s… not actually the focus of the book. But I still love this book.

You see, Thanks for the Feedback slots feedback into three buckets: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. And that got me thinking about how those apply to the writing world, where feedback often takes the form of a beta reading.

So let’s talk about the book’s three kinds of appreciation and how those look in betas!

Feedback Type #1: Appreciation

Thanks for the Feedback makes it clear that “feedback” doesn’t mean “stuff meant to help you get better.” It just means a response, of any sort, to what you’re doing. And sometimes you don’t want a deep, analytical analysis. You just want to be noticed.

That’s feedback type #1: appreciation. When someone’s looking for appreciation, they want acknowledgement, recognition, and encouragement.

I’ve actually gotten beta reading requests from people who only–or mostly–wanted appreciation. And that’s… dangerous. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because that’s not what all feedback-givers think to do.

For example, when someone asks me for a critique, I hear “give me a thorough explanation of what didn’t work, why, and how to fix it!” I mean, sure, I’ll mention things I like. I’ll throw in a compliment sandwich. It’s just not the focus. We’re here to find things to work on, right?

But if I default to that, and my beta reader’s hoping for appreciation, we’re going to have a capital-B Bad Time. Because I’m giving the next type of feedback: coaching.

Feedback Type #2: Coaching

“Coaching” is feedback that tells you how to improve at something. This is what people think of when they think of “constructive criticism.” When someone is coaching, they point out the things that need work and suggest improvements.

Sounds straightforward enough, right? There’s just one hitch: there’s a third kind of feedback.

Feedback Type #3: Evaluation

Evaluation is the third and most jarring form of feedback. Evaluation ranks someone: it’s giving them a grade, a yes or no, or a pass or fail. Unsurprisingly, this is also the most threatening type of feedback. No duh, right? It’s heavy stuff!

And while true evaluation is the realm of agents and publishers (the people who say “Yes, I want to read your full manuscript” or “I’m sorry, this isn’t for me”), a typical beta can still include evaluative feedback. For example:

  • When someone’s grammar is wrong. Grammar and spelling are either right or wrong. I may not be a bestseller, but I can still tell you that.
  • When you’re reading about something you have deep knowledge about. If you repair cars for a living, you’re qualified to provide right-or-wrong feedback on a book where car repair plays a major role.
  • When someone’s not following the unspoken rules of their genre. There are some things you are strongly encouraged not to do, like starting chapter #1 with a dream or a paragraph of description about a boring, uneventful day.

When I see these, I have a strong, knee-jerk urge to reply with “Don’t do this!” No suggestions, no corrections, just no. Wrong.

This type of feedback often feels very black-and-white: you’re right, the author is wrong, and they should fix it. But at that point, you’re not giving coaching, you’re providing evaluation. And because evaluation is the touchiest form of feedback, you’re more likely to get an emotional response from the author, whether it’s “I’m so embarrassed! I’ll work on that” or “Screw the rules! I can do whatever I want to!”

The ideal beta includes a mix of feedback types.

The most valuable betas combine all three kinds of feedback:

  • Appreciation helps tell people what they did right. This is the positive stuff, the stuff you liked and enjoyed.
  • Coaching helps you point out the things that you think could be improved.
  • Evaluation should be used sparingly and tactfully.

The best beta includes a hearty dose of both appreciation and coaching. That’s straightforward, right?

Evaluation is the tricky one. It feels like coaching when you find something that doesn’t need discussion–it’s just wrong, and it needs to be fixed. And while this can be valuable information, remember: you’re not just giving coaching. You’re passing right-or-wrong judgement. And that’s feedback you need to treat with extra care.

The Solution: Be excessively explicit about what you want.

The trickiest part of a beta is that we all want different betas. Some people want 90% appreciation with just a dash of the gentlest coaching. Some people want the most brutal read you can give them.

The solution’s obvious: talk more.

What type of beta reading do you want? What ratio of appreciation-to-coaching do you need? Tell your beta. Be extremely detailed about what you want them to focus on, what you don’t want them to focus on, what you care about, what you don’t care about.

And if you’re reading, get as much information from the author as you can. Try to gauge where they’re coming from. Does the author seem confident and resilient? Or do they seem anxious, scared, and discouraged? Do they look like they can handle big, heavy evaluations? All this can help you figure out what kinds of feedback you should focus on.

That’s always the answer for everything, isn’t it? Communicate more! If only it was as easy in practice, huh?

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First off, WriteOnCon! I didn’t talk about it much ahead of time, but I participated. (And now it’s over, so this won’t be useful to anyone who didn’t already know about it.) WriteOnCon is a once-a-year, online-only “writing convention” for people who write anything in the range of picture books to New Adult. (So while they say “kidlit,” they mean anyone who isn’t writing adult.)

There were Twitter pitches and some Q&As, but the real gem was the forums. You could post your query, your first 250 words, and your first 5 pages. You got feedback. You gave feedback.

And it was fun! The community was helpful and enthusiastic. I got a metric ton of advice on my query. And now, armed with a better query and a boatload of encouragement, I am confident that I’m ready. I’m going to go query some agents.

But you know what? I’m not going to talk about it.

Here is a wonderful post talking about why. Once upon a time, on an earlier project, I kept a running count of how many rejections I got. And I posted about it! And oh my goodness gracious, why did I do that? Can you imagine? What agent would want to look someone up and say, “Hey, look! They’ve queried 20 people! I guess I was choice #21 and everyone else said no!” Yeaaaaah. Uh. That’s terrible.

So, yeah. I am querying. It is happening. Send me your good vibes and best wishes. I’m just not going to talk about it.

So you’ve written something. You think it’s in a reasonable place, and now you want to find someone to read it. You’re excited and scared–someone is going to read your work! What if they hate it? What if they love it? What do you do?

I get it. It’s uncomfortable. And while I could write a list about what you should do, I’ve encountered so many faux pas lately that I’m writing about what you shouldn’t do instead.

Seriously. Please don’t do these things. They make me want to flip tables. And I shouldn’t be flipping tables when I’m supposed to be reading your work, right?

1. Don’t insult your work. Ever.

Seriously. Never. Never, ever, ever. No, not even then.

It’s very common. Someone asks you to beta their story, waits for you to agree, and vividly explains how they hate it with every fiber of their being. They cannot let you read this thing without you knowing that they know it’s deeply flawed. “It’s really awful. I have no idea how to make it suck less. Thanks so much for offering to read it anyway.” “Thanks for reading! Just FYI, the characterization is just total trash–everyone’s completely two-dimensional right now.”

Don’t. Don’t! I know how tempting this is. I did it for years. But believe me when I say it makes the entire beta experience worse. You are NOT being modest, and you’re NOT being refreshingly honest.

Look, we’ve all heard about giving constructive criticism to other people. If you’re describing your work, that advice goes for you, too. If you want a beta to look at something, you explain–neutrally–what specific issues you want them to look for. Something like “I think the pacing is slow in the middle. Can you help me figure out what to cut?” or “Can you tell me what you think about the characterization development?”

“I am really fed up with this story, I don’t know what to do, it’s terrible and awful and I don’t know how to fix it, HELP ME D:” is a feeling I understand. But you can’t tell your beta that.

If you do, you will change the tone of the review. I can look at specific, neutral issues. But when someone opens with an emotional dump, I start reading between the lines: You told me all that because you’re really uncomfortable sharing your work. You are afraid of this beta. You are so sure I’m going to say something mean that you’re bashing your self esteem before I even read it. And this is a terrible way to start a beta.

And that brings me to recommendation #2.

2. Don’t rely on betas to improve your self esteem.

Do you know what I want to do when I read a story?

  • Identify potential issues.
  • Explain why I think these are issues.
  • Suggest ways to fix them, with the understanding that the author can (if I’ve explained my concerns well enough) take or leave my changes or find other ways to address the core problems.
  • Identify things that work well. Explain why.

It’s like work. I do an analysis, explain my logic, and write down suggestions. I do NOT want to:

  • Worry that my recommendations will be used by the author to attack themselves because “they knew their story was awful” and my review is “proof.”
  • Comfort authors (particularly if they’re strangers) who are so upset about their story that they need to be talked down to a calmer place before they can even accept critique.
  • Live with the burden that my feedback is going to make a perfect stranger continue or abort a project.

Here’s how this connects to suggestion #1: If someone comes to me with constructive concerns, I assume we’ll be doing the stuff in the first list. If someone comes to me and immediately dumps on their story, I worry about the things on the second list.

Is that fair of me? Maybe not. I don’t want to be mean. I never want to be mean. But a beta should be a non-emotional, professional exchange. There shouldn’t be any judgements. I’m just making a list of potential problems and suggestions.

And if you open our discussion by dumping on your work, I immediately know I have to be extra careful not to hurt you. And this means my beta is going to be worse, and I’m going to be worrying more about you than the work.

3. If someone identifies problems with your story, don’t assume that it means you are a bad writer.

Writing is a skill. When you’re just starting out, you will have a lot to learn. And no matter how experienced we are, we always seem to hit ruts where we just keep making the same mistakes. We learn. We grow. And learning isn’t shameful.

If you make mistakes in your stories, it’s not because you’re bad, worthless, awful, or talentless. You’re just learning. We’re all learning. It’s fine.

So if a beta finds a bunch of things wrong, you can’t turn around and say “You’re right. My story wasn’t perfect. That means I will never publish, I will never be an author, my work is all worthless, and now I have to give it up forever.” No! No.

If I find a problem in a novel, I don’t think the author is stupid or worthless. I think the novel could be improved. That’s it. And if you agree with me, I hope that my review will help you analyze what you did so you can write better novels in the future. And sometimes my advice is just weird, overly specific, and not what you had in mind. Don’t feel bad about those. I have a lot to learn about being a good beta, too.

But you can’t get your self-worth tied up in this. A beta isn’t about identifying whether you are a good writer or whether your novel is worthwhile.

So that’s it. Please. Let’s make betas calm and clinical. Let’s treat them like work or workshops or creative writing classes. It’ll make betas better for everyone.

I’ve been reviewing works in progress for folks on Absolute Write’s Beta Readers, Mentors, and Writing Buddies board. (Which is an amazing place if you really want to get a story reviewed, by the way. I got 4 offers in under 24 hours for my 70,000 YA fantasy novel.) One of them taught me how to make EPUB files.

And it makes sense. Unless you’re asking for line edits (and none of the people I was reading for were) you don’t have to read an 80,000-word novel on the computer. So it’s apparently very common to convert the file into a quick-and-dirty EPUB file so you can read it on an e-reader.

Making a professional, polished EPUB would take a lot more time and care than what I’m showing here. But if you just need something for a beta partner? Here’s how you’d do it!

Please note that I write everything in Microsoft Word 2010, and that’s what I’m using in this tutorial. (These features exist in every version of Word from 2007 and onwards, however.)

1. Start with a well-formatted Word file.

So, I started with my .DOCX file. “Well-formatted” means:

  • Chapter headers are marked using Word’s “Heading 1” style. (You can customize this style so that it looks how you want it to. The important part is that the headers are flagged as headers.)
  • Each new chapter starts on its own page. It’s easiest to do this with a hard page break (which you can do by hitting Control+Enter).
  • Use 12 pt Times New Roman font. Or Courier, I guess. Courier looks awful.
  • Double-space the document.

2. Save your file as a “Web Page.”

This is under Save as > Save as Type. Select “Web Page” from the drop-down menu. This saves your manuscript as an .HTML file.

3. Open your HTML file in Calibre.

Calibre is a free-to-use program that creates EPUBs. It’s also very easy to use.

Screenshot showing a list of chapters.

Screenshot showing how Calibre has broken my story automatically into chapters.

  1. Go to Add Books. Select your HTML file.
  2. Go to Convert Books. Select “Convert Individually.”
  3. There are a lot of conversion options. You don’t have to change anything. I changed the metadata so that my story’s title and my author information were correct. Then I hit “OK.”
  4. Give it a few seconds to convert.
  5. Right-click your newly created story. Select “Edit Book.”

Now you can change whatever you want. If you marked all your headers correctly in Word, your book should already be organized into chapters, just like the screenshot to the right.

If you want to add a table of contents, you can add it by going to Tools > Table of Contents > Insert inline Table of Contents.

Calibre will add its own generic cover page. You can change that if you want. I don’t have custom art (and I’m not going to make any for beta readers), but I didn’t like the default cover, so I went to the title page slide and deleted the “SVG” tags and everything inside them.

I didn’t do anything special in Calibre. I find it’s much easier to do all the special formatting in Word. You can make changes to your novel in Calibre, but it requires some knowledge of HTML/XHTML.

And that’s it! Now you’ve got one shiny new EPUB, ready for all your non-professional needs.