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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The JUSTICE UNENDING Facebook ad.OK, first thing’s first: this is not a post about how to be successful with Facebook ads.

I created my first Facebook ad last month. I’ve run a single one-month test. I’ve got a lot to learn.

But if you’re an author who doesn’t know where to start–or what to even think about–maybe this will help.

Here’s what I learned from my very first test.

What did I do?

I ran one ad  campaign for my YA fantasy novel, Justice Unending. Here are the stats:

  • The campaign ran for 30 days.
  • It had a limit of $30 for that period.
  • I targeted men and women ages 10-40 who listed “fantasy books” or “young adult books” as one of their interests.
  • I ran two ads simultaneously for the first week, then switched to the more effective ad for the rest of the campaign.
  • I added a third ad, which only ran for one week, to promote my Goodreads giveaway.
  • I ultimately got 1,560 views and 65 link clicks.
  • I got 14 followers on Facebook.
  • I made at least one sale.

These are not amazing stats, sure. But I learned a ton from them. Let’s go into the details!

You should really make an fan page for yourself first.

A Facebook “fan page” is, well, a page about a topic, not a person. It’s not your personal Facebook page, with your friends and family and your super-tight security that ensures no one will ever see your pictures of your cats.

A “fan page” is a page about a topic–like that page about your local animal shelter or that government agency that posts tips on how to save energy at home.

And if you make an ad and link it to your fan page, your fan page will be linked at the top of your ad. This has a lot of benefits:

  • People who think your ad looks interesting can easily go to your fan page.
  • You can fill your fan page with fun stuff about you and your books.
  • If someone likes your fan page, then the things you post on that page will show in their news feeds.

And holy moly, people actually do this! They see an ad, which is trying to sell them something, and they go, “Sure, why not? I’ll follow that author.”

And then they’re fans of your page! Do you know what that means? Your ads only run for as long as you pay for them. But people who follow your page? You get those people forever! (Or until they unfollow you, at least.) When you post updates on your fan page–say, about sales or giveaways–those people will see those posts when they log in to Facebook! Because they followed your fan page!

Yes, Facebook has done a lot of tweaking to fan pages. And yes, the stuff you post on your fan page is not guaranteed to be seen by all of your followers, even if they’re active on Facebook. That’s all true. There are lots of things to think about when it comes to Facebook.

But if you’re going to run an ad, linking it to a fan page is an easy decision. It’s a pool of followers you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

People prefer Amazon links.

I ran one ad that linked to my website. Justice Unending is available in several formats, so I thought I’d give people a choice.

But that ad was absolute garbage compared to the one that linked directly to Amazon. The Amazon ad did so well, in fact, that I just turned off the other ad entirely.

So there’s a simple lesson: people trust Amazon.

The payment structure determines how much exposure you’ll get.

You get two options when you make an ad campaign:

  • Advertise every day and set a daily cap. Facebook will run your ad every single day until you manually tell it to stop. So if you do $5 a day, it will show itself to $5 worth of people, then stop. The next day, it’ll do it again.
  • Put in a monthly cap and a time range. If you do this, it will take the amount you want to pay, divide it by the number of days, then spend that much money per day.

I went with option #2. I ended up doing $30 for 30 days. Facebook helpfully told me that my target audience–YA and fantasy book fans–was a large audience. I had a potential reach of many tens of thousands of people.

I did not reach that many people.

Why is that? Well, $30 for 30 days gets you about a dollar a day of advertising. You get billed for every view and every click. And while there’s no cold, hard number for how much those are worth, it meant that only a few dozen people saw my ad (and only about 2 or 3 clicked it) a day. And Facebook limited my exposure, on purpose, so I wouldn’t spend more than $1 a day.

So money matters. I’d be interested to see how more money on fewer days would have gone–for example, what would $30 on two weeks look like? Or one week?

You pay by the campaign, but you can put infinite numbers of ads in that campaign.

Basically, you have an campaign that is full of multiple ads. You pay at the campaign level. So you might set up “Book Campaign #1” to bill $5 a day until you stop it. You could then make as many ads as you want, which will all share that $5 a day.

This means your ads fight for money. The more ads you have, the fewer interactions each will get.

And it looks like Facebook does some calculations to decide which ad gets your money, because I definitely did not see an even split. I had one really successful ad that ran most of September. By the end of the month, I threw in a second one, to promote my Goodreads giveaway. It ran for a week and was seen by all of 4 people.

Why? I suspect that Facebook prioritizes the “successful” ads that got more clicks. My new ad had very little chance of competing against one that had been going for 3 weeks–and there wasn’t enough time left in the campaign to level the playing field.

(On the other hand, starting a campaign with two ads, then closing the one that wasn’t working as well did work. So timing is important!)

So how did it work?

As mentioned above, I got 65 clicks for my $30 experiment, at least one of which led to a sale. I also got 14 new followers to my brand-new author fan page.

And how does that measure up to other things I’ve tried?

Well, it’s definitely not bad. Far more people click on Facebook ads than Goodreads ads, at least based on my also-very-short test over there. It has a rather high amount of interaction, too: I got fan page followers, a fair number of clicks, and a sale.

Those aren’t exceptional results, and they certainly didn’t change my life. But they definitely got me some exposure.

There’s still so much I don’t understand about Facebook ads. They’re so complex, and they blow through your money so quickly! But they do seem to be a strong option, and I can definitely see myself experimenting more with them in the future.

Yes.

Post’s over! You can all go home now, guys. You–…what? I need to write a little more than that?

Honestly, this is one of those questions I’ve never understood. “The best writers are avid readers” appears in every “Advice for Writers” forum, book, and blog ever written. But writing communities are full of posts asking, “Do you have to read if you want to write?”

The short answer is yes. The long answer is the rest of this post.

Yes, because you must actually like books if you want to write one.

You know what just baffles me? Some of the people who ask “Hey, I want to write. But do I have to read books?” are actually trying to say, “Hey, I don’t actually like reading, but I do want to write a novel! So, uh, what about that?”

And that’s… hm. That’s a problem. Let’s take this question and apply it to other creative arts:

  • I’m creating my own videogame! What’s my favorite genre? Oh, uh, I don’t play games. They’re wastes of time. I really prefer movies, honestly.
  • My dream is to create my own movie! What do I watch? Oh, nothing. I can’t stand sitting down for that long and just watching something for that long. I just wanted to see my name on the screen, you know?
  • I’m learning to compose! But I hate music, and…

Okay, okay, you get the point. This is silly, right? Why would these imaginary people invest hundreds of hours of work into a medium where it’s hard to make something, harder to get it in front of people, and nearly impossible to make money off of? And why would they do it when they don’t even enjoy this thing?

Unfortunately, writing is seen as a low-skill task that anyone can do, so you actually do encounter people who hate books but also want to be a famous author.

So, yes. If you don’t like books, creating one will be especially difficult for you.

Yes, because it helps you learn how to analyze and dissect writing.

OK! So let’s say that you do like reading, and you do read for fun. But, you might wonder, does reading a lot actually help you write better in any appreciable way?

And yes! It does. Here’s reason #1: the more you read, the more you can practice reading critically.

It’s fine to read passively for pleasure, especially if this is how you decompress. I do that, too! But reading without thinking doesn’t teach you anything. To figure out what makes a book work, you have to really peel it apart and analyze it.

And if you’re a writer, this is an invaluable skill to have. When you write a novel, you run into all sorts of problems. How can you make this section less boring? How can you make your characters more interesting? Why is your dialogue so ineffective? These are big, scary questions. And where can you get the answers?

Well, you can get a lot of them from reading! Good books are repositories of successful techniques. If you find a book with really good characters, you can pick them apart. How does that author make them seem real? What made the dialogue good? How did they grow? If you find a really fast-paced, exciting novel, you can study its pacing. How did it keep the action going?

Reading books teaches you how to identify problems, too. Even the most popular, most successful books will probably have a few… iffy choices. And that’s great! Learning how to identify those problems, describe them, and clearly articulate why they didn’t work will help you do the same to your own books.

Yes, because you need to know your genre.

It’s also good to know the genre you write in. Then you can learn:

  • What does a book in your genre look like?
  • What cliches are common?
  • What themes are popular right now?
  • What are the big names in your genre?
  • What are the most anticipated books of this year?
  • How does my book stand out from what’s out there already?

And so on, so forth.

I know people hate rules. But if you are writing a book in a particular genre, there are a few things you have to do for your book to function within that genre (even if it’s just “fantasy books have to include fantastic elements.”) The more you know what a book in your genre looks like, the more you can innovate–because you can point to what other people are doing and explain how your book’s unique.

Also, do you want to sell that thing? Do you want an agent? Then this is really good market research, because it helps you learn what already exists and what’s currently selling.

Finally, if you find novels that are similar to yours, that’s great! You can list them in your query letter as comps, and say “My novel’s like [this successful book], but [different in this way]!”

Yes, because it might help fill your creative well.

And, finally, reading can be important for writers because… well, if you like reading, then you’ll enjoy it, right?

Whenever I can’t write, I read. It always helps. What if I find a book I like? That’s amazing! I can spend days thinking about the things I liked and picking through why I liked it–was it the description? The tone? The way the information was delivered? “Could I do something like this?” I wonder. “It seems like so much fun!”

Or maybe I hate it! That actually helps, too! I can’t imagine how many times I’ve said, “I HATE THIS PARTICULAR TROPE” and then rage-outlined a story that inverts it.

But most of all, reading is relaxing, it’s fun, and it helps me remember the things I genuinely love. And if I’m neck-deep in a story I can’t figure out, which is driving me crazy and making me ragey, remembering that I do actually love this stuff–and that I can do it, too!–helps a ton.

So yes. If you’re writing, yes. You should read often.

This isn’t a judgey thing. You don’t have to be obsessed with reading. You don’t have to feel bad for not reading as much as you’d like to. If you like books and also like reading, you’re golden.

But if you want to be an author, you really should enjoy reading, at all, period, end sentence. That does make sense, right?

Yeah. I really could have ended this post after the first word.

 

I spend an awful lot of time in Microsoft Word. It may not be the only word processing software out there, but there’s no denying that a lot of novels get written in it–and that a lot of people don’t know the useful things it can do.

So let’s talk about styles and how you, a novelist, can use them.

Styles are complicated and powerful, and while you don’t need to use many of them in a novel, they are good for:

  • Making your Word file easy to navigate, so you can jump with one click from chapter to chapter
  • Making it easy to create an ebook version of your file in Calibre
  • Quickly and easily changing font styles throughout the document.

Let’s get to it!

First thing’s first: what are styles?

Screenshot of the

“Styles” takes up about half of the “Home” tab in Microsoft Word. Here’s what it looks like.

“Styles” are, well, font styles. Let’s say you have a simple report, and you have three different font styles: a large 1st-level header for the title of every section, a smaller 2nd-level header for subheadings, and a “normal” font for all of the text. You want your 1st-level heading to be 20pt Arial font, black, and with a 6pt of spacing after every header, and your 2nd-level header to be 16pt Arial, blue.

Let’s say your report is 100 pages long and includes 30 1st-level headers and 60 2nd-level headers. You write the whole document. You’re done. Then, one day before the report’s due, you have to change it.  Both of your headers should be blue, the 1st-level header should be 18pt Times New Roman, and the 2nd-level should be 14pt. What do you do?

Well, if you manually formatted this document, you’d have to find all 90 of those headers and manually change them, one by one by one.

But if you had used styles, you wouldn’t have to do that.

Here’s what would have done: You would have gone to the “Heading 1” and “Heading 2” styles and made them look exactly the way you want it to. You would have set their size, color, spacing, borders–whatever.

Then you would have gone through the document. Every time you used a first- or second-level header, you’d select the text and click one of the buttons in the “styles” section–“Heading 1” or “Heading 2,” in this case. Then MAGIC HAPPENED.

Because the moment you do that, your text is automatically formatted according to the rules you assigned to that style. And if you ever need to change that style, you don’t change it in the document. You just edit the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style directly and every header in your document using that style is automatically updated.

How is this useful for novels?

You probably don’t use a lot of font styles in novels. 99% of my novels are one thing: 12pt Times New Roman font. There’s just one really important exception: chapters headings. At the start of every chapter, I have a big, bold heading: CHAPTER ONE. CHAPTER TWO. CHAPTER THREE.

And I create a style for those. This does two things. First, it makes it really easy to navigate your Word file. Just hit Control+F to bring up the Navigation Pane:

The MS Word Navigation Pane with the "Browse the Headings in your Document" button circled.

See that button? That’s called “Browse the headings in your document.” Click it.

The Browse Headers button showing all the chapters in a document.

And voila. Because I made every chapter heading a header, I can now see all of them–and I can click on them to navigate around the file.

Know what’s even better? If you want to create an e-book of your novel, Calibre will automatically split your book into chapters and create a table of contents. It does this by looking for Heading 1s and splitting the book at those points. (I covered this in a very old post called A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Making Imperfect .EPUB Files.)

So if you write in Word, this is useful. Let’s talk about how to do it.

Step #1: Edit the “Heading 1” Style

First, let’s make the Heading 1 style look the way you want it to.

  1. Go to the “Home” tab. In the “Styles” section, find “Heading 1.”
  2. Right click on it.Screenshot of styles tab showing Heading 1
  3. Click on “modify.”MS Word - Styles Page
  4. This is the “Modify Style” page. The easiest stuff to change is in the middle. Choose the font, size, and color.
  5. If you want to change anything else, click the “Format” button. You can customize a lot of things! But for the purposes of this example, we’re done. Hit “OK.”

“Heading 1” should now look exactly like you want it to.

Done? Good. Now do the same thing to the style called “Normal.” This is your “normal” text.

Step #2: Apply the style to all your chapter headings.

This one’s easy!

  1. Go through your entire document.
  2. When you encounter a chapter heading, select it. Be careful to only select the text you want to be a header. Don’t select extra lines or spaces!
  3. Click on “Heading 1.” Your chapter heading should automatically change.

Step #3: Make sure it looks right.

Remember above, when I told you how to use Control+F to bring up the Navigation Panel? Do that. View your headings. Does everything look OK?

It’s easy to make mistakes. I have, for example, accidentally made single blank spaces into headers–and then they show up in the heading viewer as big, empty spaces that mess up the flow of my “table of contents.”

So what do you do if that happens? Just turn it into normal text.

  1. Navigate to the thing that shouldn’t be a header. (You can do this by going into the Navigation Panel with Control+F, going to “Browse the headings in your document,” then clicking on the mistake.)
  2. Select the stuff that shouldn’t be a header.
  3. Click on the “Normal” style.

It will be converted from a Heading to normal font. And normal font doesn’t appear in the navigation panel, so it should vanish from your “Browse the headings in your document” list.

And that’s it!

That’s all you have to do. Now you can navigate your Word file with just a click of the mouse. And if you want to convert your Word file into an e-book, you’re all set–all you have to do is follow the steps in A Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Making Imperfect .EPUB Files.

It’s a simple trick, but it can be super useful!