3 Times You Ignore Reader Feedback at Your Peril
Before we curate an author's Spun Yarn Manuscript Report, we ask how far along they think they are in the editing process on a scale of 1 - 10. The average score over a hundred manuscripts? 7.3.
We also track every manuscript's scores from readers, who are comparing the manuscript they've just to other well-known books in the genre. The average overall score? 6 / 10.
There's a gap here. It's grayish, smudgy around the edges, and rrrrrreally annoying to authors.
After getting your beta reader feedback, how do you decide how much more work you really need to do? Do you really need to make the changes your readers suggest, or is the whole thing a matter of opinion? If writing and reading are subjective arts, why change the manuscript at all, especially when you've put more thought into this book than any other person on the planet?
Sometimes readers may be pointing to a valid issue, but may not have the right solution for it. Other times, readers are going to be spot on. Here are a few rules of thumb based on all the manuscript reports we've done.
1. When two or more readers independently agree on an issue, pay attention.
Hopefully, your beta readers haven't talked to one another and don't know each other at all. For example, here's a report in which two readers had the same comment at the exact same point in the manuscript:
Reader 1: "I'm struggling with the biological and scientific details that seem off the main topic.
Reader 2: "The content becomes very medically oriented in Chapter 6, and at times it's too dense to read."
As a writer, this kind of specific consensus is gold, and the change is also fairly straightforward. Go back to Chapter 6, and cut out some of the dense scientific details. Read it for tone, and make sure it's consistent with the rest of the book. These easy wins are why it's so important to have more than one beta reader read you book.
What if readers agree, but it's on a major issue that's going to require a lot of work?
For instance, what if you were writing a dystopian book about baseball, but your readers say it's actually a love story, and therefore your ending is all wrong?
This is the kind of feedback that takes some time to digest. Resist the urge to scoff. If your chest starts feeling tight just reading the feedback, it means you need to leave it on a shelf for a few days before you have the emotional energy to consider it. And then, when you're ready, you've got to consider it.
Go back to your story fundamentals and ask yourself: is this really a love story after all? Is there an arc you missed, or a reason why the arc you started out with became less compelling or relevant as the story went along?
The point here is that readers have pinpointed an issue that demands attention. They don't necessarily know the best way to address it. That's your job. But if you want a great book, you've got to pay attention when your readers agree.
2. If it's a straightforward minor change that doesn't matter too much to you, what do you have to lose?
In one of our recent manuscripts, one reader pointed out that the names of two main characters both started with a D and were sometimes hard to keep track of. Though as writers we tend to get attached to every word in our carefully wrought works of art, it can be helpful to think of editing as picking your battles. If a change is small, ask yourself what the manuscript stands to lose or gain by making the change.
3. Readers disagree on the problem, but all of them have some kind of problem with the same part of a manuscript.
At The Spun Yarn, we break a manuscript into four sections for feedback. This is another way of separating the opening, the building action, the climax, and the denouement. This is true of memoirs, and even to some extent of nonfiction manuscripts. When you have at least three readers commenting on each section, you'll begin to see trends. Particularly, you'll see that some sections have more reader comments than others.
For example, two readers think the ending was rushed, and one reader loved the action but didn't find the characters' actions consistent with their prior behavior. This is a cue that it might be in your best interest to take another look at your ending to see which issues you can address and which you'll need to leave as is. In your next revision, focus solely on what it’s delivering to readers, and how.
Even if you don't agree with readers or if they don't agree with one another, you have strong confirmation that you need to sit down with that section of the manuscript and give it a lot of thought and attention. Pretend you're a reader rather than an author, and try to diagnose the issue with fresh eyes. Just because readers don't always agree doesn't mean they aren't identifying an important trouble spot.