We authors will often turn to external readers (called betas) to read our early work with a critical eye so we can figure out how to improve it. Those who agree are usually trusted friends — trusted, because that feedback, if not well handled, can be destructive.
The most useful feedback an author can get, and what we usually want to know is what’s working and what isn’t. I’ve had external readers get caught up in edits and send me a long list of typos, when that’s not the point of the exercise: at this stage proof-reading is way down the road.
I’ve also had external readers give me sweeping, general comments that weren’t very helpful either. “I liked the second half of the book better than the first half ” doesn’t tell me what you didn’t like or why. Think of external readership as a little bit like a report card. Little John may need to work harder, yes, but unless he knows where you think he’s slacking, the comment is pretty useless.
The best feedback comes from external readers who take the time to look at each chapter and each character. “I found this part confusing,” they might say. “This part was a bit of a slog; can you tighten up the pace?” “I liked this character but found her behavior puzzling.”
The ones who find plot holes and gaps are worth their weight in gold. And even better is when they can point to a paragraph or a sentence or a page and say “I loved this,” because it tells us what to do more of.
Don’t just toss off a series of criticisms without balancing that with what you think works well. I’m not a mindreader. I’ve had manuscripts where I ripped out parts in response to feedback only to find out that the parts I removed were actually sections my beta liked; the comments were too general for me to know that.
Don’t tell them (as a beta told me) that they didn’t like the first 25 chapters and wouldn’t have continued reading if I hadn’t asked them to. That didn’t tell me anything about why those chapters didn’t work. What it did do, though, was discourage me from wanting to work on it any further (I thought: what’s the point? It sucks. I’m wasting my time.). Only some subsequent back-and-forth with that beta established that she actually thought it was a good story. Remember, by the time an author asks you to be a beta, they’ve put a lot of work into their manuscript, a lot more than you will in reading it. Be kind.