Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Six Vital Questions to ask your First Readers

You have a polished draft, and now it’s time to get feedback before submitting to agents or publishing houses.

Those friends and family members who’ve been bugging and bugging you? (When-can-we-read-your-book? Are you finished already?) – finally you have something to offer them, in the hope of garnering solid feedback you can use.

So you hand the manuscript over, ignoring the tumbling free-fall in your gut and the sense that you’ve just placed your newborn child tenderly in the middle of an expressway.

Photo by imagerymajestic,
Then you wait for the feedback.

When it comes, it sounds like this.

“Oh, I loved it. I loved it so much.”

“You are such a talented writer.”

“This was a great story. Really great. Wow – just wonderful.”

Flattering? Yes.

Affirming? Absolutely.


Not so much.

The problem here is that most people you ask for feedback (experienced critiquers aside)… well, they know you, and they love you.

They will be kind.

Maybe they did honestly enjoy the book. They may have sensed that some parts were a little “off”, or not quite there, but either they haven’t thought through their response deeply enough to analyze exactly what was lacking, or they simply feel it would be rude to point out any deficiencies.

Generalized praise may make you feel good, but what’s the point if it’s not even a truly accurate indication of what that person thought? Remember, the purpose of engaging a first reader is to make your book better, not to make you feel better. (Click to tweet.)

You must give your first readers permission to give honest feedback.

Image by David Castillo Dominici,
What’s more, you need to do this in a practical way. Don’t just say, “Oh, and please feel free to tell me what you REALLY think!” because the majority of people will be too polite to take you up on that. It’s like asking your best friend what she really thought of your 10-year-old daughter’s debut karaoke performance.

Yeah, it stank, but absolutely NO-ONE who loves you is going to tell you that.

The instinct to preserve the feelings of a friend runs very deep.

On the other side of the equation you have zealous Aunt Harriet, who is a whiz at spotting punctuation errors and spelling slips, and will tell you with relish that you used the wrong form of the word “you’re” on pages 39, 117, and 248.

All of which is well-intentioned, but equally unhelpful. There’s simply no use doing line edits with a fine-tooth comb if your plot is fundamentally flawed and a third of the book has to be rewritten from scratch.

To elicit the truly helpful responses, therefore, you must dig them out. Ask specific questions. This achieves three things:

      1.     It helps the reader focus on the big picture.
      2.     It helps him/ her be analytical about what worked and didn’t work, and why.
      3.     It gives him/her practical permission to give specific feedback.

What questions should you ask? Keep it short and simple.

Here’s some I’ve used.

1. Did the characters’ actions ring true? (Did you understand the motivations behind what they did?)
2. Which parts felt slow or lost your interest?
3. Were there any parts that didn’t make sense to you?
4. What are the strongest and weakest aspects of the book?
5. What (if anything) took you by surprise?
6. Did you find the ending satisfying?

Face-to-face questioning is confronting, and people will shirk from total honesty. A better approach would be to print out a one-page sheet with spaces after each question, and give it to the reader with your manuscript. Your readers will take this responsibility quite seriously. It’s validating for your first reader to know that you truly desire their thought-out opinion, not just a pat on the back and a bit of ego-stroking. 

By asking specific questions, you bypass the emotional pressure of thrusting your newborn manuscript into a friend’s arms and asking with breathless hope, “Do you love it as much as I do?”

Do your book a favor, and get some REAL feedback.

Have you ever done this? What questions would YOU ask?


Is your first reader telling the truth when she says she loves your book? Find out here. (Click to Tweet)

Six vital questions to ask your first readers: (Click to Tweet)

Do your book a favour, and get some REAL feedback. Here’s how: (Click to Tweet)

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia. When she's not chasing after three small children, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.


Gabrielle Meyer said...
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Joanne Sher said...

Great stuff, Karen! I definitely need to do this.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Love this post, Karen. Your questions are helpful. I have a friend who's reading my fast draft now as I write each chapter. She worked with me on my first book, too. We've come into a place where she knows I need her complete honesty about the story. And she tells me when something isn't working and why. This has been hugely helpful in figuring out how to make my characters more real, and seeing what I'll need to tweak when I begin revisions. She's good about elaborating when I ask for clarification on some of what she shared.

I give her questions and focus areas. She tells me what's working and what's not.

I have loved having honest feedback with my stories.

Sally Bradley said...

Love this, Karen!

We had Dan Walsh teach our chapter a class on editing, and he gave us the questions he asks his first readers. Very, very similar. The one thing he does differently is asks them to highlight in the manuscript where they find unbelievable actions or unrealistic dialog.

Jill Weatherholt said...

This is terrific, Karen! Thank you for this valuable list of questions.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Awesome, Gabrielle! So cool that this approach has worked so well for you. I like the line you use about them not doing you any favours. That is so true! - and I think it's freeing for a reader to have full permission to be honest, too.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Joanne, thank you! If you try it out, I hope it leads to some great feedback for you.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jeanne, it's wonderful that you've found a reader who is so honest and helpful. Sounds like a great partnership you have going!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Sally, awesome, I feel validated to know I'm on the same track as Dan Walsh - yippee! :) I love his idea of highlighting unrealistic dialogue.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Jill, thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

Hugh O. Smith said...

Thanks so much for this. I wish I'd had your advice six months ago, but now with your help I'll go about things differently next time around.
All the best,

Laurie Tomlinson said...

Excellent post! I'm bookmarking this for later.

Love your voice :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Thanks so much, Laurie!

Gabrielle Meyer said...

Your advice is spot on, Karen (and I can so relate to all the people you've mentioned, including the zealous aunt, although in my case, it's my mother-in-law). I've always been very specific with the questions I've asked my first readers (including a questionnaire I send to them). I ask very similar questions to the ones you've listed. Great post!