Writing communities and classes frequently recommend seeking feedback and constructive criticism from test readers. Taking criticism gracefully is another favorite topic in writing circles. It’s a challenge to get over the emotional and psychological hurdles of having fellow humans pick apart the creative spillings of your soul, but what happens once it’s just you and their advice? Time to turn that pile of feedback into some real change.
Hopefully, by this time you’ve let that draft rest awhile and you can think on it with more objectivity. Whether this is a first draft or a fifth revision, you need to know your goals before reviewing the feedback of others. If you’re writing a dystopian fantasy and the test readers seem to think it’s intended to be literary, that says there’s a disconnect between the style and the intended genre (or a poor choice of test readers). If you don’t know what you’ve written in terms of genre, medium, or structure, each test reader will be pulling you different directions. That is monstrously confusing. Each draft often has a different goal, revised from the previous one.
Try to see where they’re coming from. If you’ve got a large volume of feedback, it helps to take them as a whole. Consider using this list to help make sense of comments and/or marked up drafts:
Pay attention when most of the reviewers voice similar concerns about a particular scene, or character. Even conflicting advice about the same scene is a clue something is seriously wrong there. That kind of feedback should take that issue up a few notches on the to-fix list for the next draft.
Work with the project as a whole and map the reviewers’ experience.
Some reviewers will mark up a draft with comments, and others will write up their comments on a separate document as they go. If you know this (or can tell, based on the questions they have on the way that get answered later), you can make a kind of timeline of their concerns alongside the draft. This can show some progression issues and highlight places where details and reveals need to be tuned.
When a reviewer doesn’t give specific scenes or point out where things went wrong for them, it’s crucial to figure it out from their comments or ask for clarification. Look for the concentrations of comments. Story structures are tightly knit together, so this usually means a failure in one place needs a resolution in other scenes. If the climax isn’t punchy enough, it’s the build-up that needs attention. If the pace changes awkwardly in the middle of the story, then something on either end has to be examined and resolved.
This sounds general, but after looking at comments applied to the body of the story, take a look at how the comments reflect on the individual elements. It helps if you have a concern about one or more parts already, like wondering if the setting is compelling, or if a particular character is effective in their role. Be open to unexpected comments, but always look back at the first piece of advice. If test readers agree, it’s more likely an issue. Sometimes only one person will mention it. If you suspect it’s a bigger deal, ask the other reviewers about that specific piece. Unless you’ve given them very explicit instructions on what to look for, their feedback is limited to what they feel is most important to share, not every opinion they have.
These points come from four years’ experience in creative writing workshop groups in a University program. Without an instructor present, fistfights would have been common. All the ego issues aside, each person came away with marked-up drafts, verbal comments from 15+ reviewers whose participation grade depended on quality feedback, and severe public lessons in writerly tact. Each story came back for a second round each semester, just to demonstrate comments were taken and applied without caving completely to the workshop’s whims. These principles have held true through two years in voluntary critique groups online and in-person.
Remember you are the master of your work. This means you have the final say. It doesn’t mean you have everything necessary to make it perfect (few writers do). You make the final judgement on what changes and what stays. Work out your system of decoding test-reader feedback and help others see this is supposed to be a tool, not a weapon.