If your car broke down, would you ask a chef to look at it and tell you what’s wrong?
Unless it’s the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile, what’s a chef going to tell you?
At best, he’ll scratch his head and say, “Yeah, looks like it’s not working.” Thanks, super helpful.
At worst, he’ll try to be helpful, and end up sending you down some nonsense rabbit hole.
No, if you want your car fixed, you take it to a mechanic, because a mechanic has experience at fixing cars. It’s literally what they get paid for.
I know this example is silly. Yet, authors will do this exact thing.
I could tell you Halloween-style horror stories about authors who had a great manuscript, and then sent it to random friends for feedback.
What happens is that the friends either feel like they have to say something, so they just make random comments, or even worse, they think they know how to write because they spend all day writing emails, but they don’t know anything about books, and their nonsense comments send the author into a tailspin.
If you want to get feedback, there is a right way to ask, and you should only ask specific people. Those specific people should generally be a person from one of these three groups:
- People who are experienced writers/editors, or
- People who are experts in your specific field, or
- People who are in the exact audience you want your book to reach.
Let’s break down each category:
1. Experienced writers or editors
This is obvious. Someone who has a lot of experience in writing and editing can almost certainly help you with your manuscript and give useful feedback.
Keep in mind that many people vastly overestimate their experience and ability in these areas. Many people think because they write emails all day, it qualifies them as skilled writers or editors, when in fact they are not that at all.
This is why at Scribe we have a rigorous testing process before we even begin to work with editors, outliners, and publishing managers—even if they are employed full time as writers or editors, we don’t assume they’re skilled. We want to see their work, and we judge their ability by the quality of their work.
What happens as a result of these tests? We reject about 98 percent of the people who apply to work with us, all of whom have legitimate writing or editing experience. That should tell you the general quality of the “experts” out there.
We bring this up only because we’ve seen many authors give their manuscript to a friend who claimed to be a “great” writer, only to see that friend give truly awful notes that left the author confused and hurt, and ended up creating lots of problems with the book.
Here’s the hard reality of writing feedback: most people have NO IDEA what they are talking about, especially with regard to books and writing, and getting feedback from those people is harmful.
2. Someone in your field or niche
Asking someone who shares your field of expertise for feedback can be quite helpful. For example, if you are a financial advisor, and you give your book to two of your trusted financial advisor friends to read it, they can give you a perspective on the book that could be both helpful and unique.
The key to making this fruitful is to ask them to specifically focus on what they know well. When you give them the manuscript, ask them to read it as a financial advisor, checking to make sure you haven’t made any factual errors, and that clients will understand it, and that your tone is appropriate for your profession—things like that.
Basically, you are asking them to apply their decades of expertise to your manuscript. That will work well.
3. Someone in your audience
If your book is about how to build an app business, and you give it to two friends who are trying to build app businesses, that is perfect. They could tell you what helped them in the book, which parts they wished had more content, and where they got confused or lost. That sort of feedback tends to be valuable.
Just be very careful who you select, and give them very specific instructions. If you pick someone in your primary audience, make sure to tell them what you want to know.
For example say. “I’d love you to read my manuscript, and tell me where it loses you, or doesn’t make sense, or is hard to follow.”
All Feedback Is Wrong
Be careful with this feedback. The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about feedback on a book is this:
“All feedback is wrong somehow. Your job is to figure out what’s right about it, and only pay attention to that.”
What this means is that most people are giving you feedback based on how they feel, and they almost certainly don’t know how to fix the issue. This quote from author Neil Gaiman sums it up:
“When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
His point is that the reader may know that your book isn’t working for them in some way, and you should listen to that critique.
However, their ideas for solutions are probably bad, because they have no experience solving writing problems.
If someone in your audience says something isn’t working for them, listen to their comments, but use your own ideas and knowledge to fix the problem. No one knows your book and your subject matter better than you do.
The Worst Things To Do (And How To Fix Them)
There are few things you should never do in terms of feedback:
DO NOT put some pages out on Facebook/Twitter for feedback: This is a disaster. You will deeply regret it. In my 15+ years as a writer, I have never seen this work for anyone. There are so many reasons this goes wrong it is hard to list them all. Just think of it this way:
If you wanted advice on your clothes, would you stand in the middle of an amusement park, and randomly ask people who walked by?
Of course not.
Well, asking for an opinion of your writing on social media is the same thing. I cannot stress enough that you should not do this.
Do pick specific people to ask for help: There is nothing wrong with asking specific people for specific forms of feedback, as discussed above. The keyword there is “specific people.” Experts at writing, or experts in your field or people in your audience. That is the key.
DO NOT give your manuscript to someone without asking for specific feedback: Do not throw your manuscript to someone and say, “Hey take a look at this and tell me what you think.” That is a recipe for all kinds of wasted time and effort.
DO be specific in your ask. There are definitely situations where asking for feedback is both appropriate and helpful, but always say something like, “Hey, can you tell me if you think my voice in the book comes off as too unprofessional for an accountant?”
Should You Let Friends and Family Give Feedback on Your Manuscript?
Be very careful with asking friends and family to give you feedback. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts ruined by friends and family trying to be nice.
What happens is they feel like they are supposed to give feedback, so they just mention things that occur to them. While they are well-intentioned, most of their advice is not only wrong, but it’s also counter-productive and toxic—a dynamic that can send authors into spirals.
The bottom line? Unless your friends and family fit into the above categories, or you are okay with ignoring them, don’t let them give you feedback.