The short answer to the question, “How do you integrate comments from your beta readers (or even from an agent)?” is “Only integrate the valuable ones.” That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really provide practical guidance as to which comments are valuable.
This is another place where writing a synopsis can help. If you know the vision for your book, you can quickly judge whether the comments you receive:
- Fit within your existing structure for the book (tweaks)
- Alter the structure of the book (rewrites)
- Are complete nonsense (self-serving blah blah blah)
And if you’ve presented your best book to your beta readers, the nitnoid comments will be at a minimum and probably actually useful.
When you’re reading comments, the first thing you want to do is sort out the nonsense comments. To some extent, any comment that you get on a manuscript is self-serving: your beta-readers wouldn’t be reading your work if they didn’t get something out of it:
- They enjoy reading your work and want you to get out the best book possible (whatever their particular version of “best” is).
- They want to learn more about writing, and your work brings up topics they want to discuss.
- They want to help you get better at writing, because helping people feels good.
- They want to help you get better at writing, because they’re paying forward a debt to someone who helped them.
- They kind of like your work, don’t really understand it, and want to make it into something they do understand, so they’ll enjoy it more.
- They’re frustrated with your work and want to both explain/prove it to you.
- They’re jealous and want to find something wrong with it, no matter how large or small, and use it to hurt you.
- They feel pressured or obligated to read your work (e.g., you read theirs).
- They dislike the way you see the world and want to prove that your worldview is wrong by taking it out on your work.
There are probably more reasons that people read your work in draft form for you, with both positive and negative intentions, but I think this covers the main ones. (Note that when someone who offers you money for a story–an editor–wants changes, it’s so it will sell better, in their opinion. Not that editors are objective, but generally the editor will already like your work, enjoy reading it, and want to make money selling it by that point.)
The thing is that you can almost always get good feedback from any reader with positive or negative intentions, unless the reason they’re reading is that last point: people who, by definition, don’t like how you think and feel will rarely have anything useful to say to you about your work. So throw those comments out. You can’t even trust their decisions about commas. Just let them go and know that when you get published, you wil probably get similar feedback through reviews, etc., at which point you will just let those comments go, too.
The rest of the comments can provide valuable feedback. However, you first have to run the comments through two tests:
- Does this comment fit within my vision of the book? If the answer is no, put it into words why it doesn’t fit within the vision of your book (so you can be clear about it if that type of comment comes up again) and disregard it. If it’s yes, incorporate it, checking carefully to make sure that you catch all instances of implied change (e.g., if you change your character’s shirt to blue, it had better stay blue as long as necessary).
- If this comment doesn’t fit within my vision of the book, does it lead me to something even more awesome? If yes, stop making tweaks to your book and rewrite the synopsis in order to play with the idea. If the idea does indeed make the book cooler, use it–but know that it may mean a major rewrite, a starting-from-scratch rewrite. If it’s not worth the work, finish your story as best you can and move on. If the comment doesn’t make your story more awesome, disregard it; it’s probably just the commenter being jealous, having a lot of frustration with your work (is it this story or every story?), or playing around with ideas in order to improve their own brainstorming skills. Whatever.
This means that unless your vision for the book is to have everybody and their dog be able to love and understand it (and I discussed why that’s not such a good idea here), you don’t need to make all your readers happy. You don’t need to explain everything to your readers just because one person whined about not understanding something for two seconds. The people who don’t get or like your story don’t need to have a say in whether it works or not. Really.
However, readers who say, “I didn’t get this part, but otherwise I thought it went great!” have valuable feedback for you. (And beta-readers? That’s one reason to start your feedback with something positive: it tells the author not to weed out your comments.) You can also sometimes tell valuable comments if the commenter doesn’t have anything good to say…but doesn’t say they didn’t like the story and wants to read more. Beta-readers can be spacy, especially when they get really involved in what they’re reading.
As you deal with comments, it’s best to armor yourself in the knowledge that no story is meant for everyone, and that there’s a place for all kinds of stories. Your job, as a writer, is to write the best story you can. If it’s the kind of story that makes an English major cringe, that’s okay; there’s probably still a place for it–as long as you’re making your audience happy.
Am I making my audience happy?
If so, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, either in beta-reader stage or in the book reviews you get later.
If you’re getting comments back from more than a couple of people, you may want to build a spreadsheet or table to help you sort them out. It doesn’t have to be complex. Set up the following columns:
- Page number in original version
- Suggested change
- Original text (important – this will help you do a “find” for it after you’ve made a few changes and the page number has changed)
- Suggester (this way, you can sort later to see if anyone’s comments ended up being a waste of time or particularly helpful)
- Actual change
- Follow-up notes (including other places you may need to make the change)
- Status (Done, Disregard, In Progress)
Again, if you’re dealing with a change to the vision of your book, redo the synopsis. You may find out that neither the original vision for the book nor the suggested change is the right way to go, but that a third way is what you want, something that comes from riffing on the suggested change. In fact, that’s what usually happens to me.
In the end…
This is the last chance you’ll have to fundamentally improve your story. You have to be 100% behind your story by this point. If your story were a character in a superhero story, this would be the point before the character gets their powers, the point where you look at that scrawny weakling and go, “That story…it has problems, but look at that heart. That story deserves a better life, a chance to right wrongs, a chance to shine.” Because the next step is copyediting, and copyediting is your story’s training or transformation montage, the part where you take its latent powers and make them true. Make them something powerful. Something righteous. (Or evil. Evil is good, too.)
Next time: Copyediting: Let’s see those pushups!