Avengers, Assemble!:  Reading Teams & NaNoWriMo Revisions

If you’re a first-time NaNoWriMo author (or second, or third, or beyond), you’ve probably heard a dozen versions of the “why you shouldn’t send your manuscript out to agents or publishers in December” argument. Regrettably, relatively few of these arguments actually follow up with advice about how to make that NaNo baby a fully-fledged, ready-for-the-world manuscript. Most encourage you to complete your story, sit back from it for a few weeks, then return to edit and polish. Some go a bit farther, though not much. “Share your work with other writers” isn’t a bad starting place, but it presumes you know where to find other writers. “Get feedback from friends” is another take, but it assumes you know how to make the best use of those friends without them feeling as if they’re being used.

So, here’s the post-NaNo article you’ve perhaps been needing: the one that assumes you will step back from your November panic-child, come back to it with clear(ish) eyes, do the work needed to complete its story, and even do a pass of your own edits before sharing that work with others. Doing all of those things won’t guarantee success, but it will help you make much better use of those reading and writing friends so many other advice-givers urge you to find. And that gets us to the focus of this article:

“How do I get help revising my NaNo writing and still have friends at the end?”

1. Recognize different friends function best in different roles.

Most of us collect friends who are a mix of complementary and contradictory qualities. Loud friends, quiet friends, contemplative friends, spontaneous friends, friends within and across various hobbies and fandoms. Similarly, we tend to collect friends with differing skill sets. As a writer, you can make this social variety pack useful. 

Consider which friends might be good as beta readers (people who give your book a first read and offer up reactions from their perspective as a reader) and which might be better as critique partners (also called “CPs,” fellow writers who can exchange work with you and offer constructive criticism using their skills and experiences writing). Betas are great at helping you get outside of your own love of your writing and your worries over craft and style, instead focusing on the needs of your reader. CPs are great at taking those gut-level experiences and translating them back into craft and technique. Combining beta readers with CPs helps me maintain a balanced perspective on my work and get answers to a wider range of questions about what to do in my next editing pass.

Similarly, consider which friends might have knowledge that directly influences the work you’re doing. Someone with experience handling firearms in a military setting would be a good choice for combat scenes in a modern, militaristic context. Someone with knowledge of anthropology or history might be a good reference for writing that plays with world-building or alt-history. Or, someone who has read widely in your genre might help you spot tropes you’re using well, and ones that are holding you back. 

In case calling yourself a writer or author is making you nervous, take some advice from Chuck Wendig


2. Guide your readers with useful questions. 

No matter who comprises your revision reading team, they’ll need guidance about what you really want. Unless you’re handing your manuscript off to a beta reader for a blank-slate reaction, “Read this and tell me what you think” probably isn’t enough to help you, or them.

Especially in the case of CPs, you should formulate questions relevant to your concerns about the manuscript. Staggering reads so that you start with beta reader friends who give you their raw reactions, then using their thinking to help you form questions for CPs can be a great strategy. No matter how you choose to sequence readings or recruit folks for feedback, though, remember: the more specific your questions are, the more likely you’ll get actionable feedback. “Is this good?” is a binary, and often uselessly subjective (even more than most things about writing are subjective). But “How can I make certain elements of my story less cliche?” is much more precise and, hopefully, likelier to get you where you really want to go.


3. Establish reasonable parameters for feedback.

This doesn’t mean you dictate the precise terms in which people respond to your writing (“You may address me as sir, reader!”). There’s no need for a Google Form, a rubric, or a set of conversational ground rules. But you should think about how best to accommodate both your needs and the needs of your reader.

  • Timeliness: If you’re asking for someone to give you feedback on an adult novel-length manuscript, that’s a heavy lift. Assume they’ll need at least a month to do this, probably more. 
  • Format: Some betas and CPs like to work off electronic documents and do in-line feedback. Some will write up an email with their thoughts, or will ask for a printed copy they can scrawl on and send back to you. Remember, you’re asking for help from them, and so, unless there’s a reason you physically cannot take feedback in a certain way, or provide your manuscript in a certain format, you should be prepared to accommodate your friend.
  • Scope: Some betas get awfully excited about their role and may start offering CP-style feedback about how to fix things. On the one hand, you might recall here Neil Gaiman’s famous maxim about when readers tell you things are wrong, then tell you how to fix it. On the other, it’s entirely possible that this beta reader really has a good idea you can work with. It’s also possible that a CP might under-advise in terms of “how” to fix certain things in a manuscript, focusing more on what works or doesn’t work for them. That, too, can be useful, so if the scope of a reader’s feedback is different than you expected, you might need to be generous and think about the fourth directive, below. . .


4. Accept feedback with grace.

This may be the hardest bit of all.

Maybe one of your readers roasts something in your story you’re really proud of. Maybe someone encourages you to add something you’re not comfortable with. Maybe some comments hit a little close to home, or suggests that your work wasn’t read as closely as you would’ve liked. Maybe a reader’s comments indicate some set of biases you find genuinely worrisome — things about them you hadn’t noticed before, or had tried to ignore.

Take a breath and think about how to accept these comments with grace.

First, you should understand that accepting feedback with grace does not mean you need to take suggestions that are destructive to your work or your sense of self and adopt them into your writing. It doesn’t mean you have to pretend that worrisome or hurtful things weren’t said and just move on. What it means is you need to think about the right time and place to have a conversation about this feedback — or even consider that a conversation might not help.

Here are some things you might say when something about the feedback you’ve been given is just plain off:

“Thanks for taking the time to read this. I really appreciate your perspective.” 

“I had not considered this idea before.”

“You’ve given me a lot to chew on here. Do you mind if I come back to you with questions later?”

Do you see the pattern in these responses? Each of them acknowledges something factual and clear, and (in the case of the last one) leaves the possibility of further civil discourse open.

Another version of accepting feedback with grace is to let comments that trouble you go (perhaps temporarily) and not revisit them as part of a discussion of your work. That doesn’t mean if something toxic, racist, sexist, ableist, or otherwise concerning emerges that you have to pretend you never saw it. But it does mean that the conversation you might want to have with your friend should occur separate from discussions of your writing. Otherwise, your feelings may be discounted as a product of your attachment to your work rather than considered as part of a larger and much more important conversation. 

Accepting feedback with grace doesn’t mean running away from or ignoring what hurt you. It means putting it in its proper context, and proceeding from there.


5. Remember, when it comes to CPs, what goes around comes around.

Beta readers usually engage with your writing because they’re friends, without needing more prompting or persuasion. (Though you really should consider DoorDashing them a pizza or sending a gift card to thank them for their time.) Critique partners, on the other hand, get that label because the relationship is assumed to be reciprocal. If they read your weird, malformed word baby today, (eventually) you’ve got to read theirs.

Sometimes, this agreement is made on the spot: your CP has a manuscript ready for action, too, and so you read one another’s work simultaneously. Other times, there’s an understanding that if they read for you now, you should expect to hear from them later. It may seem rude or awkward to bring this topic up directly, but really, you should. Demonstrate that you value your CP’s time by being up-front with how you’re prepared to spend yours: when you are available, about how fast you can read, the kind of work you feel you’re most helpful reading, and so on. 

I tend to be extremely streaky in my own CP reading duties. I don’t send things for review often, but when I do, they tend to be massive, and that means the reading requires a lot of payback from me. My CPs are more prolific writers than I am, and faster, too, so I tend to end up reading every other project they put out, or read stages of those projects: the synopsis and query or outline for one, a first draft for the other, but maybe not a final draft for either. Often, my CP-ness comes out through email exchanges and phone calls where we brainstorm writing issues together rather than strictly read and critique manuscripts. Whatever your case may be, it’s important that you find a way to give back to your CPs in a way they value, even if it’s not always reading 70,000 words on their behalf twice a year. 

I wish you a happy PerNoWriMo (Personal Not Writing Month — get some rest now, wouldja?) and a triumphant return for revisions in January. Who knows? You may even be ready to use this advice to recruit your own critique crew by the spring.

Maybe. Nobody says you have to rush it.