How to Greatly Improve Your Manuscript with Revision and Feedback, Interview with Bonnie Johnston by Karen Ferreira
Today we welcome a new guest writer to Writer’s Fun Zone, Karen Ferreira who is stopping by to chat with us about “How to Greatly Improve Your Manuscript with Revision and Feedback, Interview with Bonnie Johnston by Karen Ferreira.” Enjoy!
My creative agency, GetYourBookIllustrations, specializes in providing authors with high-quality, affordable illustrations.
As a keynote speaker at our conference, Children’s Book Mastery, I interviewed Bonnie Johnston about how to greatly improve your manuscript with revision and feedback.
Bonnie explained how to achieve this in such a perfect, step-by-step way that I wanted to share it in article format (adapted from the conference interview) for more authors to benefit from the info. Beth Barany graciously agreed to host the article.
How to Improve Your Manuscript with Revision and Feedback
We covered the following:
- Feedback or revision first?
- How to get good feedback
- The three levels of feedback
- Working with feedback for the best possible results
- Evaluating which feedback to use
At the end Bonnie shares her top tip to help authors succeed. Make sure to read to the end so you don’t miss her answer!
Improve Your Manuscript : Revise First or Get Feedback First?
Karen: My first question is, when you’ve written your manuscript, should you revise first, or should you get feedback first, and why?
Bonnie: Now that’s a really great question, and it depends a little bit on you. It also depends a little bit on the type of people that you have access to, in terms of getting feedback.
Bonnie: Depending on your creative process, you might be the kind of writer who, by the time you write the first draft, you have a pretty solid vision of the story because you’ve been working things out in your head. And in that case, you might be ready for feedback as soon as you finish the rough draft.
Bonnie: You might also, though, be the kind of author who needs to iterate a little bit, where you write the draft, and you’re kind of discovering the story as you write.
That feeling of, “Yes, this is definitely the story I want to tell’, is a pretty good sign that you’re ready for feedback.
Bonnie: If you’re looking at it and you’re going, “I like some of this, but I don’t like some of this, and I’m not sure if I got the ending right, and I’m not sure if I even like the way my character turned out,” then you want to look at who you have access to and also what your skill level is at interpreting feedback and taking it.
Bonnie: If you have a critique partner, that’s great for getting feedback. Somebody who also understands story and has a little bit of experience separating their own preferences from their reactions to your story in particular, because we all have biases, even professional editors. A good editor or a good critique partner will say, “Okay, I don’t like coming of age stories, but given that this is a coming of age story, here are the things that are working and here are the things that are not.”
Bonnie: If all you have access to right now are friends and family who don’t have a lot of experience separating their own preferences out from the feedback that they’re giving you on the story, you might want to make sure it’s a little more solid before you give it to them. Because you don’t want to derail yourself by getting some feedback from someone who loves you, but maybe doesn’t know how to really articulate why they’re having the reaction they’re having to your story.
How to Get Good Feedback and Improve Your Manuscript
Karen: Right, yes. Exactly. You touch on a very important point that I wanted to ask about. Feedback can obviously be very helpful, but the wrong feedback can be more of a problem than anything else. So how do you find the right people who you know are going to give you good feedback?
Bonnie: Ah, that’s such a great question, and that’s such a problem that a lot of writers have. It can be easy to forget that maybe the other people in the group are also not as experienced or that maybe they’re giving you feedback that might be reflecting their skill level in certain areas, or lack of skill in certain areas. And it can be easy to come home from a critique group meeting feeling kind of wounded or feeling like you’re not a very good writer, when in fact, you’ve actually gotten some really good advice. But there’s an emotional component that you need to separate.
Bonnie: So, critique groups and classes are a great place to find critique partners, but you want to go through kind of an audition process first. You want to trade a couple of chapters with someone and talk with them.
Make sure that they’re writing in the same ballpark as you.
Bonnie: It doesn’t have to be the same genre, but you want to make sure that your aesthetics click a little bit in terms of they’re not going to dislike your style, or dislike your voice. They’re kind of on the same page in terms of what kinds of stories they like or are comfortable working with. And then, trade chapters. Don’t trade a whole novel. Trade 20 or 30 pages and get a sense for how each of you is approaching a critique.
Also, be really clear in your expectations in terms of what you’re expecting for your critique.
Bonnie: I have a story from when I first started out writing. I met somebody in a critique group, we were both very enthusiastic and we’re like, “Yes, we both need critique partners. Let’s just trade novels.” But we hadn’t really talked about what level of feedback we were looking for.
Three Levels of Feedback
Bonnie: There’s three levels that you do want to look for. You want to look for feedback at the story level. Are there plot holes? Does the structure work? That sort of thing.
Bonnie: There’s a scene level, where you look at things like: Is there too much exposition in each of the scenes? Do you have bad dialogue? Are your characters not coming through right on the page?
Bonnie: And then there’s the prose level or the sentence level, where you’re actually fixing language. And when we had traded manuscripts, I saw my manuscript as being at that level of needing story feedback.
Bonnie: I felt like, “I’m not hundred percent sure the story works, I don’t know if that ending is really satisfying.” She was looking for sentence-level critique. She felt like her story was pretty much done, and she just wanted help polishing the language. But we didn’t really know enough to have that conversation with each other.
Bonnie: So, I got my story back and she basically fixed all the commas and suggested some word choice changes. And I had gone through hers and said, “Oh, here’s this problem with your character, and here’s a plot hole, and I think you could restructure the ending a little bit.” She was really upset because she was not expecting me to say, “Hey, I think you need another rewrite.”
Bonnie: I was really disappointed because I felt like she had put in a lot of work on my novel, and it was all wasted because I knew I was going to rewrite it.
So, communication is very important. Understanding the level of feedback you want is very important. If you go into that and have a conversation ahead of time, you’re much more likely to find the right critique partners.
Bonnie: You might also want to work with a freelance editor or writing coach who can help you. If you have family and friends who really want to help you who are relatively open-minded, or who can separate their preferences, they might be really great beta readers for you.
Bonnie: Beta readers can give you feedback on the story. They might give you feedback on the scenes, they might not, depending on their skill level. And they might fix your typos for you, but beta readers might not be appropriate for getting sentence-level feedback. So, understanding the limitations of the person you’re working with and the skills, the strengths that they’re bringing to it and having that conversation ahead of time will save you a lot of pain in the process of finding the right people to give you feedback.
Working with Feedback for the Best Possible Results
Karen: I think that is super key and something I didn’t necessarily think to tell them, “I’m at this level, I need this level of feedback.” Okay. So, now if you’ve shared your manuscript and you get your feedback, how do you take that feedback and work with it for the best possible results?
Bonnie: That’s going to vary a little based on you and where you are in your writing process. It is important to make your first step always about stepping back a little bit and separating your feelings about getting feedback from your feelings about the feedback. Because even if you’re really experienced, someone can say the right thing in just the right way to remind you of that teacher in grade school who maybe was not very kind when they’re grading your papers. So, always realize that potential.
Give yourself a little bit of time to sit with it before you ever respond to anyone with questions for clarification.
Bonnie: And it’s great to ask for clarification, but make sure you’re asking from a place of trying to understand the feedback and not a place of hurt feelings.
Bonnie: Once you’ve done that, it’s really important to look at the feedback and ask why, because even a skilled writer or editor cannot completely articulate exactly what’s going on with your story. They can tell you their reactions to it, and they can tell you what they would do differently.
Bonnie: I’d like to give you an example of another experience I had. I got feedback from a contest judge. It was really clear she thought about my story in a lot of detail, but she gave me a piece of feedback that really bugged me. And it didn’t seem to make sense for my story.
Bonnie: I was writing this urban fantasy, my character was basically a demon slayer. And one of her pieces of feedback was, “Oh, you should make your character a doctor and give her a dog because everybody likes doctors, and everybody likes dogs.” When I first got that feedback, I was like, “How does that fit with the story?” It took me a couple of weeks of just thinking about it and thinking about it. And finally, I realized that what she was really trying to tell me is, “I don’t like your character enough to want to spend time with them.”
Bonnie: The key to that was with her saying everyone likes doctors, and everyone likes dogs. If I had just taken the feedback and said, “Well, that doesn’t make sense” and thrown it away, I would not have actually gotten the key piece of feedback that I needed to fix the book. Sometimes you can ask, and they’ll tell you, but sometimes they don’t know how to actually really articulate what it is that was really bothering them about your story.
Once you’ve got feedback, then you always have to decide, “Is this really right for the story I’m trying to tell?”
Bonnie: And you are 100% within your rights to throw out any piece of feedback that you think turns your story into a different story than the one you’re trying to tell.
Evaluating which feedback to use
Karen: Okay, yeah. So, if you get feedback from one person, and you disagree, then it’s good to know you can throw it out. I mean, is it also a good idea to try and get feedback from several people and you can compare? And then, let’s say three out of five say the same thing, you would probably want to give it more thought?
Bonnie: Yes, absolutely. If you have two or more people saying the exact same thing, feedback-wise, about any aspect of your story, you definitely want to take that seriously. Also, when you get conflicting feedback, sometimes that’s a great way to triangulate. If I had gotten a second piece of feedback on that story, I might have figured out what that judge was trying to tell me a little faster.
Karen: Right, and let’s say you do have two people, or even more, giving you the same feedback, but you really don’t feel it’s right. What would you suggest then?
Ultimately, I would go back to what you’re trying to say with the story.
Bonnie: It’s possible that you just did a really bad job of conveying what you were trying to say. Or maybe the vision that you have for the story, you don’t quite have the skill to pull it off yet.
Bonnie: In that case, if you have a coach or a freelance editor you’re working with, where you can say, “Look, this is the feedback you’re giving me, this is the feedback I’m getting from other people, this is what I’m trying to do. Can you tell me where the disconnect is?” Because a really good editor should be able to do that for you.
All the Revisions You Should do Before Sending to The Editor
Karen: That’s a very nice idea actually. And then, if you’re working with feedback from beta readers or a critique group, which other revisions can you do before you send it to the editor to make their job easier?
Bonnie: I always like to go back to those three levels of editing. And the reason that I separate my edits out like that is because there’s a real tendency, once you start editing, to kind of ping pong through the draft and never finish. Like, you change something in chapter two, and then you realize, “Oh, I should rewrite chapter five.” And then that makes you realize, “Oh, Chapter 7 needs a change now.” And you just never get to the end of the edit, and at the end, like a year later, you’ve got a mess.
So, I like to have a revision plan.
Bonnie: I take everybody’s feedback, I decide which pieces I’m going to take and which ones I’m not. I have it broken up scene by scene: Here are the changes I’m making to scene one, scene two, scene three, and I do them in three passes.
Bonnie: I do all the story level stuff first because that’s most likely to require a rewrite. Then I do the scene level stuff. Once I’m sure the story is solid, I’m like, “How does each of these scenes do a really great job of telling this part of the story?” Then I do prose, and then I’m done. I send it out for feedback.
Bonnie: And I don’t change anything until I get that feedback because I don’t want to just keep tweaking until I’ve tweaked it into a mess. It’s so easy to over-edit, and it’s easy to under edit too, but a lot of writers who are working on scenes for years—they’re over editing, and they’re not making the story better. They’re just making it different over and over again.
Improve Your Manuscript: Ways to Get on the Same Page as Your Critique Partner
Karen: Are there any other ways to make sure you’re as much on the same page as your critique partner as possible?
Bonnie: It’s really just about communication. I have critique partners, where we, whenever we find a good book, we recommend it to each other, and we try and read what each other is reading in terms of craft. Just so that we will have that common vocabulary.
Bonnie: But also, if you’re trying really genuinely to communicate, even if you don’t have the same education, there’s a good chance you’re going to be able to figure it out. It just might take a little bit more conversation to understand what the person is trying to say.
What are Your Top Tips to Help Authors Succeed?
Karen: Right, that makes sense. And then, what would be your top tips to help children’s book authors succeed?
Bonnie: I think these tips would be for any author:
Don’t write one book and hang all your hopes on it.
Bonnie: Write a book, edit it to the best of your ability, get feedback, move on. Write another book… Because really, you’re building skill, especially if you’re new in your career and you’ve only been writing for a couple of years, every project is going to teach you something really different because every story is going to require something different from you.
Bonnie: So, the more different types of stories you can write, and the more practice you can get revising those different types of stories, the faster you’re going to grow as an author.
Bonnie: You might have a book that you write, revise, get feedback on, send out to editors, get 50 rejections, come back to it a year later with so much more experience and skill, revise it again, know exactly what you have to do to fix it, and send it off to get published, or you know that it’s ready to publish yourself.
Bonnie: So, don’t feel like you have to get the book you’re working on right now exactly perfect. Accept that it’s a work in process. You are a work in process, but if you keep writing, you are going to get there.
Karen: Nice, good one. This is a very, very helpful session to help people get their manuscript to the best level that it can be. So, thank you very much.
ABOUT BONNIE JOHNSTON
Bonnie Johnston is a member of the Sterling & Stone editorial team and contributor to multiple in-house pen names, with more than two decades experience as a freelance writer and editor. She teaches authors how to increase the emotional impact of their stories at writesmarternotharder.teachable.com through courses like How to Plot a Series that Rocks, How to Write Powerhouse Scenes, and Story Endings That Satisfy. She’s also the guest instructor for Writing Blueprints’ intensive editing course, Manuscript Magic, which empowers authors to turn flawed rough drafts into stories that readers can’t put down.
ABOUT KAREN FERREIRA
Hi, I’m Karen. I’m an illustrator of numerous books, award-winning creative director and founder of Get Your Book Illustrations, where we help self- publishing authors get amazing, affordable illustrations.
In working with authors I have seen many beautiful books created, but then these books are never found by their audience. My mission is to help authors create the best possible books and then successfully get these books into their audience’s hands.
I have spent many hours learning about self-publishing and I love helping others succeed in this field.
If you are ready to put in the work, I’m here to show you the way.