I don’t have a lot of beta readers. But one of my most constant ones is my brother, and I often feel that he isn’t being honest. Why wouldn't he be? I don’t know. Maybe to spare my feelings. Or maybe I’m just imagining it because I think little of my own work.
How do you know when feedback is honest? Some people (that you know VERY well) might have recognisable behaviour when they lie or sugarcoat. But mostly, the burden of that lies on you. We live in a world where most people are taught to be polite. They naturally lean towards making you feel better instead of giving you the information you need.
So how do you get honest feedback? Here are a few suggestions.
Tell them that you want honest feedback. Normally, this won’t help much, but make sure they know you want them to criticise.
When you do get honest feedback, don’t blow up at them. This will condition them to avoid doing the same thing later on. You need to learn how to handle getting negative feedback.
Ask questions that force honesty. The key here is to word it perfectly. If you ask ‘What part didn’t you like?’, they can say, ‘Nothing.’ Instead, ask them ‘What part/character (or whatever else you need feedback on) did you like the least?’ Even with this, you might still get a ‘everything was great’ response. Try to coax it out of them.
Change the medium. Some people will be more honest when they write feedback than when they have to tell you to your face. This will most probably be different for every person, so try to find the right method.
As a general rule, don’t let bad feedback become personal, rather use it to better your manuscript. Some people will keep going on in their polite ways. To break these guys, you have to get them to criticise a small thing at first (not so impolite) and then show them that you appreciate it. That way, you condition them to give you honesty rather than politeness.
And be sure to THANK your beta readers who took the time to read your story.
Do you have other ways to ensure honesty from your beta readers?