How Peer Reviews Can Improve Your Nonfiction Book: Get Honest Feedback About your Writing by Asking the Right Questions

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16 Jul 2019

HOW PEER REVIEWS CAN IMPROVE YOUR NONFICTION BOOK: GET HONEST FEEDBACK ABOUT YOUR WRITING BY ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Your book’s complete! You’ve researched, outlined, interviewed sources, written, and fully self-edited your manuscript. What a feat!

Now you’re ready to publish it!

Well, not so fast…

While it might seem like the next logical step, there is still one critical phase before the publishing process that shouldn’t be overlooked; a phase that is invaluable to your book and its success.

This phase is the peer review process.

Why are Peer Reviews so Important?

A peer review is the process of having several of your peers (whether it be family, friends, colleagues, even acquaintances or experts) read your book before you publish it to receive honest, thoughtful feedback.

A peer review is different than a book review that comes once your book is published.

Unlike the book review, which helps create a buzz once you’re ready to sell your book, a peer review is meant to polish your book and catch the big-picture items that you might have missed when you self-edited your book.  

The peer review is an important step in the editing process, and will help gain the feedback needed to see your book in an unbiased and objective light, giving you the chance to make any necessary revisions to improve your book before publication.

How Many Reviews and From Which Peers?

The amount of peer reviews to get really depends on how much feedback you want and need to make your book the best it can be. The important thing is to be sure you are getting feedback from a variety of peers, who are not afraid to give you honest and in-depth feedback.

When choosing peers to review your book, always remember that you are an expert in your book’s subject. They may not be. If your book is a study of whale migration, intended to be read by marine biologists, let your reviewers know that. On the other hand, if your book is intended to be understood by the average reader, they should also be made aware so that they can point out areas that may not be easily understood by people who are not in the field of marine biology.

Keep in mind that if your target audience is other professionals in your field, it may be best to seek out reviews from your co-workers or other colleagues. Someone who is not familiar with your field of work probably will not be able to give you the proper insight and feedback for your book.

Getting Honest Peer Feedback

When asking for peer reviews, we suggest that you give each of your reviewers a printed hard copy of your manuscript, along with different colored highlighters. As they read through, ask them to highlight parts of your book that they feel need additional work (or that they think are especially good). For example:

  • Any time you trip over a sentence, highlight in yellow
  • Any time you find that you are getting bored, highlight in blue
  • Any time you are really enjoying a certain part, highlight in green
  • Any time something is not clear, highlight in orange

Using this highlighting system will not only help your reviewers give input, but will allow you to easily see the parts of your book that need additional work.

We also recommend that you give your reviewers a solid list of questions to answer.  Keep the questions clear, concise, and written in a way that will lead the reviewer to give you the feedback you need to improve your book.

It’s not about getting yes/no answers or your mother telling you how wonderful she thought your book was and what an amazing writer you are! This is about getting in-depth, insightful, and useful information on how your book currently works and what your reviewers feel you can do to improve it.

Limit the number of questions you ask so your peers are more likely to agree to do the review and will have the time to give constructive input. Also, encourage your reviewers to not only answer the questions, but to also provide an explanation for their answers with concrete examples, if possible.

By providing these questions to your reviewers you will encourage them to put more thought into their answers, which will leave you with more honest (and helpful) feedback.


8 Suggested Questions for Peer Reviews:

The intent of the peer review is to obtain good feedback so you can improve your book. But you also don’t want to make the review process so lengthy or time consuming that it will be a burden for your peers to agree to or that they will rush through it.

To get you started, here are 8 suggested questions that will give you great insight into areas you were on target with your book and ways you can improve it:

Question 1: Who would most enjoy reading this book?

Why this feedback is important?

You’re an expert in your topic, right? In most cases, if you’re writing a book, you know more about the subject than the average person. So, this might lead you to write your book from an angle that isn’t necessarily the best for your desired audience. An example of this would be if your target audience is completely new to the book’s subject and you wrote your book from a technical angle more suited for other experts. Approaching your topic with this angle would cause you to lose the readers you hoped to reach.   

Knowing (and writing for) your desired audience is important for the success of your book.

Question 2: Do you feel the information is organized and presented in the best possible way to make it flow and easy to understand?

Why this feedback is important?

We all have different ways of processing information. What may seem logical to one person might seem out of place or illogical to others. Also, much like the first question, if you are an expert in your book’s topic, you might present the information in a way that an expert understands but wouldn’t make much sense to someone who is new to the subject. This feedback helps you identify information that needs to be reworked or reorganized for better understanding.

Question 3: Is the information clear to you, as the reader, or do you feel anything was missing or should have been covered? Was the topic thoroughly explained?

Why this feedback is important?

When you’re the expert, or you work closely within a certain field of work or study, it’s easy to forget that others may not know the topic as well as you do – or at all. This can have you, the writer, missing critical information or steps in a process because it is secondhand to you. It isn’t easy to see that you may be glossing over or complicating the information you’re presenting to your reader. A person outside of this process will easily see this and bring it to your attention.

Question 4: Was there anything within the book that was repetitive or needs to be cut either due to over-explanation, being out of place, or being unnecessary? 

Why this feedback is important?

Outlining your book before you start writing helps you organize what you want to say and cuts down on repetitive information. But it’s not uncommon to still be repetitive when actually writing your book even after using an outline. And it isn’t always easy for you, the writer, to see it. A reviewer, with their fresh eyes and distance from the project, can more easily find information that is out of place, unnecessary, or repetitive, helping you fix those problem areas.  

Question 5: Did the book live up to your expectations? Did you get the information/knowledge/expertise expected when you finished it?

Why this feedback is important?

Much like when you go to a new movie after seeing the marketing trailers, you watch it with a certain expectation about what you’ll be seeing. If the trailers were funny, you expect the whole movie to be funny. You expect to laugh and have a good time. You don’t go expecting the movie to be a horror film or a drama with a sad ending.

This is the same with your book. Your target audience will purchase your book based on the topic and what they are hoping to get out of reading it. You don’t want to disappoint your readers! Having your reviewers provide this feedback helps you see how you are meeting the expectations of your audience.

Question 6: Overall, what was your impression of the book/message and did it hold your interest?

Why this feedback is important?

No one wants to read a boring book – especially after investing money and time into it!  Even worse is having a book you can’t even finish because it didn’t hold your interest. A book is useless if is won’t be read. You want to make yours as interesting as possible to your reader and if it isn’t, your reviewers will let you know!

Question 7: If you were to write the back of this book, and describe the takeaways, what would you write?

Why this feedback is important?

You want to make sure that the message of your book is clear, and that the reader is understanding what you wrote in the way that it was meant to be interpreted. This is also a good way to see how your reviewers would describe your book—which can be helpful when it comes time for marketing.

Question 8: If you were writing this book, what would you do differently?

Why this feedback is important?

This simply gives you some perspective and insights on things you might not have thought of or considered regarding your topic, and gives you ideas on how you can incorporate them into your book.

Ultimately you can decide on what type of questions, and how many, to ask your peer reviewers based on the feedback you seek and what type of book you wrote. You may want to ask different questions based on the different people you ask for reviews. Afterall, you might not seek the same type of feedback from your sister or best friend than you would a colleague in your field or an expert on your topic.

How to Ask for Peer Reviews

Certainly, you can be informal when asking family or friends for peer reviews of your book. Simply approach them and explain what you need, give them your questions, and most will be happy to help. You may even want to offer to “pay” them by buying them lunch, or mentioning their name in the acknowledgements.

However, when approaching colleagues, coworkers, or experts, it’s best to have a more formal approach. Write an actual letter or professional email to those people you don’t know or don’t know well, and explain to them what you need and ask if they would be willing to assist you. Provide a list of specific questions to them so they know exactly what the review will entail.

Always be polite regardless of whether or not you know the person and whether or not they agree to provide a review.

Assure all the potential people you ask, especially those you are close to like family and friends, that you want honesty, not praise, and you will take the completed reviews openly and without judgment so no hard feelings are created.

Be Courteous and Thankful

While it should go without saying, it’s important to always remember to thank your peer reviewers for their time and effort in giving their thoughtful feedback.

Being asked for such a commitment is not something most people take lightly, especially if they are family, close friends, or colleagues. It’s never easy giving honest feedback that could potentially hurt someone’s feelings or make them angry, especially when it is someone you care about!

What are some thoughtful ways to say thank you?

A simple thank you note, letter, or email may be enough, especially if those who assisted you provided short reviews or less in-depth feedback. For those who gave longer reviews, answered the questions thoroughly, or went above and beyond with considerate feedback, a gift card to their favorite coffeehouse or even taking them to lunch are great ways to show your gratitude.

Using the Feedback You Receive

Once you get responses back from your reviewers, don’t expect praise as if you wrote the best book in the world. Instead, expect constructive suggestions and opinions meant to help you publish the best book you can.

Yes, it can be difficult to know you might have been off target in some areas of your book, especially with how much time and effort you put into it. But this is the point of the peer review process. It isn’t easy to look objectively at your own work and these reviews help you do just that.

Do your best to read over the reviews with an open mind and contemplate the feedback you’ve been given to see if makes sense and has a good argument for making the changes. Look at each review individually as well as a whole.

Were there commonalities among the reviews? If so, this is a good indication that you could improve upon the areas of your book the reviewers agreed upon. Were there things the reviewers mentioned that you just hadn’t thought of?

With the help of the feedback you received, reread your book and see how and where the suggestions, changes, and information the reviewers provided can be used to improve your manuscript. Only take what feels right to you from each review and then incorporate them into your book.

While praise feels great and can be a wonderful motivator, remember that peer reviews are not about getting praise and glowing comments from your reviewers. It’s about getting honest feedback – good and not so good – so you can improve your book and make it top notch before moving forward with the publishing process.

Author
Shelly Spencer 
Shelly Spencer has been a professional writer for the past 25 years with a specialized focus on grant and RFP proposal writing. She has written for small start-up and mid-sized businesses as well as numerous non-profit organizations and also worked at a daily newspaper editing and proofreading display advertisements and real estate articles. Shelly has experience in writing for a variety of industries in all types of copy, including articles, blog posts, e-books, websites, proposals, brochures, press releases, newsletters, and more. Choosing not to go the traditional route, Shelly gained her skills through hands-on experience and by studying direct mail, B2B, and SEO copywriting through various American Writers and Artists Inc. (AWAI) programs. She is an AWAI verified direct response copywriter having completed their Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting and the Master's Program for Six-Figure Copywriting. She has also completed the Secrets to Writing High Performance B2B Copy by Steve Slaunwhite and Dan Kennedy's Writing for Info Marketers, both through AWAI, and The Ultimate Travel Writer’s Program by Great Escape Publishing. Shelly is a member of the Professional Writer’s Association (PWA) and the International Travel Writers and Photographers Association (ITWPA).

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