how-to-get-feedback-on-your-writing-and-sort-the-good-from-the-bad

How to Get Feedback on Your Writing (and Sort the Good from the Bad)

One of the fastest ways to progress as a writer is to get feedback. But how can you get feedback on your writing?

However many books you read, however many conferences you attend, direct advice about your work-in-progress will let you see exactly what’s working well and, more importantly, what isn’t.

But if you’re fairly new to writing, or if you don’t have many writing contacts, getting any feedback at all might seem difficult. Perhaps you’ve posted some of your work on a blog or
forum, but no one commented (or the comments were kind, but not particularly helpful).

Where to Get Feedback

It’s not too hard to find people who can help you, whatever stage you’re at with your writing. You could:

Look for sites or forums where you can critique other people’s work in return for critiques of your own.

Some sites have a formal “credits” system for this; others have an unwritten expectation that if you’re asking for a critique, you’ll also reciprocate.

Join a writers’ workshop group in your local area.

This was crucial to my own development as a fiction writer—not just for the invaluable feedback, but also for the inspiring effect of spending time with other writers. If you can’t find an
informal workshop group, look for a course or class (a great way to learn new techniques and to meet other writers).

If you’re more established as a writer, you may already have a readership—perhaps a mailing list of fans who’ve bought your previous book, or a blog or website with an established following. You could ask for volunteers who’d like to offer feedback on a draft-in-progress. Even though they might not be writers themselves, they’ll be able to give a crucial reader’s perspective.

How to Prepare for Feedback

Wherever you go for feedback, it’s a good idea to:

Get your work into good shape.

Don’t ask for feedback on a first draft that you know is full of problems, from plot holes to typos. Even though your book will still be at a draft stage, respect your readers’ time by clearing up any small, superficial problems.

Give people a deadline for feedback.

Don’t expect anyone to read your book overnight, but equally, don’t leave your manuscript with someone for months. Establish clear timescales upfront, and offer your readers the chance to comment on a smaller section (say, a chapter instead of five chapters) if they want.

Approach around five to ten people.

Allowing for a few dropouts, you’ll probably get feedback from around three to eight of them. Any less, and one opinionated individual could unduly sway you; any more, and you’ll have too much feedback to easily handle (plus a lot of it will be repetitive).

Offer something in return.

If you’re getting a critique of your novel-in-progress from a fellow writer, let him know you’ll be happy to return the favor once he’s finished his novel. If you’ve approached your existing readership, promise copies of the finished book to people who’ve given you feedback.

Hopefully, you’ll get lots of great comments, suggestions, corrections, and ideas. At that point, it’s time to move on to sifting through the feedback and deciding what you do and don’t
want to incorporate.

How to Sort Your Feedback

When it comes to feedback on your writing, it’s likely to be either “good” or “bad.” In this context, I don’t mean good feedback is “I loved it!” and bad feedback is “I hated it”—instead:

Good feedback helps you to improve your work.

It points out problems you hadn’t fully recognised, it confirms thoughts you already had, and it gives you enough direction so you can move forward with the next draft.

Bad feedback doesn’t get you anywhere.

It might be far too vague. It could be very opinionated, reflecting one person’s particular obsessions or biases. It may be positive (“I couldn’t put it down!”) without telling you why.

Once you’ve got most or all of your feedback in, sit down and go through it all at once. You’re looking for the good stuff, which usually means:

Several people agreed on the same point.

For instance, if three people have independently said your characterization of Bob is inconsistent, then there’s a problem there which you need to address.

The feedback fits with your intentions for your work.

Let’s say you’re trying to write a page-turner, and you’ve received critiques saying some of the scenes need to be cut in order to make the novel faster paced: you’ll probably want to take
that on board.

You might sometimes get feedback that looks good on the surface, but which would drag your novel in the wrong direction.

Maybe one of your readers was particularly intrigued by a minor character and wanted you to write extra chapters about that character. You might like the idea, whilst realizing it’s going to be too much of a distraction from the main plot.

It’s not uncommon for two readers to disagree (for instance, one may think your main character’s change of heart is clear, whereas another thinks your main character behaves inconsistently). When this happens, check that your writing is as clear as it should be: one reader may have missed a subtle point that needs to be made more strongly.

How to Make Decisions for the Next Draft

Try not to make any hasty decisions on the basis of feedback. Give yourself some time to let it all settle: you might realize that, while a suggested prologue sounds interesting, it’s
going to give away too much of the plot.

If you’re unsure about a particular point of feedback, try making other changes and corrections and seeking out new critiquers. If the same point continues to come up, then look for ways to address it. You might want to try making changes to just one scene, then showing it to someone else, rather than rewriting chapter after chapter.

Of course, there’s no rule that says you have to take any feedback at all, but your book will almost certainly be stronger for it.

My novel went through two writers’ workshop groups and a professional editor before publication, and it’s definitely a much better book than it would’ve been if I’d just stumbled along alone.

Tell me your opinion: How do you make sure you take on board the good feedback, while setting aside the bad?

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About Ali Luke

Ali Luke blogs at Aliventures and is a published author (both traditional and indie). If you’d like to build your confidence and learn more about writing in a supportive environment, check out her community / teaching site Writers’ Huddle.

Comments

  1. K.M., thanks so much for hosting me here on Wordplay! It was a real delight to post here … and I’m looking forward to hearing your readers’ tips and thoughts about feedback. :-)

  2. The feedback I’ve gotten for my WIP was from 3 readers (not writers). It was interesting to hear how people take in a story differently. The first one pointed out places in the first few chapters where I was not describing things enough, then said she got so immersed in the story that she forgot to pay attention to the writing. The second pointed out a few gaps in the story arc and told me to explain things that I assumed the reader could infer. The third one was really confused by the flashbacks and how the story was not progressing in linear order. They were all different comments, so I couldn’t just take the common denominator.

    What I did was incorporate the first two sets of comments. When I thought everything I wanted to say was there, I opened a new file and put the story in chronological order to see if I liked it better. I did, even though it was a hard decision to make. It was also a lot easier to find holes in the plot and make sure the story arc was complete. I’m now going back to my 3rd reader to see what he thinks.

  3. Would have been helpful if a few good sites or forums for feedback had been suggested.

  4. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Ali!

    @Ian: Ultimately, the unique requirements of each individual author and each story are too specific for a list of sites and forums to be anywhere near expansive. I can recommend a few (Critters for speculative fiction and ChristianWriters for Christian fiction), but the best way to discover appropriate sites is to join a few likely forums (google for your genre) and start networking. As Ali said, networking just on blogs and social sties such as Twitter and Facebook can create invaluable contacts.

  5. I’ve been a member of the same writing group for nearly 10 years and I wouldn’t send anything out without getting their feedback first. It helps so much to get fresh eyes on a piece–they see things that wouldn’t occur to me because I’m too close to the work.

  6. The first story that I ever finished was an entry for a story contest on a homeschooling site. There was some debate over the voting, which was never actually quite resolved, so I’m not sure if I got 1st or 2nd.. ;) But I do know that people enjoyed that story.
    Which inspired me to compete in another story contest on the same site.. a few months later. I forget which position I placed, but it certainly wasn’t last.

    It was these two stories that finally convinced me that I *am* a writer. Even though I don’t have much time for writing right now, I still manage to get a little bit done every once in a while.

    Now, I’m a regular reader of THIS writing blog, and a member of an online site for home-schooled writers. (www.apricotpie.com)
    I enjoy getting comments and reviews on my work. And, yes.. even the negative comments teach me something about my writing.
    So far, I’ve never run into anyone who posts a negative comment just to irritate me or just ‘cuz he/she feels like it. (Though, I do wonder if some of my friends say they “love my story” just ‘cuz they wanna make me feel good… O.o)

  7. Very helpful post:) Thanks Ali for the great tips! I especially liked the advice you gave on how to sort out the feedback you are given. I’ve entered a couple of writers contests and am on a critique loop with ACFW.com, which helps. When at least three people tell me that I need to change things, I take that to heart. I also like what you said about ‘not making hasty decisions on the basis of feedback, to give it time to settle.’ So true…thanks again Ali!

  8. I’m new to feedback; basically all my life I had written by myself, with just the (mostly uncritical) praise of my family (which is of course valuable in it’s own way :D ). Then, last year, I met two writers (one published, the other not) whose writing I really liked. So we started a sort of critiquing triangle. I can honestly say that before then, I had thought it was kind of silly when I would read in an author’s ‘Acknowledgments’ section how their editors had made the story much better than it would have been otherwise. But now, I completely agree! I think it is invaluable. It’s also great fun to work with people to get your story in ship-shape :D

  9. This is a great post with solid advice. When seeking feedback, however, I keep running into the same roadblock: I can’t find a group.

    Any suggestions on where to look for local writers?

    I have plenty of writer friends online (all of whom I love!), but it’s far too easy to disappear in cyberspace without anyone noticing. When one of us disappears, so does accountability. As for critiques, the majority of online forums are heavily populated by novelists and fiction writers. I write nonfiction. The genre difference isn’t such a big deal to me, but I frequently hear “Well, I don’t know anything about nonfiction, so I can’t say anything.” I’m tired of going at this alone.

  10. Helpful post, Ali. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I belong to The Internet Writing Workshop (www.internetwritingworkshop.org/), which is a private online list out of Penn State. I belong to the Nonfiction list because I write essays and memoir, but several writers have gone through Novels-L and been published at places like Scribner, Mira Books, and Simon & Schuster. Nothing to scoff at. The feedback I get on my writing generally is what Ali refers to as “good” feedback, it’s constructive and pushes me a bit beyond my comfort zone. Occasionally I’ll get some of the “bad,” but I’ve learned to just thank the person for their time and effort and move on. I cannot stress enough how valuable it is to belong to a group like this.

  12. I’ll be honest – I am a little uncomfortable putting my work online for all to see. Even if it’s a community online that requires a sign in. But what I did do recently did help. I posted an excerpt about 1,000 words and included a scene I had doubt about. The feedback was very helpful and it cleared up the scene and I even caught grammar mistakes that helped my previous chapter!

    I do have a central person that is honest about troubles in my work that I can go to for the full thing! So that always helps for when I’m done coming through the edits.

  13. I’d like to recommend Critique Circle (www.critiquecircle.com) for any writer looking for feedback. It’s one of those sites Ali mentioned that use a credit system to get feedback — basically, you have to give some to get some — and it keeps things balanced. I began using this site when I couldn’t find a local group to join in person. If you’re having the same problem, this might be a site to try.

    People are rather willing to help. You’ll find people at all levels of writing – which also means the level of feedback you’ll receive varies too. And so I found Ali’s tips on how to weed through the critiques a bit helpful. I do tend to look for repeat suggestions: if a few readers say something was unclear, I’m going to give that more weight than something else that only one reader commented on.

    The site also has forums and a few other features, so you can build a bit of community there.

    There’s also a similar site, My Writer’s Circle, but I’ve found I preferred Critique Circle. YMMV.

    Good luck!

  14. Finding someone to give me useful feedback is very difficult for me. Living in the wilderness does, at times, have it’s drawbacks. I therefore rely on great blogs like this and any other tips an tricks I can glean from wherever I can find it.

  15. My biggest problem is that people giving feedback are far too nice. I need people who aren’t afraid to tell me that my dialogue is stiff or my character is a Mary Sue.

    By the way, here are two communities for writing feedback:
    http://critters.org/
    http://www.scribophile.com/

    I’ve tried them both and I can recommend both of them.

  16. Thanks so much for the comments, everyone!

    @Patchi — That’s a tricky situation when readers all have differing feedback. I guess we all like different things in fiction and tend to latch onto certain aspects. I think what you did makes great sense! Hope you get some good feedback from your third reader.

    @Ian — like K.M. says, it’s tough to recommend specific sites, because it’s going to depend on what you’re writing, and what stage you’re at (and also what sort of feedback you’re hoping for). Try asking some of your writing contacts in your own genre and see what they recommend.

    @Charlotte — yes, the fresh eyes are so crucial! Often, I’ll get told something by my writing group and I’ll wonder why I couldn’t see it before.

    @Gideon — Congratulations on your prize (1st or 2nd) — that’s a very impressive achievement with your first finished story! And of course friends want to be nice … but I doubt they’d say they loved your work unless they really got some genuine enjoyment from reading it. :-)

    @Lorna Faith — Thanks! And I agree that once three people are saying the same thing, it’s definitely time to pay attention…

    @Laura — It’s fantastic to have a supportive family; mine have been great. And I used to feel just the same as you about the Acknowledgement section … until I actually wrote a novel and realised just what a difference all those helping hands make.

    @Tanya — Try your local library; they might know of writing groups. Or look for an adult education class in creative writing (the writing workshop group that I belong to started out as an evening class). And in my experience, people in a live group aren’t afraid to offer an opinion even on something which isn’t their genre.

    @Sarah — Thanks for the recommendation of The Internet Writing Workshop. And yes, even with “bad” feedback, it’s nice to say thanks. :-)

    @Nicole — I know how scary it can be to share a work-in-progress, either online or face-to-face; congrats on posting your scene, and I’m glad you got some good feedback on it. And an honest friend is definitely a big asset!

    @Monica — Thanks for recommending Critique Circle; sounds like a great place!

    @Anna — I’m lucky enough to live in a very writer-friendly city (Oxford, in the UK) and it’s easy for me to get feedback on fiction locally … but when it comes to blogging support, I’ve found the online world brilliant. However specialised your writing interests, there’ll be other people out there online who can help.

    Runebug — Thanks for the recommendations! A lot of people do tend to err on the nice side — not normally a bad thing, but I agree it’s frustrating in fiction critiques. Have you tried asking people to be ruthlessly honest in their feedback? Or perhaps giving them specific questions like “How could I improve X…?”

  17. I just ran across this article, which may be helpful to those you looking into hiring an editor: “Vetting an Independent Editor” by Victoria Strauss

  18. Good post :)

    I find it really difficult to get impartial feedback, since I normally just ask friends and family. But I have joined a writers forum recently and that’s helped. I’ll probably find a writer’s workshop too.

  19. Thanks Aimee! And great to hear that the forum’s helping … hope you find a good workshop too. :-)

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