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.