You’ve been writing something for a while; you think it’s ok but you’re not sure. How do you find out? Here are the do’s and don’t’s of getting feedback.
Ok first off DON’T send it to an industry professional. Publisher, agent – whoever – you’re only going to get one chance to pitch your stuff to them, and I don’t care how ready you think it is, believe me, it’s not. They’re not interested in good ideas badly executed, or even in brilliant writing, badly put together. They won’t earn any money until your book is on the shelves of Waterstones, and the more work it will take to get it there, the less interested they will be. They are not charitable bodies, they are businesses, and they owe you nothing. So please, believe me, now is not the time.
Every book you ever hold in your hands (unless it is a self-published thing your mate put together) has been crafted by LOTs and LOTs of people. There was a first draft, a second draft, a third draft… in between each draft there was feedback…. from friends, from other writers… Towards the end of this long process there was more input; from agents, commissioning editors, sub editors, line editors…. Books are not written by one person, and that’s why they’re readable. No-one can do that on their own. This is worth remembering when you read something particularly good and despair of ever matching this standard yourself. You won’t. There will be other people in there.
You notice that I put ‘towards the end’ in bold? That is because there is a good time for input and a not so good time. Early in the process, when your story is shaky, when the ground feels uneven, when you’re not convinced. That is the time to shut the door and not tell anyone what you’re doing. Feedback too early on can destroy your baby before it’s even taken its first steps.
As Stephen King says: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
The time to seek feedback is when the story feels strong, but maybe there are things you’re not sure about, places where you are stuck. Remember you are not there for praise; you are there for criticism, so only ask for feedback when you are sure you’re ready to receive it and process it. I think the ideal frame of mind is something like “I think this is a good story, going somewhere, but there are bits I’m not sure about and it’s driving me nuts trying to fix them. I’m open to suggestions.”
Don’t ask friends and relatives for feedback. They’re just going to say things like ‘oh it’s brilliant’ (even if they don’t actually think it is). If they don’t think it’s working, then they might be honest enough to tell you that, but they’re not going to be able to tell you why. Reading is not the same as writing, in the same way as cooking is not the same as building an oven. Only other writers are going to be able to offer you feedback which will help.
How to find a critique group
Depending where you live, there may already be groups in your area. Have a look for these online, via your library, bookshop or local arts organisations. You could even start one yourself. But if you’re joining an existing set up I suggest you go along and simply observe the first time, to see if this is for you, before you share any work yourself.
Crit groups vary in format, but do check that there actually is a format, because without it the group will become a social meet-up. Ground-rules are important as well, and it does help to have a co-ordinator.
There should be a maximum word length for submissions, depending on how many people come, how long the group meets for, and whether everyone gets critiqued every time. A well established group might choose to focus just on one person each time, but this is unlikely to work in newer groups. Most circulate work in advance (though not all). If it’s a large group, it may split into sub-groups so everyone gets a reasonable amount of attention. There is no ideal size: You want people to know each other and trust each other, but if not everyone is able to attend every time, or has work to present, a small group could flounder.
How to run a critique group
If you end up starting a group yourself, these are things to think about. Firstly, in order for all participants to receive feedback, someone should time keep. It’s amazing how little time you will actually have, which is why, with an established group, it’s sometimes better taking turns week by week as to who gets critiqued.
- For example. Let’s say you have 2 hours, and you have 8 people. You think therefore you have 15 minutes each, right? Sounds plenty. but it’s not. Firstly you’ll lose at least 15 minutes of those two hours at the beginning and end with everyone getting settled, finding pens, saying hello, etc etc. Each time you swap round to a new piece of work you’ll lose a few moments. And you can’t entirely eliminate the small talk and nor should you want to. After all, people have to trust each other as well. So write off at least thirty minutes, every time.
- Ok so now you’re into giving the feedback. you have seven people who want to tell the eighth person what they thought of the work they’ve read beforehand. (With a group this size you HAVE to read in advance – so each person has probably already spent about 2-3 hours preparing for this moment. They’re invested.) Even if you still have 15 minutes for feedback (and we’ve lost a good chunk of those two hours, remember?) this only allows two minutes each. Maximum. Not a lot of time to say anything useful, right?
- With smaller groups and longer time, you could choose to read the work during the meeting. There are advantages to this, in that it’s a more like a reader’s experience, and you get first impressions. You could even all choose to read your work out loud (or ask someone else in the group to read it out loud). It’s amazing how many mistakes you’ll spot. But be guided by the size of the group, the time you have available, and the length of pieces you’re agreeing to critique.
So… to make it useful, here are some guidelines for offering feedback. Make sure everyone knows them and is at least attempting to abide by them:
• Be specific.
• Say what you enjoyed about the piece as well as suggesting improvements.
• Don’t focus on grammar and punctation mistakes – just make a note on the manuscript to give to the writer afterwards. Remember you don’t have limitless time here, and we don’t want two minutes on whether it should be affect or effect or principle or principal – we can look that up. We want to know what works in our story and what doesn’t work and why.
• Try to avoid repeating what has already been said in the group. This will really save time. However, it is helpful for the writer to hear when you agree with any points made. For example – I agree with the points already made about that bit… but I also think…
• It can work well if the writer doesn’t speak until everyone has given their feedback; after all you’re not going to be there to tell your readers what you really meant! Listen in silence. If there is time at the end, ask for clarification. But don’t argue with the feedback
You can also ask specific questions, remember. What did you think of that character? What do you think his motivation is in doing x,y,z? If you want to know if something is working, sometimes you need to ask a pertinent question.
Finally – what you do want from the crit group is to know what is working and what is not working. What you don’t want are suggestions about how to fix it. This is your book, not anyone else’s. Neil Gaiman put it like this: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Write with the door shut……