Feedback

When’s The Right Time To Get Feedback On Your Writing?

Something that can be hard to remember, especially when we are busy comparing ourselves with others, competing, wondering why we are not Hemingway or whoever, is that NOT EVERY WRITER IS THE SAME. 

We don’t all work in the same ways. We don’t all write the same things. We don’t all use an identical writing process in order to get our best work out. Not every trick or method that works for us will work for everyone else, and vice versa. Nor does it have to.

Not a revelation, huh? Well, you’d think  (and btw, if you don’t believe me, check out the Paris Review for hundreds of interviews with famous authors where you can see the vast array of approaches to the writing life and getting work done. Or not).

I’ve been quite surprised at times, to find a certain rigidity in approach, especially on advanced writing courses or in online advice, which can give the impression that there is only One True Way of Working for writers serious about their craft . This in turn leads to unrealistic expectations, can sometimes seem artificial, and can push writers into methodologies that simply aren’t the right fit for them. Planners get forced into pantsing and end up staring at blank pages. Pantsers feel constrained and frustrated by the rigidities of planning. Deadline-lovers find time-based targets keep them going; task-focused writers hate that and prefer to go for next-step-completion in their project as a goal.

And the question of when in our writing process we find it best to show our work to others and get feedback is one of the differences I see between the many writers I know.

A Look At The Different Approaches

Some people find it most helpful  to get feedback during the drafting of the work, particularly when working on big projects like novels. This, they feel, ensures they are taking their work in the right direction and are not sending themselves off on wild goose chases that they’ll have to clear up later.

Others – myself included – prefer to share their work only after they have got as far as they can possibly get with drafting by themselves. I personally hate sharing very early drafts, and not without reason – but a lot of this has to do with how I work and what does and doesn’t get the best results for me.

So here are some of the pointers about both approaches. Neither is right or wrong as such but are just different ways of working.

Early-Stage Feedback

 It helps to be confident and fairly thick-skinned for this – after all, the looser your draft is, the more is likely to be wrong with it, so the more “development areas” you are likely to hear about. You may be happy with that, you may be a bit more sensitive to criticism. If that’s the case, you need to think if this would be the right approach for you.

It can also depend on your reader or group. Some readers are very open to both approaches, with an awareness that feedback style might need to be tailored to the situation; others – college workshops, for example – can be more absolute, feeding back on everything in the same way, regardless of where the draft or writer is at.

The rougher the work, the more the focus is  likely to be on the potential, rather than perfection of execution; although it does depend on how solid the writer’s early drafting is. Some writers, as I say, produce great-quality drafts on the first or second pass, so it probably isn’t going to be a problem for them.

I’d suggest being VERY clear with your reader or readers before you let them read about where you are at, and what in particular you’d like them to look at if you’re sharing in the early stages. Someone nit-picking your punctuation when you really need to know if your overall story or a particular character is working is not especially useful . For some writers, this sort of thing too early can kill a draft completely

Early Stage/Mid-Draft Feedback can be useful for:
  • Writers who produce solid drafts very quickly
  • A stage you’ve reached where you’re more interested in understanding the story potential of an overall idea than the nitty gritty of your execution
  • Times when there’s a particular feature of the work you are experimenting with. For instance, you might be trying out different narrative points of view, or structures in which to tell the story, and you might be unsure what the ‘live’ effects of those decisions may be. Before devoting months of your time going down one route or the other, it can be worth testing out with some readers
  • The point where have got up to a certain stage in a large project  like a novel, and are not sure how best to continue. Or, are at a crossroads where there are multiple directions in which you could take the work
  • Writers who carefully craft and edit each individual chapter before moving on.
  • Thick-skinned writers who are happy to share rougher drafts and  more interested in their story’s potential

NB one thing to bear in mind about “potential”  though. It is never your readers’ (or tutor’s or group’s or friend’s) job to decide on or write your final story for you! If the key story elements aren’t in there, it’s going to be hard for people to work it out.

If the bare bones are really all you have, it might be worth waiting until the work is a little more developed.. Even so, the views of others and an understanding of overall impact if you’re completely stuck  in the woods can give perspective that is incredibly helpful.

Later-Draft/Late Stage Feedback

 I know several writers who rarely show their work at all, or at least do only with one or two very select people. Often just before the point of submission. Personally, I get that. I find it more helpful to get feedback only AFTER I know I’ve done everything I can possibly do with the draft. I rarely share initial drafts, given mine tend to be a) rough as hell and b) when I am still working out or vague about the story.

Partly, it’s because I prefer the discipline of stepping back and self-editing, which for me is an intrinsic part of the process. I don’t like feeling I’ve wasted people’s time and efforts telling me the stuff I could have already worked out by myself given a bit more time

Also I am a pretty slow writer – not in terms of getting words down, but I tend to do at least two Zero drafts to get to one that I consider readable by the outside world – my “proper” first draft. Whereas some writers can knock out a decent, readable first draft in a matter of days or even hours.

Probably most crucially, I prefer later-stage feedback because it seems to show me any real blind spots I have. And we do all have them – we tend to pick up on different things. Sometimes this can be scales-from-the-eyes stuff that I’d never spot, no matter how adept I was at self-editing.

Late-Stage Feedback Can Be Useful For:
  • Writers who like to multi-draft before they share their “public” version
  • Pantsers who write terrible or extremely rough draft zeros in order to work out the story
  • Zero-drafters in general – particularly if you like to get the whole thing out in a rough form BEFORE you even think about editing or redrafting
  • Those who are good at self-editing and prefer to step back and do that in depth before sharing work with readers
  • Thin-skinned writers who are over-sensitive to criticism or have any kind of writing performance anxiety or block. Let yourself write and create freely first without worrying anyone else is going to see it.
  • Those who need work to be brilliant before they share, or whose readers are very critical. I’d wait until it’s in as good a state as you can get it to build confidence. Just don’t leave it for ever. It is never going to be totally perfect, and that way, never-ending tinkering can lie.
  • Writers who’ve reached the point of feeling they cannot do anything more with this story. You’ve probably spent so long with it now that you cannot be objective with it at all.
  • A time you are about to submit it but no-one yet has seen it. Other people can pick up much more easily on things that a person closest to it simply cannot. At least let someone you trust give it the once-over, especially if you’re subbing to an agent. You really do only get one shot at these.

It’s worth experimenting, of course, to see which approach works best for you and for which types of project. 

So – which methods and processes work the best for you?

 

If you are thinking about getting feedback on your work, check out my 5 Ways To Get Feedback On Your Writing post  on the different sources of feedback and where you might find them.

Happy writing!

 

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5 Ways To Get Feedback On Your Writing

So you’ve written your thing? Hurrah! Now what? Get feedback, that’s what!

But how can you get it, and how do you decide which would be the best option for you? Let’s take a look at the main routes:

1. Friends & Family

It can be surprisingly difficult to get effective feedback from friends and family; not least because they love and care for you and don’t want to say anything mean…and because you love them back and want them to think well of you. Their good opinion matters. Nobody wants to fall out  or have things taken personally – and writing , however much we like to pretend we’re all dead hard and so A-grade we can take anything, is just so personal. 

This can make things tricky.

Feedback from your friends and family can often be frustratingly vague. Your mum’s  “That was lovely, darling!” is NOT helpful feedback for your work. We’re not doing this for a pat on the head. That said, you don’t want the opposite. If you’re going to share work, you want to ensure you remain on speaking terms with your nearest and dearest.

When Can Friends & Family Help?

I’ve found there definitely are times that it is helpful to get feedback on finished work by someone you are close to. Just an ordinary reader, usually not a writer or armchair critic (definitely avoid those!), but someone interested enough to want the best for you and your work to succeed. After all, especially if it’s a novel you’re writing, it is ordinary readers who are ultimately going to be reading and hopefully buying your work. Your ultimate reader is probably only going to read your novel only the once. If you have someone in your vicinity who is part of your target market and who might be willing to give you a bit of a heads-up on likely reader first impressions, why not ask them very nicely to help?

  • Is your mum perhaps a lover of crime thrillers and detective stories? (mine is!)
  • Your best friend’s kid a devourer of Young Adult sci-fi fantasy?
  • Your colleague a slipstream literary fiction afficionado?

Bear in mind, it’s risky. If you are going to go this route and there is someone willing, make sure you pick your person VERY carefully, and be precise about what you want them to look for. I’d avoid the “well, did you like it, or not?” question. DON’T choose anyone insensitive or who might have a cross to bear, or someone you’re trying to impress. You don’t need to prove your worth to anybody. Make sure it’s someone from whom you could take any honest but less-than-stellar feedback. Criticism, even mild, can often be harder to hear from someone you know than a dispassionate outsider, whom you can curse in the privacy of your own mind, with no  danger of real-life comeback.

2. Beta Readers & Critique Partners

Technically, beta readers are supposed to be a live test audience for your work. In other words, target market readers who read your manuscript as if they are the eventual reader for your book, allowing you to test for likely responses so you can make adjustments and edits as necessary. The friends and family examples I gave above are really beta readers; it’s just the relationship side of things that can make getting useful feedback tricky and has to be carefully managed.

These days, however, you often see the term “beta reader” used interchangeably with what I’d more accurately call “critique partner.”  In practice, these will often be particular writing friends with whom you’ve connected in the past and developed a mutual bond and degree of trust. They tend to know you and your writing style well and understand your writing process. They “get” you and what you are trying to do and are often used to your particular blind-spots and flaws. Often, they will be well-versed in writing craft and techniques, and are usually pretty good at feedback.

A good critique partner is a valuable asset – if you are lucky enough to have found one, look after them and nurture that relationship! Do make sure it’s mutual, and remember your critique partner does not exist merely to service your needs. We are all busy people with lives, and reading takes time. Make sure you regularly swap work and return the favour. Treat their work with the care, thought and attention you’d want for your own. Learn from one other. You’re looking for someone who is sensitive enough not to personalise any criticism but at the same time isn’t afraid to be honest and tell it like it is in a way that helps you improve your work.

Group Beta Readers

You could of course, also set up a group of proper beta readers to test your stuff out. Members of a book group, perhaps, or a mix of writers and non-writers. A good test reader should be specifically from your target market.  Someone who’s not is likely to give you information that is irrelevant and, unless they are truly objective, their personal preferences often get in the way. You don’t want your high literature types sneering at your YA Fantasy; likewise, Fifty Shades fans aren’t going to be interested in your riff on Infinite Jest. Again, be specific about the feedback you want.  Not “I want to know it’s marvellous and going to be a bestseller and how very clever I am.” (Even though that’s what we all want to hear, obvs). Prepare direct, specific questions about the characters, understanding of certain plot points, pacing,  if it was predictable or confusing in places, for example.. What you want to get from your beta readers is a grounded understanding of whether or not your piece is working. Is it doing what you intend or not?

3. Writing Groups

Writing groups are for some people and not for others. And of course it depends on who you get in your group. I’m lucky enough to be a member of two writing groups – sometimes three – and they are great in different ways.

The most important thing when choosing a writing group is whether or not it is a good match for you and your work. Are group members generally at a similar stage in their writing lives? You ideally want a group where people are at a similar stage as you or just a little ahead of you in their writing careers. Is there a variety of genres people tend to write in or is everyone in the group into the same type of work? If the latter, is it your type? How is discussion conducted and how respectful is it of all members? Are there rules about how feedback is given, what sort of feedback is appropriate and what isn’t?

When Writing Groups Go Bad

Horror stories abound, of course. A woman I met at a workshop the other day told me she’d been rounded on by a clique in a new writing group and her worked ripped to shreds with not one word of positivity or constructive criticism. Essentially the leader of the group decided her work was worthless and it went round in a circle with each individual telling her exactly why this was so. Apparently one man put his hand up and said he’d rather liked it, but was shouted down and his views dismissed by the rest. Another friend, writing tentatively about the lesbian family relationships she’d grown up in, was told by the squirming members of her writing group that they didn’t want to hear about things “like that”, and that she was shoving “her politics” down their throats.

Again – you need to pick your people. Groups, especially where there are one or two very dominant personalities, can get very cliquey. (And of course many have the Guy-In-Your-MFA types lurking in their midst. Good for a laugh but can be quite frustrating.) Make sure yours is respectful of all members and their work. A variety of writing styles in evidence is helpful, as are signs that people give each other constructive feedback which gives the writers something to work on.

4. Free Online Critique Sites

What if you want the variety of views that a writing group can bring but don’t have anything local to your area? You could always join an online critiquing circle.

Be prepared to give and take. The best of these sites operate through “karma points” – you feed back on other people’s work, and earn enough karma points for your work to be read and commented on in return. Do note though that often you only get the basic service for free so it can take time to build up points – if you want all bells and whistles on the sites, you’ll sometimes find you have to pay for it.

The advantage of this approach is that it is fantastic practice and highly instructive to have to read a lot of others people’s work as well as writing your own. Seeing other people’s strengths and weaknesses can help make you far more aware of what your own particular talents and blind spots may be. And of course you’ll get a wide range of comments, just like in a writing workshop or group. Disadvantages are that obviously reading others’ work takes time. You’ll probably get a number of comments that don’t seem relevant and that you discard. And there are often limits with regard to how detailed you can be in your feedback, and also on the lengths of the pieces you can post. You need a thick skin, too; but that is something probably worth building up. Join one up for free (see links below) and check out the sort of stuff that gets posted to see if this might be the route for you.

https://www.scribophile.com

https://www.critiquecircle.com

5. Paid Consultancy & Reader Services

Ah, last but not least. And not just a plug for yours truly – these services are not right for everyone, and as with every choice you make as a writer, it should be a case of picking what really works for you. I’d suggest trying the freebies first and then if you want something more, consider paid assessment options such as mine.

Look at what the different services offer, try to see sample reports if you can and think about what you need to take your writing forward. It may be the kudos of having a big-name author read your work (not me, sorry). It may be the window of possibility of having your novel recommended by the service to an agent (nope.) You may be after in-depth editorial  and proofreading services (no); you may be at the stage where you are looking more for a detailed analysis of the big picture structures of the work (hello! *waves*). You may be looking to send a whole novel; you may be wanting in-depth notes on a couple of short stories. Think about where you’re at with your work, and what you’d like to know in terms of moving it forward. Be totally honest with yourself, and you will find you get more out of whatever service it is  you choose. You need to know what you want so that you can ask for – and get – it. Exactly what you need.

 

So there we have it. Five ways of getting feedback on your work. Have I missed anything crucial? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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How To Maintain Confidence in Your Work When Things Get Tough

Who do you even think you are to say you are a writer?

Herein  lies the rub.

So much in a writer’s life can seem to be about confidence and permission. I have had real trouble at times with “lack-of-permissionitis” . This can stem from things like the inevitable rejections, periods of frustration and the odd belittling comment.  I know my sense of myself as a writer can certainly plummet as a result.  Annoyingly,  if this leads to stalling and analysis paralysis,  it can end up affecting the work itself – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So much can seem to rest on others’ judgements and decrees, barriers and rules. Blocks that come from putting all our focus on things outside ourselves can end up being pretty deep-seated.

It’s a common problem, and one that I’m seeing a lot in my writer friends just now.  I wanted to share some of the things I personally – through trial and error –  have found helpful in ploughing through my most difficult writing times.

Take A Step Back and Take Ownership

For me, this is the key to it all. Ownership of your interests and ideas, your territory, your writing practices and ownership of what works for you in terms of producing your best work and what you know doesn’t.

You are allowed.

Ownership of what the problem, if there is one, feels like to you, and where you think it’s come from. The better you know yourself, the more you can ensure you are giving yourself what it is you need, and discard anything unhelpful. Even if the unhelpful seems to work for someone else.

This may just be a personal quirk of mine, but I’ve often found that it’s the very Things That Everyone Says Are The Surefire Ways To Succeedthat turn out to be the exact things that don’t work for me at all under any circumstances and that flop when I attempt to force myself into using them

As I say, this may just be a feature of my own contrariness, a natural rebelliousness that I turn against myself as a form of self-sabotage. (That’d probably be the official party line.) But I think it should be reframed as self-preservation rather than self-sabotage , When it happens, it may simply be that I’m trying to fit myself in to something, a methodology or rule, that genuinely  doesn’t suit me at all. It pays to know yourself.

 Don’t Give Up – But Keep Writing. Anything.

It’s perfectly permissible to take a break from a particular writing project if you are getting nowhere. Sometimes a break is exactly what you – and it – needs. Deadlines are great for focusing the mind but they can also induce panic. I often find that ‘resting’ a piece for a couple of weeks rather than ploughing on to try to meet this deadline or that, results, after it’s had a chance to ‘brew’ a bit, in the answers to seemingly insurmountable problems suddenly becoming clear. You can always come back to it (and should try to).

But sometimes it helps to move on for a bit to less pressured writing. More personalized stuff. Journaling, for instance. The things you don’t have to show anybody else, but that could easily end up as the roots of future work. I’m a great fan, for example, of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way as well as the exercises in her book Right To Write, and if I’m having a ‘bad day’, am sure to work on exercises from the latter.

 Develop your own routines

How-to guides and writer seminars can be fantastically helpful for giving you tips and ideas. And it’s always worth finding out what other writers do (e.g. check out the author interviews in the Paris Review). As you’ll discover, writing and art are broad churches. No one method is suitable for everyone, so don’t be afraid to try things out, and to pick and mix. If something doesn’t work for you – ditch it, try something else. I’ve created lots of templates now, for my own use, mixing up methods and ideas I’ve tried from various places. I don’t follow one single methodology; I’ve put together a toolkit for myself of the stuff I’ve personally found works and is useful when I’m faced with particular problems.

Protect your work – don’t share it too early

I do think it’s really important to share your work with others at some stage – whether with a writing group, a trusted like-minded writing friend, an online group or a critique service such as the one I offer here. No matter how good you are at getting distance from and assessing your own writing (and that’s a skill worth learning in itself) there is always  additional understanding to be gained from others reading your work from their own perspective. There are things that you just aren’t able to see when it’s your own writing, although of course, you often find that some feedback you get will turn out to be more valuable than others

That said, I think sometimes that writers pressure themselves to share their work too early – first rough drafts in particular – and so don’t always end up receiving feedback that is appropriate to the stage the work is at. A very first draft, for instance,  is likely still a seedling; letting others hack at it, going mad for strict editorial rather than big-picture changes, treating it as if it is a hardier later draft that is ready to be gone to town on, may well just kill it dead.

In particular, if you are in a bit of what we could call “ a sensitive period”, I’d highly recommend “caving it” – working by yourself and not sharing at all for a while. Write for yourself only. Go back to experimenting, doing basic exercises, exploring, making your writing art, rather than “a thing of excellence to be consumed by other people”. Make writing fun again – this can often seem to disappear when you are after external approval in some way; the acceptance by an editor, the competition win, the good mark from a tutor in a creative writing class, the awe of your writing group at your brilliance. Often, good art is worth doing for its own sake. That doesn’t mean that you should never share, of course – but let it find its own time, when you – and it – are ready.

 Ask for – and make sure you get – the right kind of feedback

This is why I prefer to take a development approach when I’m reading others’ work rather than acting as a gatekeeper, or a teacher with a red pen, saying yes or no. If you want to use a Writer’s Journey analogy (see Christopher Vogler), you’re looking for people in the Friends and Allies camp rather than those standing at the gate, arms folded, doing the whole Threshold Guardian bit, trying to stop others coming through. Think about what you what to know about this piece of writing at this particular stage – and share that with whoever you are asking to read your work. One size does not fit all – try to get feedback tailored that’s useful to where you are at, so you can make the best use of it.

Stop Competing, Start Looking At What Makes Your Work Yours

It’s hard, I know, but – there is room for everyone, honestly. OK, sure, in certain situations, only one person can win first prize, maybe only one will get the award, or the bursary, or the free place on the course. It might be you. It might not. What are you going to do if it isn’t? Seriously – give up? Really? Again, this is another problem associated with focusing too much on narrow measures of external approval. Sure, you might have to work hard to get your work to a good standard; that’s a given. But not everybody writes in the same way or in the same genre and it is not a requirement to do so. Instead of thinking about how everybody else’s work is better than yours, start thinking about how it is different and similar. Think about the other writers you know – what about them? What are the features and peculiarities of their work? What sort of style do they have, what are their common themes and concerns? How do they differ from each other’s and your own? If you had to list some features unique to your work, what would they be?

 

Above all,  you need to look after yourself and protect your writer self and your writing. Nobody ever said it was easy and it can be a  tough old world out there.

Don’t, whatever you do,  let them get you down.

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