One of the most difficult things for writers is getting poignant and honest feedback on writing. That’s the case for professionals and new writers alike. Writers need feedback for basic reasons, like testing the waters with a new story or a new book idea to see where readers may go astray. Writers may at times be too close to their own work, immersed in the details of the plot or the ideas being explored, and unable to see the forest for the trees.
But even though writers know they need feedback, and are often desperate for feedback, it can sometimes be extremely difficult to get. And sometimes when writers go looking for feedback they may go about it in the wrong way.
Who should you ask for feedback? What kind of feedback should you ask for? What should you do with the feedback you receive? Here’s what you need to know and some pitfalls to avoid with writerly feedback.
#1 – Don’t ask your family and friends!
Many writers initially reach out to people they know best for feedback on their writing, such as their family and friends. It may seem like the thing to do, but it’s potentially a mistake. There’s a few main reasons for this.
First, family and friends may simply tell us what they think we want to hear. They may say, “It’s great” or “I like it” and not much else. Often they just want to encourage us, and since our family and friends are invested in our happiness it can be difficult for them to deliver any sort of critical feedback.
Second, family and friends may not be anything remotely like our ideal readers. They may not understand the subject matter we are working with, and they may not know our genre well enough to compare our work to what’s out there in the field.
Third, family and friends may not (depending on the individuals) be much of readers at all. Writers can sometimes give their work to family and friends because we hope to get some validation from those we care about, and we want to show them the great stuff we’re putting together. But if they aren’t big readers it can be difficult for them to sometimes even get through the pages we send along.
It’s not an absolute rule, and sometimes writers may be fortunate to have family or friends who are great at offering feedback on writing. But generally, avoid asking for feedback from family or friends.
#2 – Ask general readers for specific feedback on writing
Related to this point about family and friends, if you do decide to ask for feedback from general readers (like if you have people close to you that are readers) the best approach is to ask for specific kinds of feedback. There’s no point giving a general reader, who may not know your subject matter or genre, a bunch of text and expect them to give you feedback that is all that useful. Not unless you tell them the kind of feedback you want.
Writers should give general readers some parameters. Direct them to specific things you may be concerned about in a specific section or a specific paragraph. Ask them what they think of a specific character. Ask them if the ideas flow from one specific paragraph to the next. These kinds of parameters are helpful for general readers because it focuses them on one thing, instead of expecting they can or should comment on the global aspects of the text.
#3 – Try the Highlighter Method
One method that works for general readers, and that is tried and tested, is called the “Highlighter Method.” Give the general reader a short piece of text (a chapter of a section) and ask them to simply highlight wherever they hit a snag or get lost. Tell them you don’t want them to explain why they may have gotten lost or hit a bump. Just highlight it.
The spots they highlight are areas of the text you want to have a close look at and maybe make changes. If you give the same piece of writing to a few readers, and give them the same directions, any overlap in highlighted areas common to a few readers are going to be red flags for your editing.
#4 – Tap into the Writing Community
Better again than general readers, and better again than family and friends, writers who are part of a writing community have a ready-to-hand support network for getting feedback. There are online writing communities, in various social media and on writing websites, that are great ways to join a writing community. Likewise, many local libraries and community centres have writer’s groups that you might consider joining. Another great online option to find writer’s groups is meetup.com. There are also writing collectives and writing groups (that are sometimes invite only) that you might join to get great feedback.
Here are some online forums to get you started:
How to give great feedback
The thing about being in a writing community is that you not only have an opportunity to receive honest and poignant feedback, but you can also give feedback to other writers. Giving feedback is an important skill for writers, and in a nice twist by learning to give feedback, you also learn how to ask for feedback and what kinds of feedback to ask for. Here are a few pointers: Good feedback is…
- Specific – you want to get and give feedback that is on single topics or areas of concern. The more specific feedback is, the better.
- Timely – timely feedback gets to the person quickly. If more than a week or so goes by before you get or give feedback on writing, the writer may have already revisited the section or may have moved on to other work. Writers can do the most with feedback they receive shortly after submitting their work.
- Manageable – getting too much feedback can be as bad as getting no feedback at all. When you seek or offer feedback, make sure it’s in bite-sized chunks. Try to ask for feedback or offer feedback that focuses on no more than three specific things the writer can do. It’s best to do multiple rounds of manageable feedback if there’s lots of feedback you want or want to offer other writers.
- Constructive – good feedback is always offered in the spirit of being helpful and with a heart full of generosity for writers and writing craft. Feedback should never be negative or mean-spirited. Constructive feedback can still be critical and can still be challenging, so long as it is offered in a way that the writer doesn’t feel attacked.
#5 – Find Beta Readers
Better than asking for feedback from family and friends, and better than asking for feedback from general readers, is asking for feedback from beta readers. There are professional beta readers out there, with serious skills at giving feedback to writers, but often beta readers are simply your ideal readers who devour books in your genre. Beta readers are available in every genre and for whatever your subject matter may be.
Here are a few good places to find beta readers online:
- Round-up of strategies and tools to find readers and reviewers
- Goodreads Beta Reader Group
- My Writers Circle
- Critters Workshop (for manuscript critiques)
- Critique Circle
- Writers Helping Writers (Facebook group)
A great reason to connect with a beta reader is that you will get real feedback from readers who actually read books in your genre. They are good litmus tests and can give you actionable feedback to improve your story and writing in general.
#6 – Developmental Editing and Book Coaching
As for book coaching, there’s no better way to set writing deadlines for yourself and stay accountable to your writing goals. Your coach can also provide invaluable feedback on your writing and teach you how to tighten your prose and write better stories. We love working with new writers, so if that’s you get in touch!
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Self-Publishing Advice for First-Time Authors
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