When do you get feedback on a work-in-progress? Never, early, mid-project, as often as possible?
Types of Feedback and When to Get Them
Good early feedback
- Pat on back. Often what you need is just a pat on the back, someone saying, “Good job!” My local critique group does this by just asking people to share good news. You can do this by posting word counts on Facebook or simply telling friends that you’ve finished a full draft of a novel. Those who understand the importance of your writing in your life, will be excited and celebrate with you. And be sure to celebrate your small successes, because the large successes are often few and far between.
- Market evaluation. If your goal is publication, another type of early feedback that is helpful is to get an idea of how your story might fit into the marketplace. This can help you decide if you want to push it to the top of the project list, or bury it. Maybe you’re writing a biography of Hilary Clinton and three just came out. You need to know this because they are your competition; your book must be different and better than those, or it won’t sell.
Sometimes, though, the market analysis and feedback may say you’re a fool for writing this particular story, that it will never sell. And you must say, too bad, it’s my story and I’ll tell it anyway. Even when your attitude is one of passionate commitment, it’s good to know the odds are against you. You’ll work harder, you’ll push yourself to excel beyond your wildest dreams. You’ll look for tiny ways to build the audience for this story, to make readers care more. In short, even a negative market analysis can be the impetus for an successful story. Go on: buck the trends and do your own thing and amaze us all. We’ll love you all the more for being the underdog who succeeds. Just know that’s what you’re doing up front.
Good ongoing feedback, get as often as you like or need
Reader Report. One valuable type of feedback is just a reader reporting on when s/he is engaged with the story, when it loses his/her interest, when s/he is confused, when s/he is bored. This might also include things like, “I didn’t like Phillip when he did that.” These type reader reactions can then be compared to your goals at that point in the story.
One way to ask for this type feedback is to ask trusted readers to pay attention to their mental state as they read the draft and mark the mss this way (Feel free to create your own variation):
- Big C in the margin: I am confused
- Big B in the margin: I am bored
- Big S in the margin: This story is too slow, speed up.
- Any comment jotted in the margin: Anything they want to fuss about.
It is often hard to train a reader to read this way, because everyone wants to solve the story’s problems for you, or they want to mark up every misspelled word. That’s not the type of feedback you’re going for here, though. Instead, you are looking for a reader’s reaction to the STORY itself. Explain to the reader that they are a reader you are Trusting with responsibility for the Story, that you can take care of grammar and such later, but here, you just want them to focus on Story. You just need a reader’s reaction.
Good feedback after first draft
When the first draft is done, now is the time for intensive feedback from other writers or editors. This is the first time you deal with technicalities of storytelling.
- Overall story structure. For many writers, the hardest thing is to see the forest for the trees. Overall story structure is hard because after 50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000 words, how do you step back and see the structure? You can monitor this yourself with a Shrunken Manuscript. Or you can find a critiquer who can see this story of thing.
- Overall feel for voice. Another important critique at this point is whether the storytelling voice is working. Does the voice pull the reader through the story in a compelling way? If not, there’s work to be done.
- Overall feel for character. Does your character come alive for the reader? You need a check on your characterization skills and notes about specific places where it works and where it doesn’t.
- Any other technical issue, for example, how to get in and out of a flashback. At this point, good critiquers will point out a myriad of things that need attention. It could be that the character’s names are off; maybe, you are bouncing around POVs; perhaps, the setting is bland or overblown. Now is the time to get feedback on anything else that occurs to a good critique.
Good feedback after second or any other draft
Ditto. Everything you need on the first draft, you need here.
Good feedback before you submit
- Ditto. Everything you need on the first draft, you need here.
- Copyediting. This is the ONLY time you need a critique to focus on copyediting. You, the writer, should be copyediting through out each draft, so there should be few things to catch here. But it’s good to have someone else go through it now and make sure you haven’t missed anything. Spelling and grammar do matter. Now is the time to take care of it.
Is there BAD feedback?
Yes. Here are a couple types of feedback to avoid.
- Avoid feedback that focuses on the reader’s vision for the story. Often a critique will focus on his/her opinion and not try to understand your vision for a story. Ignore them. This is your story, your idea, your passion—your book. You do NOT have to do what this critique says. Period. Get them out of your writing process and never let them back in.
- Avoid feedback that kills a project. I’ll admit it. I’ve had feedback on stories that meant I put the story away and never looked at it again. The critiquer’s feedback was, literally, deadly. They attacked the very idea itself and made it loathsome even to myself. Maybe they were right, maybe not. Either way, that story will never have a resurrection. Are you as sad about that as I am? I will never let that person critique another story for me. Never.
Value Good Critiquers
For those early readers who manage to be honest and yet encourage, hang onto them. Mention them in the acknowledgment of your novel; publicly thank them. Give them free copies of the published work.
And thanks, Stephen, for asking about how and when to get feedback.