The Road to Publishing: Giving Good Feedback to Fellow Writers

By Stephanie Guerra

Last month, I began a two-post series addressing the most productive ways to work with beta readers and critique groups. The first installment focused on receiving feedback; in this post, I’ll focus on how to offer good feedback.

Beta readers and critique groups are critical to the writing process, and many successful authors find a long-term writing partner with whom they work productively for years. How can you nurture critique relationships—notoriously sensitive—so that they grow and flourish?

Here’s a quick and dirty list of strategies:

peer review1. Ask the type and level of feedback your partner is seeking. Type addresses the range of feedback your partner desires. Global? Character-focused? Plot-focused? Language-focused? Line-editing? Level addresses the thoroughness of your feedback. For a first draft, many writers want general, light feedback, including global impressions of plot and characters. If you pick apart the draft line by line, your partner may be overwhelmed. Be sure to clarify what he or she is looking for before diving in.

2. Offer an even trade. If someone has given you careful, in-depth feedback on one of your manuscripts, be sure to reciprocate in full. Do not read through his or her work quickly and toss off your thoughts as you hurry to get back to your own project. Your writing partner is relying on you and may make significant changes to their manuscript based on your advice. So give his or her work the time and respect it deserves.

3. Link up with writers who are roughly in your skill/professional range. Great disparities in talent can cause awkwardness, and trades may not be productive for the more advanced partner. That said, if you’re willing to consider a mentor relationship (no matter which end you’re on), go for it! Just don’t expect that trades will be “even”.

4. Find the positives. This seems obvious, but having been through an MFA, I know it needs to be said. Critique partners should be honest—but not brutally honest. Remember that no matter how elementary or flawed your partner’s work appears to you, it represents their effort and passion. Find at least three things to praise before you point out what’s not working.

5. Watch for cues. In the case of verbal feedback, watch and listen to the writer’s facial expressions, body language, and words as they receive feedback. If you sense distress, stop. Bring up the positives. Inspiration is a fragile thing and people have varying degrees of sensitivity about their work. You don’t want to be the Dream Crusher.

Editing16. Know when to back out. Sometimes (especially on first trades, but
occasionally with tried-and-true partners) you’ll run into a piece you simply can’t stomach. Maybe the writing is terrible. Maybe the message goes against everything you believe. Maybe the manuscript feels too commercial. Whatever the reason, if you can’t stand it, you won’t be able to offer a good or fair critique. Be diplomatic: “I’m having a hard time with this piece. I’m not experienced with this genre/topic/style. I’m afraid my political views are getting in the way of my ability to hear your story.” Whatever. Let the writer know you’re biased, and wiggle out gently.

7. Have boundaries. This is a good life rule, no? It definitely applies to writing. Critiques are so personal, and for many, so emotional, that they can unleash a storm of follow-up emails and phone calls. If you feel that someone is demanding more of your time and hand-holding than makes you comfortable, repeat (in as many different ways as you need to): “I really don’t have anything to add to what I’ve already said. But good luck.”

8. Don’t argue. Some writers can’t help themselves; they’re compelled to defend their work in the face of a critique. If you’re the partner giving feedback in this situation, don’t engage. Offer your counsel, and let the writer argue and justify if they need to. It’s all part of the process. Some people work things out verbally.

9. Don’t be the alpha critic. I borrowed this one from William Zinsser. Nobody likes the snide, superior critic who has scathing reviews of everything! ‘Nuf said.

10. Be open-minded. You’ll run into all kinds of manuscripts on the trade routes, not all of them your cup of tea. Remember, you’re not buying the book. Unless you have a visceral hatred of the work (see number 6), give it a fair shot. Try to separate your personal taste from your professional knowledge of character development, plot trajectory, etc. If personal taste is causing your review to slant negative or positive, rethink your approach.

The Road to Publishing: Receiving Feedback from Beta Readers & Critique Groups

For this series of posts, we are writing about the road to publishing. You should start with our overview. Today, Stephanie discusses beta readers and critique groups.

By Stephanie Guerra

How important are beta readers and critique groups to the writing process? Take a look at any acknowledgments page for a quick answer: very. Beta readers provide much-needed perspective for authors who’ve seen the same pages often enough to recite them from memory. They contribute feedback that ranges from formative to collaborative to editorial to cosmetic. Some of the feedback is valuable; some isn’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

I’d like to share a list of tips for the most effective ways to work with beta readers and critique groups. This list is focused on productively receiving feedback; I’ll post another later on giving effective feedback.

Over the past decade, I’ve done an MFA in creative writing, I’ve had critique partners, I’ve participated in writing groups, I’ve worked with teachers who run student writing groups, and I’ve taken four books through the editorial process. Please take what’s useful from my thoughts; leave the rest. That’s the first rule for this list and any other advice you’re offered as a writer!

Seek criticism. Seems obvious, right? But many writers secretly want cheer leading rather than tough feedback—and many beta readers and critique groups are (understandably) hesitant to offer truly honest criticism. Writers tend to be sensitive and beta readers are often friends or colleagues with investment in the relationship. My strategy is to insist verbally and then repeat in an email that I want the toughest criticism my beta reader can offer, and that I see it as a major gift. If the critique still comes back too glowing, I’ll ask further questions, specifically targeting areas I know need work.

Don’t argue or explain. Resist the temptation to justify your work. When a beta reader offers criticism, take it as the gift that it is, take notes (if appropriate), and listen carefully. If the feedback raises further questions, feel free to ask them. But don’t tell the beta reader why they’re wrong or what they missed.

Choose your critique partners and beta readers carefully. Not everyone is skilled at offering useful feedback. It’s best when your partners are professional writers as good as or better than you, industry professionals, or literature/writing professors. Of course, that’s in an ideal world. Many people who are simply avid readers can give great feedback, especially when guided by questions from the author.

Try out different writing group formats. There are many ways of running critique groups. One popular method involves members reading aloud from their work while the group follows along on hard copies, making notes. After the reading, there’s a group discussion. I find this method frustrating in general but sometimes useful for moral support and fine-tuning. I’m a novelist and I need big-picture feedback on full manuscript drafts. However, this format works well for people who want to take a picture book, short piece of writing, or single scene to the next level.

Image from Creative Commons

Another format involves emailing work ahead of time to members, who then read it and prepare feedback (usually in writing) to be discussed at the meeting. I like this option better than the first; I think digestion time is conducive to stronger feedback.

However, after ten years of experimenting, I’ve decided writing groups eat up too much of my time without enough to show for it. I now focus exclusively on manuscript trades (or other trades) with trusted writer friends and beta readers.

Offer trades. Don’t lose sight of the fact that when you ask for feedback, you’re asking for a significant amount of work from someone. No matter how graciously your reader refuses, insist on a trade of some sort. If he or she is a novelist, offer a critique—even if it’s a future critique. If your reader is in another line of work, offer something. And don’t take no for an answer. Free babysitting, a gift card, a gift basket… something to show you recognize and appreciate his or her time and effort.

Don’t ask for another read too quickly on the heels of the first. (e.g. “I made some changes. Now could you read it again and tell me what you think?”) First of all, the changes you made probably aren’t as significant as you think they are. Second, it can be torture to reread anything but a cherished classic, let alone someone else’s work-in-progress. If at all possible, seek a different reader for the new draft.

Guide the feedback. Don’t be afraid to state exactly what you’re hoping to get out of a critique. “I’m ready to submit this and all I want is fine tuning and line editing.” Or “I’m struggling with the narrative arc, and need you to tell me where it feels slow.” Or “Can you read for Joanna’s character, paying attention to when you start to distrust her and when you know for sure she’s mentally ill?” Be specific and offer a written list of questions or areas of concern.

patienceBe patient. You handed off the manuscript yesterday, you’re doing the math, and if your book was really interesting, he’d have started last night and finished by now! So where’s his email? A joke, but not that far off from how some of us feel when handing off our newborn. Remember that the urgency is yours and yours alone. The manuscript is just another thing on your beta reader’s giant to-do pile. So cut him or her some slack. Don’t pester. I’d say two months is a fair wait before a nudge. (Although I’d skip nudging altogether if possible.

Notice trends. If you hear the same feedback from several readers, it’s definitely something to work on.

Know your readers and their talents. People have different kinds and levels of skill in offering feedback. Some are great at big-picture feedback. Some can nail plot problems and suggest fixes. Others have a feel for characters or language. And a few gems can do everything. Know your beta readers’ strengths and ask for critiques correspondingly. For instance, don’t give your copy editor friend a first draft. Do ask your character-savvy reader to take a look at an early draft to give a thumbs up or down to your cast.

I thought I’d stop with ten, but this one has to be said. Enjoy the process, take the criticism, and realize that none of this is a huge deal in the grand scheme. We’re just lucky to be writing!