When we write, we feel close to our characters, world, and story. That closeness feels amazing and is part of why we write, right? But there’s also a downside: we lose objectivity about the world we’re building, the draft we’re writing, and the query package we’re putting together. The line between what’s in our minds about our story and what’s actually on the page becomes blurred until we can’t tell the difference anymore.
That’s where feedback comes in!
Get us out of our heads–give us perspective.
Allow us to have what’s actually on the page reflected for us, so we don’t think something is there that’s only in our heads.
Allow us to understand how our readers perceive our characters.
Give us the opportunity to improve our stories–whether that’s through a full rewrite, solving a plot hole or two, or by strengthening or removing a subplot.
As a writer, you probably already knew you needed to get feedback on your manuscript at some point. What isn’t talked about much, however, is that not all feedback is created equal. Before handing off your manuscript to your sister’s boyfriend or your great-aunt, do yourself a favor and read the following.
Not All Feedback is Created Equal
You might be thinking, “But Katie, feedback is feedback, right? If I want to improve my writing, shouldn't I be able to take criticism and apply it?”
Yes, you should be able to take criticism. (Being an author takes a thick skin!) But there is a big difference between getting constructive criticism from someone who knows what they’re talking about (and can be objective about it) and getting criticism–that may or may not be constructive–based solely on the subjective experience of how your manuscript matches up with their likes (or dislikes) as a reader.
As a writer, you can’t–and shouldn’t–try to please every single person who reads your work. Remember: classics have haters too. Yet those stories are beloved by many and continue to impact people’s lives.
Before you solicit feedback, there are two crucial things to determine:
What kind of feedback you’re looking for.
Who can provide that kind of feedback.
What Kinds of Feedback Should You Look For?
The answer to this question really depends on your answers to the following questions:
What do you want out of getting feedback?
Feedback isn’t helpful if you’re just getting it as a checkmark. It’s important to reflect on what your goals are–in other words, what you want out of getting feedback.
Ask yourself, “Am I looking for feedback on…
my story as a whole?”
the pacing, story structure, points of view, etc.?”
my prose, including word choice and sentence structure?”
the experience readers from my target audience have while reading my book?”
how I can improve my chances of landing an agent by strengthening my query package?”
The answers to these questions will direct you toward particular feedback sources, which we’ll look at in a minute.
Where are you at in the writing process?
A writer who is working on plotting a new novel idea is in a very different spot than someone who has a manuscript they’ve revised as best they can on their own. I recommend breaking the writing process into the following categories as you consider what kind of feedback you need:
Plotting/Planning - here you need feedback from someone who can look at the bigger picture and see how the plot and character arcs are functioning separately and together.
Drafting - big picture feedback.
Completed draft - big picture feedback.
Polished draft - ideally would have already been revised in response to big picture feedback; now can seek out feedback related to smaller pieces (scenes, sentences, etc.).
Query-ready - at this point the manuscript should be done, except possibly tightening up the first few chapters. This feedback would be more on how the query letter and synopsis are or aren’t working.
So, where are you in the writing process? As you consider where to get feedback from, make sure that source matches up with where you are in the process.
What type of financial investment are you able to make?
Some feedback sources are more costly than others, but there’s a reason you considered your feedback goals and where you are in the writing process before weighing the investment required. Why? Because taking cheap or free feedback that doesn’t help you meet your goals is a waste of time as well as potentially detrimental, confusing, and discouraging.
Think about your goals for your writing. Is it a hobby you dabble in occasionally? Are you looking to build a writing career and quit your day job? Where does writing fall on your priorities list?
Depending on your financial situation, you might have to consider making some adjustments to your spending in order to prioritize writing in your budget. But you won’t know what your priorities are unless you take the time to really consider what kind of investment you could make in your writing.
Here’s a graph I made comparing a variety of feedback sources, all of which we’ll look at with more detail in the subsequent section. The horizontal axis represents the investment required and the vertical axis represents the level of 1:1 support received from that feedback source:
Where Can I Get Feedback From?
There are many places from which you can get feedback, and which one you choose will depend on a variety of factors–including cost, stage in the process, what kind of support you need, your publishing goals, etc.
Beta Readers are people who read a revised manuscript and give feedback about their experience of the story. Some beta readers will read for free, while others charge a small fee for their time. Ideally your beta readers will be well-versed in your book’s genre conventions. When you’re ready to have beta readers, it’s a good idea to have 5-7 beta readers look over your manuscript–fewer than that and you’re not really getting a good spectrum of reader experiences; more and you’re likely to get overwhelmed by the amount of feedback.
Book Coaches and Critique Partners
Book Coaches can support writers at any point in the writing process. Some book coaches, like me, are certified through the Author Accelerator Book Coach Certification program, which is an intensive program that trains coaches how to deliver feedback, not just how to determine what feedback is needed. Book coaches often specialize in a particular genre or type of writer, and they often have particular programs, courses, or packages that writers can engage with. While working with a book coach is an investment, Critique Partners are fellow writers who you agree to exchange pages with. While having a critique partner won’t cost you money, it will be an investment of time because you’ll also be giving them feedback on a regular basis. You will also need to make sure that whoever you partner with is familiar with your genre conventions, knows your goals for the manuscript, and is able to give honest feedback in a supportive way.
Creative Writing Classes
Creative Writing Classes are offered through community colleges, online, etc. Often, they will focus on writing short stories, or even stand-alone scenes, to practice elements of writing craft. If you’re looking for something that will provide accountability for writing something, help you practice specific skills, and give you the opportunity to get some feedback, then a creative writing class might be a good fit. However, keep in mind that creative writing teachers won’t know what your goals are, will set what kinds of things you write, and that often you’ll get feedback from the other students–who may be far less advanced in their writing skills than you.
Editors can work at a variety of feedback levels, but typically they look at a completed manuscript in isolation from the writer. Levels of editing include: structural editing, developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. There aren’t currently standard industry definitions for each of these levels, so it’s important to discuss exactly what an editor is going to do before you hire them. Some levels of editing involve both comments throughout the manuscript and an editorial letter; other levels only produce corrections and comments in the document.
Workshops are often a hybrid of a writing group and a creative writing class. The teaching portion can be focused on a particular element of writing craft or other writing-related topic. Then there’s time to apply that concept to either something you’re drafting or something you’re revising (depending on the workshop), before you share your writing with the group.
Writing Groups are similar to critique partners in that you’re giving feedback as well as receiving it. However, writing groups often meet in person or virtually and one person reads their work aloud at a time and then it is critiqued. This typically means that you will get feedback on fewer pages at a time. You also don’t have as much control over who you are getting feedback from, as you aren’t able to pick and choose who is in the group.
Writing Conferences include seminars, meet and greets, etc. Often there is an opportunity to sign up and pitch an agent, who will then give you a bit of feedback on the story based on your pitch. There is also often the opportunity to submit your query package–including sample pages–ahead of time and then meet with an agent to discuss, which is likely the most feedback you’d get at the conference.
As you can see, not all feedback sources offer the same level of support or type of feedback, and they cover different parts of the writing process. Remember: not all feedback is created equal!
Make sure to select the feedback source that:
Helps you reach your writing goal.
Matches where you are in the writing process.
Correlates with the financial investment you’re willing/able to make.
Gives you the support you deserve.
And I bet that your sister’s boyfriend or your great-aunt won’t make the cut. ;)
Meet Katie Wall
Katie Wall is the revision guru at Craft Better Books. As an Author Accelerator certified book coach, and with 10+ years of editing experience, she is able to hone in on what is and isn’t working in a manuscript and then guide writers to craft a better book.
She lives with her husband, fellow book coach Andrew Wall, their two kids, and their cat in the PNW. When she’s not reading, writing, or book coaching, you can find her enjoying the outdoors or doing projects with her hands (like sewing and knitting).