Monday, April 3, 2017

Tips for Getting Feedback on Your Writing



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.


I have never been a particularly thick-skinned person. I embarrass easily, I have issues with perfectionism, and receiving feedback on my writing often feels like I'm bracing for a punch.

But feedback is an important part of turning your manuscript into a book that people want to read. My editor and I were talking recently, and she commented that she can tell when a manuscript has already had lots of feedback before landing on her desk. This intrigued me, so I asked if she could be more specific. She said:
A lot of it is the level of polish (no typos, clear transitions, etc.), but what’s most evident is usually plot. By the time I’m getting a submission, I shouldn’t be seeing gaping plot holes or finding confusing/unnecessary scenes—rounds of revision and a good critique partner would catch those things. I may still have changes, of course, but manuscripts that have strong flow and a well-executed plot definitely show signs of hard work.
Maybe you are the fortunate writer who looks forward to getting feedback so you can improve your story. Maybe you have loads of writing friends (or at least reader friends) who are happy to read your manuscripts.

Or maybe you're like I was as a young writer. I felt anxious about being told what was wrong with my story. And even if I did want feedback, I had nobody outside of my parents to ask.


Wherever you are on that spectrum, here are seven tips for soliciting, preparing for, and incorporating feedback:

Ask only people who have your best interests at heart.

Showing somebody the writing you've poured your heart into is a vulnerable thing, especially when you're just starting out. Even now, nine years after my debut novel hit shelves, I hesitate just a moment before submitting a new book idea or a proposal to my agent. 

From experience, I can tell you that if the reader doesn't have your best interest at heart, they can say things that leave you wounded for years. 

Maybe you're thinking, "But when I start submitting to agents and editors, they're not going to be gentle with me. I need the practice." 

There's truth to that, but it's different when you're submitting your best possible work to a professional versus when you're trying to get feedback on a piece that you know still needs help. At that vulnerable creation stage, you need people who will be honest but kind.

If you're looking for other young writers to build critiquing relationships with, you can leave comments on this post, or join the Go Teen Writers Community Facebook group. (To expedite your acceptance, send an email to GoTeenWritersCommunity(at)gmail.com to say you'd like to join. We try to be extremely careful about who we let in!)

Consider starting small.

If you're just getting used to receiving feedback, I wouldn't recommend sending your entire manuscript to someone. Especially someone who has never critiqued for you.

Rather I would suggest something as small as a story description. It's helpful if the person who's critiquing for you is interested in your story. If they like the story description, then consider asking them to read and provide feedback for the first 1-3 chapters.

Be specific about your needs.

When I first grew brave and started soliciting feedback from writing friends, I would send out chapters with a, "Here they are! Tell me what you think!" kind of email. Some critiquers would nitpick writing rules, like backstory or POV violations. Others would line edit the whole thing.

I hadn't told them what kind of feedback was helpful, so they didn't know where to focus.

Finally I figured out that I needed to be specific. That I needed to enclose my chapters with an email that said something like, "Here are my chapters. I don't need line edit stuff yet because right now I'm wanting to make sure the character motivations make sense. Would you pay particular attention to the transition of my character's motives in chapter two? I'm not sure about how that's coming across."

Not only was I receiving the kind of feedback I really needed, my critiquers weren't wasting time and energy on edits that I didn't need.

Be respectful.

Unless you're in a writing group where you workshop raw material, don't waste time having first drafts critiqued.

The readers have to dig through so much that they can't offer as strong or clear of feedback. And unless you all are swimming in time, there's only so many read-throughs of a book that a person can do. Only look for critiquers when you've invested time in cleaning up the draft, which is when their feedback will have the biggest impact.

If the other person is a writer, I would encourage you to offer to read for them too. There's no need to try to make everything perfectly fair, but if you ask them to read your chapter, then it's respectful to read their chapter as well.

If the other person is in more of a mentor role (they're already published or contracted, for example), they might not need you to critique for them, but you can still show your appreciation. You can do this by following their social media accounts or leaving a review for one of their books.

One last thing note about being respectful: As a critiquer, it's frustrating to offer feedback to someone, only for them to argue every point you make. While there's no need to agree with everything they say, this person is giving their time to help you. Even if they're completely wrong or misguided in their feedback, there's a way to respond that isn't argumentative. ("I'll consider that suggestion, thank you.")

Give yourself time to hang out with the feedback before you do anything with it.

Feedback elicits a variety of responses from me:
  • That's so obvious, why didn't I see it?
  • What an interesting insight. But if I make that change, is it changing the story for the better, or just making it different?
  • No, I'm going to ignore that.
  • Ugh. That comment bugs me. 
That last one is the slipperiest reaction of them all. Sometimes I'm annoyed because I was misunderstood. In that situation, I have to look at how valid the comment is, and if I need to change pieces of my story to make myself clearer.

Other times I'm annoyed because I think they might be right, and I don't want them to be right because that sounds like a ton of work.

This is when it can be very valuable to have several readers. If multiple people make the same comment, you know you need to pay attention. But sometimes only one person makes the suggestion, and you can't tell if you need to make the change or not. Then it's helpful to be able to discuss the dilemma with others who read the story.

Don't feel like you need to immediately jump into edits. Sometimes when I receive feedback, I have to let it soak in for a few days before I feel ready, and that's okay.

Make a list of the suggested changes.

If you're using a word processing program that allows tracked changes, you might have an overwhelming mess that you're trying to sort through.

I know that's what happened to me when I was in critique groups. Everyone would read from the same document, so I had not only a ton of comments to read, but also others would respond to comments that people had left, agreeing, disagreeing, or suggesting alternatives. 

I found the process of incorporating all the feedback so overwhelming that I wasn't at all sad when the group dissolved!

What I wish I knew then was how to make a list of suggested changes. Jill talked about this in her post on Two Ways To Tackle A Major Rewrite, but the best way I've found to start making changes is to start by listing all of them, and then arranging them in the order of biggest change to smallest.

Instead of tackling the issues chronologically, I take care of all the big changes first, and then work through the small ones. 

If possible, stagger your readers

Even though I had written a lot of books before The Lost Girl of Astor Street, this was my first historical mystery. I was so nervous about failing or abandoning it, I wrote the entire first draft without mentioning it to my agent.

After completing my second draft, I asked Roseanna White to read it for me. I asked her because she writes historicals, so I figured she could tell me what I had screwed up genre wise. I also asked her because she knew how nervous I was, and I trusted her to express criticism with kindness.

After making Roseanna's changes, I told my agent about the book, and she asked to read it. After she read it, I made her changes, and then I had Shannon and Jill both read it. (Normally I would have had Shan and Jill read before my agent, so I think that just had to do with timing.)

The great thing about staggering readers like this is I didn't have four people coming back to me saying, "Your villain doesn't show up until 3/4 of the way through the book, and you need to revise it." I could make that change just based on Roseanna's feedback, and then I could test out how my changes worked on the next few readers.

If you have the luxury of staggering readers, I highly recommend it.

How do you feel about receiving feedback? Love it? Hate it? Wish you had good critique partners? Let me know in the comments!




40 comments:

  1. I love getting feedback - even if it hurts, because I like knowing what I can do better. I like being able to figure out how I can improve... And I do a lot of it. :D
    I do wish I had some critique partners, partially because right now, my critiquers are my family which can get a little.... interesting. Because they know me, they either give it to me really hard, or just say, "That's really good." I like critiquers that aren't my family because they are providing honest, GOOD feedback that helps. And it's not as personal. If your mom says, "That's awful," you're going to listen and pay more attention to that than if a critique partner said it. :D

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    1. P.S. That's one reason I like the Friday prompts. :D

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    2. Haha, yes. I really need a critique partner. My critique is my sister...so a lot of times I get mad at her for telling me what she doesn't like. (That needs to stop.) :)

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    3. I long since stopped asking my sister to critique my work.... Because she tells me what she doesn't like instead of what I can do better, OR she doesn't phrase the feedback in a polite way. :D Yet another reason I like the Friday prompts/Unrelated people critiquing my work. They are a lot nicer with phrasing because they don't want to hurt your feelings. :D

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    4. The Friday prompts were Shannon's idea. I think they've been brilliant, and it's so fun having a place for people to practice giving and receiving feedback.

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    5. Yes, they often tell you what needs work, and build you up at the same time. I like that. My sister knows that my feelings are fragile when it comes to writing, so she takes an easy on me. She's a good helper. :)
      You just need to know that when people critique your writing, it's not about you personally. You're doing a good job, Lexi. :D

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    6. In my defense, I like people to give it to me straight. I've built a shell around my emotions, and I tend to think that others have too, so I don't watch myself very closely when I give feedback. It's a problem, and I'm working on being gentler with the feelings of other people.
      (I'm Lexi's sister)

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    7. I totally understand. Sometimes getting it straight will save a lot of pain. :)

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    8. By the way, did we not have a writing prompt last Friday?
      ~Mila

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    9. No, we didn't. Mrs. Dittemore listed the winners of the drawing. :)

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  2. I love feedback as long as people are kind about it. E.g.- If people kindly say that my writing needs work. I like knowing if people like it or don't like it, so that I know what needs changing, or what isn't clear.
    I agree with Lexi, the Friday prompts help me know what people like or don't like about how I write certain things. Also, criticism helps me know what people really think. I think that we all need criticism (lots of it sometimes), so that we can become better, clearer writers. I know that a lot of times when people read my work and tell me what they don't like about it, I take it personally. I kind of ignore it sometimes (which isn't a very good thing), and go my own way. That really doesn't help matters.
    Thanks for this post Mrs. Morrill! :)

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    1. I think it's really easy to take criticism personally. Even though I know it's not about me, it's about making the manuscript stronger, I still struggle.

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    2. Yeah, it is. I guess I feel that sense I wrote it, all the criticism goes to me. :\

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  3. I love feedback! I like it when people are kind about telling me if I should change something, but you can't usually find someone who is gentle about it that will tell you *everything*...
    I usually ask my sister to review my work. xD
    I agree with LHE and Lexi. The Friday prompts are SUPER helpful. You can tell what readers like and what they don't like by the feedback...
    Thanks for the wonderful post! ;D

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    1. Yes, it's so helpful to see what gets a reaction. That kind of immediate feedback is great.

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    2. I LOVE reviewing my talented sister's work. :)

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  4. I'm not as thin skinned as most writers, though I do have my moments. What helps me is to remember what my English teacher told me in High School, "If your first critique doesn't drip red, then the critiquer didn't do their job right." Because everyone's first drafts are bad and need to be fixed, so I can't be hurt when they point out the problems.

    It's something that I've had to remember now that I have started with beta readers. I've had to ask for three readers, because I started out with two but they completely disagreed on a major part of the story.

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    1. Oh, that's always an interesting situation. I've been in the same place before, and it's hard to figure out what would best serve the story.

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  5. I was going to say that it's nice to have more than just family critique your work...and that that's one reason why the Friday prompts are so great...but looks like that's not really necessary anymore! Thanks for the great post!
    ~J

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    1. Well, it's nice for us to see how popular they are. I mean, we had an idea because of the engagement level on those posts, but we like hearing likes and dislikes from you guys :)

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  6. I've never really liked receiving feedback, because I am a perfectionist. It used to always sort of hurt my feelings when people gave me any critiques about my book. Now I've moved past that a little, although I'm still very much a perfectionist, and I'm actually looking for people who will read my book and critique it. I'm not quite done with the second draft yet, so it will be a little bit before I can let people read the entire book. But it is something I'm trying to keep in mind for the future.

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    1. I feel you, Talia. I've gone through a really similar struggle. I hope you're able to find people who will give you honest feedback in a way that respects your sensitivities.

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  7. Receiving feedback can be interesting. I've gotten pretty upset and depressed about feedback I've received on one particular story, but in other cases I've been so appreciative. I think it definitely has to do with the tone of the feedback. It's so important that the people giving feedback do it with kindness. A tip would be to point out something good and something that needs changing, perhaps. I do think getting feedback is a good thing and I often ask my friends to look over my work early on before others.

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    1. I think the times that receiving feedback has felt the hardest is when I think a book is almost done ... and then the critiques come back that it needs serious work. And I can see that they're right. That always takes me a few days to get over!

      And I've had times where the critique was so unnecessarily harsh that I've stopped reading it because I feared otherwise it would damage the friendship. Sometimes a story just doesn't jive with someone, and I've had to learn how to tell the difference between helpful feedback and the not helpful variety.

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  8. This was very helpful. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!
    I am at the stage of editing in which I could really use a good critique to help me progress, so this is definitely something I need help with. I've been interested in exchanging critiques with some of the other writers who visit this blog, but I am concerned about assuring reciprocity of services and confidentiality (I know it's probably an irrational fear, but I know I'm not alone in paranoia). If I only know someone from online, is there a certain way I should handle exchange of information?
    On the topic of Friday prompts, I always look forward to them. I enjoy getting to write about new characters or view my old stories and characters in a different way. Thank you to Mrs. Dittemore for bringing those to us!

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    1. That's one reason that I encourage writers to start small. Try exchanging a chapter or two to begin with and see how that goes. Trust is something you'll need to earn from each other.

      Shannon is pretty swell :)

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  10. I only want to show my writing to people I know really well, but because they're really close, they just say 'that's a really good story' when I can tell there is stuff to be fixed. So, I don't really get feedback, just support, which is good but not what I'm going for. Any ideas?
    ~Mila

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    1. Do you have a really close friend that wouldn't share anything to anyone else? If they're kind, but will tell you if they don't like something, then that would be great. Also, if you want to do the prompts, then just make them up. That way, you can exercise your writing, but not give your own, personal work. I hope that answered your question. :)

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    2. I really like your name by the way. :D

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    3. Mila, I understand because I felt that way too. If you truly want feedback, I think you'll need to branch out on who you ask. Like I said in my post, starting small (exchanging just a chapter or two with someone) can be a good way to start building trust.

      And LHE's suggestion is a good one. The Friday prompts can be a good way to make connections and get feedback that you can apply without putting pieces of your story out there.

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    4. Thanks, that's helpful. I also remembered that the creative writing club at my school has an online site where we can share pieces of our writing with each other for feedback, which is helpful. On one of my short stories actually got feedback to look at the showing rather than telling article on here (which really helped a lot).
      ~Mila

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  11. This is such a good post! My book is going to two betas right now, and it's certainly nerve wracking. Especially since it's my first time sending anything to betas! I'm sending it as I edit, too, which is both scary and encouraging.

    Thank you for this!

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    1. I'm proud of you, Hannah! That's a big step!

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  12. I LOVE receiving feedback - even if it hurts, I know it'll help in the end ;). And I like when people give it to me straight instead of skirting around it to preserve my feelings (which honestly don't get hurt too bad when I get harsh critiques). I've had both alphas and betas and critique partners go through my work before, and they're always incredibly helpful. Thank you for this post!

    ~ Savannah
    scattered-scribblings.blogspot.com

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    1. I think it's great that you have such a healthy attitude about feedback, Savannah!

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  13. It really depends on the day, unfortunately, whether I can stand tough feedback or not. Though, at this point, since I haven't found anyone willing to give good critiques, I would take the tough critiques easier. Still, I think a person cushioning the negative in between positive stuff is really nice. One thing I've also noticed about me is I'll take the negative if the person gives me some suggestions on how to improve the issue I have or something to help my brain start brainstorming fixes. If they just give the negative, then I tend to feel hopeless.

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  14. It's funny because I think I'm so immersed in the English blogging and writing world that I can never share my work with them since I write in French XD But my parents are helpful for now ;) Other than that I have some friends that asy they're dying to read my drafts, but I always come up with an excuse... I think I always want my draft to be perfect before I show it to my friends - although that's nearly impossible.

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  15. I like this blog because your suggestions apply to other areas of life as well. I like that your suggestions cover how to ask for feedback (be specific), whom to ask, what to do with a critique (absorb, organize and then act), and how others might feel when they are being approached for their opinions (respect their time!).

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