Every writer needs feedback. Where do you get yours?
New writers are always urged to join a writing group. The opportunity to discuss the writing process and share your work with likeminded others can be rewarding. Their main value is helping the writer to keep at it. Regular meetings mean you must come up with something. Fellow members are probably your first readers. They offer encouragement and advice. Or do they?
Some groups are little more than social groups where people have an opportunity to read their work then sit back and accept the praise. There is nothing wrong with that if that is all you want. Others provide writing exercises to help develop skills (particularly helpful for new writers) and some bring in speakers.
I’ve belonged to several over the years and I have to say they vary enormously. Some have been helpful, but generally speaking, (with no disrespect to members especially in the one I currently attend) I remain sceptical about their value in terms of providing honest, unbiased feedback.
The best were a couple in which two members brought in copies of their work (this was the days before email which makes the process much easier) to distribute to two or three main ‘critics’. At the following meeting, the readers’ work was read and then the ‘critics’ gave their feedback before the floor was thrown open for general discussion. It is a system that can work well as it gives time for those giving feedback to consider the pieces and their response. However, it does work best when there is at least a core of good, experienced writers. Too many writers find the idea of having to give feedback too daunting claiming they do not feel qualified. We have tried the idea of finding three things you like about the piece and three you would change if it was yours, but finding volunteers can mean the onus always falls on the same people.
An alternative might lie in joining an online group. These may also be very specialised, concentrating on a particular field or even genre. Here I cannot speak from experience as I have never found one. They often appear to have closed membership. (Do get in touch if you know of one who would be prepared to accept a crime writer!)
I appreciate that there are many excellent writers’ groups out there that cater for the needs of a great many people. Even ones that provide excellent feedback. If you are lucky enough to be in one, rejoice!
Literary Editors and Agents
When I published my first novel, if you needed feedback, you paid for a literary editor before sending your baby to an agent or publisher.
It was an expensive outlay but, as my husband frequently pointed out, hobbies are expensive. (Hobby! Writing is a obsession, but I as I hadn’t yet been published, I could hardly call it a career.) If I played golf, I’d be spending far more on equipment and green fees and I dread to think how much he’s spent on all his cameras, lenses and tripods etc over the years.
You assumed your chosen editor was the expert and consequently accepted her comments and altered your manuscript accordingly.
So too with agents. If you were lucky enough to have your first few chapters returned with a scribbled note, or better still, a letter; you paid attention. It would be foolish to ignore someone who knows the business.
Writers’ conferences frequently give the writers the opportunity for a short interview with agents, editors and established published authors. Many will look at a chapter or two in advance.
Over the years, I’ve become a little more sceptical. The majority I’ve encountered have offered excellent ideas and advice, but some, even big names in the business, have been shall we say less than helpful. Yes, I know that sounds like sour grapes, but I’m sure many of you will know exactly what I mean. It would seem that the last thing these agents want is to take on new clients so why do they agree to attend the conference? (Like writers they need to raise their visibility!) That said, a wise writer needs a justifiable reason – not an excuse – for rejecting advice.
Today’s indie writer is more likely to turn to their beta readers. Back in the day, we had writing buddies (see my blog January 2013) a fellow writer whose work you respected. Now almost every writer will have beta readers. Preferably several. They fall into varies categories. Some, like my daughter (who is a reader not a writer) are excellent at the overall ‘feel’ of the novel – its plot, characters and their dialogue (He just wouldn’t say that, mother!’), its setting (So what were they eating?) and it’s pace (You need to get to that scene more quickly). Others are helpful with a detailed line by line edit. They have a great eye for the repeated words and ideas plus those imprecise words that add nothing. If you are very lucky, you may have people who are experts in certain areas (a police officer if you write crime for instance). I’m lucky enough to have all three.
The extent to which we are prepared to accept their suggestions has much to do with our trust in their judgements (writers whose work we admire, whose writing is similar to our own or who have specific knowledge of a topic) or, let’s admit it, whose ideas don’t involve a major rewrite! Sometimes the suggestions are so radical, it takes some soul searching to admit that, despite all the work involved, you will end up with a much better novel if you follow their advice. Yes, my dear daughter; the latest novel is far better for the weeks of work and all the trauma of the major rewrite you suggested!
Constructive criticism is essential for all writers. Far better to face the harsh truth at the pre-publication stage than to discover the masterpiece over which you toiled so lovingly and for so long and thought you’d polished to perfection is greeted by a clutch of 1* and 2* star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads for all to see.