by Barbara Linn Probst
At some point in the process of writing a book—or, more likely, at several points—we ask others to let us know what they think of our story. Seeking (and using) peer and professional feedback is a critical part of the writing process. Developmental editors, critique partners, beta readers, workshop leaders, sensitivity readers, friends—we ask different people, for different reasons, and at different times. When they respond, there can be disappointment, painful surprise, and resentment, as well as welcome validation and useful advice.
We all like praise and encouragement, yet we know that tough love is needed too. What’s the right balance? A recent article in Lit Hub makes the point that “too much directive feedback can be dangerous if you lose confidence in your own vision.”
Insufficient feedback can be dangerous too, of course, leading to a complacency that can keep you from growing as a writer. The key word in both cases is can—sometimes it’s dangerous, and sometimes it isn’t.
We need to ask ourselves:
- How can I decide which kind of feedback is helpful, when, and from whom? Is all feedback equally valuable?
- Is there such a thing as too much feedback?
- Should I act on all the feedback I get? If I don’t, does it mean I’m closed and defensive? If I do, does it mean I lack confidence in my own vision?
As we think about these questions, it’s helpful to keep three elements in mind:
- Whom we’re asking, peers or professionals?
- Why we’re asking. Do we want a response to the story as a whole or help with a specific aspect of craft, such as pacing or character development?
- When we’re asking. Is this an early draft, a close-to-ready manuscript, or something in between?
With these elements as a framework, let’s look at the two sources of feedback we might seek and receive, as well as their uses and limitations.
This is often, though not always, part of a reciprocal arrangement with a critique group or writing partner. Each person shares what she likes and doesn’t like the other person’s work, according to a mutual agreement about frequency, number of pages, etc. Typically, feedback is ongoing, given in chunks rather than on the book as a whole.
An advantage of this approach is that you can obtain ongoing feedback from multiple readers at once, especially when there’s a scene or element that’s troubling you—and before you’ve gone too far down a road that isn’t working.
The utility of this kind of arrangement depends on the skill, candor, and sensitivity of those with whom you’re exchanging pages. Responses can be “too kind” for fear of discouraging you or injuring the relationship or, in contrast, inappropriately critical. Your reader might also respond from her notion of how she would have written the scene.
Are you obliged to act on the feedback you receive from peers? Should you view it as valuable advice (ignored at your peril) or personal opinion (taken at your discretion)?
On the one hand, writing is an art form, so there aren’t any ironclad rules. You shouldn’t assume that you have to adopt every single suggestion your critique partners offer. Being discriminating and being defensive aren’t the same thing.
At the same time, if several peers point out a similar problem, it’s probably something you ought to address. It’s important not to assume that being a novice writer (as is often the case in critique groups) means that the person’s feedback isn’t worth much. Someone can be a sensitive and skillful reader—really good at pinpointing the gaps and weaknesses in what she reads—even if she herself isn’t (yet) a terribly skillful writer.
At some point, however, you may decide that you need (or want) to turn to a paid professional. When should you do that? Again, there’s no ironclad rule. However, some indications are:
- If you have concerns about your work that peers simply haven’t helped with
- If the response of peers is so “consistently inconsistent” that the resultant confusion is starting to overwhelm or paralyze you
- If external factors (such as a deadline for a requested revision) are indicating a more rapid or intense evaluation than peers can provide
- If you can’t help feeling that the response of a paid professional is more legitimate and that, without it, you won’t feel that your book has been sufficiently scrutinized.
There are the people whose feedback we pay for, whether they’re called developmental editors, mentors, or coaches. Their services—and the fees they charge—vary greatly. Services can include a detailed narrative report, line edits on every page, a follow-up phone conversation, or simply a general assessment of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses; fees can be hourly or task-specific.
Since this is a business relationship, it’s important to have mutual clarity before agreeing to work together about what’s covered and when the report can be expected. There are too many stories of unhappy writers who felt “ripped off” by a developmental editor whose feedback was vague, late, or consisted of a roster of “problems” that the editor would be happy to address—at an additional cost, of course. Similarly, there are coaches who’ve been unfairly maligned by writers who didn’t get the praise they expected.
Whether professional feedback is worth the price tag is a personal decision. If you do choose to hire a professional editor, you should make sure she’s experienced in your genre and can provide recent, trustworthy references. Ideally, ask for a “test” critique of sample pages so you can assess the fit between her approach and your expectations.
You should also examine your own willingness to listen to what the editor has to say! Good developmental editors often deliver a big wallop of tough love. That’s what makes them good—and what will make your book better, once you recover from the shock and get to work.
It can be useful to return to the same developmental editor for a follow-up consultation after you’ve made the revisions he or she suggested. The repeated feedback can provide a series of data points to help you chart your progress in addressing the story’s weaknesses.
At a certain point, however, you may want to seek a fresh pair of eyes, someone whose mind is free from memories of prior versions of the manuscript and can respond to what’s actually on the page. Of course, a second professional may give advice that’s in direct opposition to what the first person told you! It doesn’t necessarily mean that one is right and the other wrong, or that it’s all arbitrary. You may have gone too far in correcting one issue, only to create another; cleaning up certain flaws may reveal subtler problems, possibly because the first editor didn’t want to overwhelm you. In my experience, each mentor has something important to offer, and multiple perspectives can provide a useful balance.
There are also paid beta reading services, typically with a much lower price tag than a developmental editor. The main difference between paid beta readers and paid coaches (in general) is that beta readers will tell you what’s not working but not necessarily how to fix it. They’re skilled readers, not writing instructors.
The beta reading service may have its own list of items, and/or allow you to specify what you’d like to focus on. Both are useful. Experienced beta readers know what to look for, yet you as author will have specific concerns. Here too, there’s a great variety in the depth and scope of feedback.
In my experience, a professional mentor is more useful at the early stages of a book’s development, while a beta reader is more useful midway or after a major revision. The professional mentor will help you to shape the story; the beta reader will let you know if you’ve succeeded and where more work may be needed.
What should you do with the feedback, once you’ve gotten it?
Returning to the questions at the beginning of this essay—how much is enough, and how can you make sense of the feedback you receive?
Here are some principles that I’ve found helpful:
- Pace yourself. Don’t ask too for too much at once. Focus on one major aspect at a time if you can. Digest what you’ve gotten before asking for more.
- Try it on. Think what if and play with changing your story the way the reviewer suggested. You may decide that you don’t want to do that, but try it first!
- Organize your feedback. Summarize the feedback and put it into categories, like pacing or character relationships. It can also be helpful to date the feedback so you can see how you’ve addressed this element over various drafts.
- Prioritize. Pay more attention to the identification of problems than to suggested solutions. Reviewers may come up with different solutions, but if they all point to the same problem, like stakes or motivation, then it probably is a problem. You might end up with your own solution—rather than a “camel” cobbled together by trying to do what every single person advises.
- Consider the source. Are there any potential biases at work, either in the reader’s perception—or in yours? Beware of thoughts like: “She doesn’t appreciate my kind of writing” and “I paid so much for this, so she must be right.”
- Come back later. Sometimes you’ll see things in a different light after you’ve been away for a while.
- Keep all of it. You may be tempted to throw out some of the comments that you’re certain are wrong—but don’t. Set them aside and look at them again later.
I like to think of it this way: we learn something from every bit of feedback we receive, although sometimes the lesson isn’t clear right away. It might crystalize in your next book, not this one!
What about you? Who critiques your work or offers feedback? What feedback has proven most useful to you, and why? Share your experiences with us down in the comments!
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launches in April 2021.
Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and blogs for several award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/