What Kind of Feedback are you Getting?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Last week in my post Who Should Read Your Unpublished Work, we discussed how to select your beta readers or critique partners. We talked about the qualifications a reader might need to be able to give you useful feedback on your manuscript.

Today I’d like to take it a step further and talk about what kind of feedback you should be getting at various stages in the writing process. If you’re in a critique group or have a critique partner… if you regularly share your writing with someone who gives you suggestions for changes and corrections along the way… if you’re sharing pages of your work-in-progress (WIP) with someone who copyedits you along the way…

There may be too many cooks in your kitchen.

And you may be in danger of any number of pitfalls: losing your voice, losing your motivation, or getting STUCK.

red pen spilling inkI’ve had conversations with two authors recently who each told me they were “stuck” and needed my help. They couldn’t seem to move forward on their manuscripts. Careful digging on my part revealed that both of these authors were writing chapters, then allowing a writer/editor friend to look them over, offering critique and feedback. Sounds normal, right? Wrong. In both cases, the person offering the advice wasn’t clear on what type of advice is appropriate for an author working on the first draft of a creative piece.

Here’s what’s NOT appropriate:

Copyediting or line editing. That means: correcting grammar, punctuation, capitalization, redundancies, typos, format, specific word choices, awkward phrasings.

Here’s what’s appropriate to discuss in the first-draft stage:

For fiction:

Plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, flow, scene-crafting, dramatic structure, hook, point-of-view, suspense, readability, author’s style and voice, general appeal and overall fiction technique. Basically: Is it a good story?

For non fiction:

Structure, clarity of ideas, logical flow, continuity, readability, transitions, author voice, clear and concise arguments and explanations, interest level and general appeal.

When you’re in the first-draft writing stage, you need to pay attention to big-picture issues.

Later, in revisions, you will worry about more detailed concerns.

If you get too concerned about a word here and a comma there, you risk becoming flat stuck in no time. It’s a left-brain, right-brain thing. Let those right-brain creative juices flow, unhampered by the logical, rational left-brain.

The right brain is known for looking at wholes, i.e. big picture. That’s where your creativity comes from. The left brain is characterized by looking at parts, i.e. tiny details. That’s where your ability to edit and rewrite comes from. Don’t try to do both at one time! That’s why you get stuck. Your right and left brain are tripping over one another.

I recommend critique partners and beta readers all the time.

What concerns me is when they’re not functioning in their intended manner. The members may not be aware of what level of feedback is necessary and appropriate at which stage of the writing process.

Evaluate your crit group and editorial helpers.

Determine if what they’re doing is helping you or hampering you. Decide if you can gently lead your partners in a more productive direction, or if you need to stop showing them your work. Sometimes all it takes is to clearly ask them for what you need: “I’m not interested in detail editing, I want to know what you think of my overall voice in these few pages and if you think the plot is headed in the right direction. How’s my character development? Am I maintaining your interest, or does it get boring?”

Often writers say things like, “My beta reader is an English teacher, and she’s great at grammar.” Grammar is terrific, but it’s not the focus of your first draft. You may want to rethink the choice of the English teacher for this stage of the game.

What kind of feedback are you getting from your critique partners or beta readers? Is it the appropriate feedback for your stage of writing?


16 Responses

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Great essay, Rachelle!
    * Generally, the feedback for which I ask is craft-oriented, including characterization, plotting, continuity, and pacing.
    * I don’t look for ‘voice advice’, because at this point I have a voice that’s not perfect – it can be a bit too flippant and ironic – but it does appeal to my target audience, and I’m accustomed to writing it. Like Lee Trevino’s golf swing (remember him?) it’s no thing of beauty, but at some point you gotta grove what you got.

  2. CJ Myerly says:

    This is so helpful. I’m new to critique groups as I just joined the ACFW in December. I’ve learned so much, but lately it seems like all the advice given to me is about grammar (which often are the gray areas of grammar) and wording. I hear very little about voice, and character or plot development. I have a few critique partners who have given me positive feedback on development. I thought it was appropriate for my stage of writing, but now I’m wondering. I’m re-reading through the beginning of my manuscript and noticing some things I wish I hadn’t changed. It’s definitely a learning game.

  3. Jason Sautel says:

    Love this. Thank you.

  4. I critiqued some early writing with grammar that made me cringe, and I pretty much let that go. But the verbs! I’d circle a few and suggest that more action would keep the story moving. It felt like I was hiking through the story wearing mud-caked boots.
    * It is called a “critique” but it shouldn’t be all criticism. A good critique should include comments on what works well–“great transition here,” “nice dialogue,” “this bit of backstory is perfect here.” All criticism and no praise makes the writer feel caked with mud and going nowhere.

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    I’m a plotter, not a pantser. That may affect the best way to work with betas and critique partners, but here’s what I do that works really well for me.
    *Before I send something to my critique partner and my beta readers, I’ve usually finished the manuscript and completed the first tightening edit. At that point, I’m asking them to identify any place that is weak: moving too fast or too slow, characters not acting, talking, and responding to each other like real people, inconsistencies of any sort. All know they are supposed to tell me even the smallest thing that they think can be improved, but the relatively polished state of what I give them makes that less painful for them than a rough first draft would be.
    *I have on a few occasions shared a particularly fun or moving scene with one or two to test its effect, and I had all read the first chapter of the sequel that I included at the end of my novel that just released. That needed to be a fully polished as the finished work, so I wanted their input.
    *I treasure their time and effort, and I try not to waste either.

  6. Jeanette Raymond says:

    Thank you Rachelle,
    It’s been a journey of give and take, learning after the fact for me. When I look back at all the time wasted working on format and grammar before looking at the whole picture it amazes me I didn’t lose all the hair on my head lol. God is so good. If we seek Him we find Him when we search for Him with all our heart. Same applies for me in this scenario, I realized how little I knew of the process, by seeking the answers to how the process works. I’m thankful for all of the advice here I’ve read and for all available out there today for aspiring writers. I appreciate those willing to help and those who are newly learning, and in the process I am able to pay it forward and help back, as those who came before me have done for me.

  7. I appreciate all the feedback I’ve received, even the grammar helps. No one knows our stories better than we do, and I think it’s up to us to appreciate feedback and filter it. Use what we deem necessary. One thing I do know is that I can’t blame anyone for messing up my story. Because right now, I wouldn’t make any major changes unless a trusted agent or professional in the business recommended it.
    *I don’t feel capable of giving quality feedback at this point in my journey. I’m struggling to wrestle my own works into shape. Until I have a professional backing me, go through the publishing process, and work one-on-one with those who do know what they’re talking about, I’m not sure I’ll feel quite qualified.

    • Mary Kay Moody says:

      Shelli, I’d like to encourage you if you’re asked for a critique. Many problems in a book can be pinpointed by a reader even WHEN the reader doesn’t know WHY something doesn’t work. And that is helpful feedback for a writer to hear. Sure, there are some things you may not know about the business/trends, and professional or tech issues. But you’re a reader and can tell when a story loses your interest, you notice repetition, the characters behave in a way that detracts from the story or is inconsistent. You have much to offer.

      The only issue for an author is if she asked ONLY you to give a critique. We have 7 in our critique group ~ and most have an area they particularly notice. Yes, one focuses on grammar, but also clarity of story and Biblical accuracy. One always seems to notice what isn’t included but would make the story deeper. The variety of strengths is very interesting. So, just a thought. Happy to hear how well your story is coming together. You go, girl!

  8. David Todd says:

    I’ve not had good results with beta readers or critique partners. When I ask non-writers to be beta readers, and give them an idea of what feedback I’d like, all I get “I loved it!” or I never hear from them again. I might ask my brother-in-law to be a beta reader, and never hear from him again.
    When I ask writers to do a critique, offering to critique them back, all I ever get are content edits and proofreading. Plus they never ask me to critique anything, so I don’t feel comfortable sending them another work when I’ve not put some reciprocal effort into theirs.
    So, this morning I burned my critique energy on three poems at a poetry critique site, something I haven’t done in six months. It felt good.

    • David, I think sometimes, people just don’t know how to help. It’s a daunting task. And well, they may have been the wrong one to ask, but you just don’t know until you ask and find out. Scratch that person off the list. 🙂

  9. Such wise words, Rachelle. I have had similar difficulties with reading craft books in the wrong order. I read “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” before finishing my rough draft and tripped myself up big time. Then I read “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” about how to make a vast and twisty plot and deep and complicated characters before I had solidified what I needed in a basic plot. When I was asked to speak at our local high school’s career day, I told the kids to look at the craft books they were reading and determine when they should be read, before a first draft is written or after.

  10. I’ve weeded out the chaff, shall we say, of beta readers. I’m not trying to be harsh but I also don’t want to waste anyone’s time or effort.
    It’s much easier now to figure out who ‘gets’ my writing and offers excellent help and advice, and who just wants something free to read.
    My crit partner and I know each other’s style, and we’re not afraid of saying things like “what this scene needs is more…blood and guts. And make sure the MC remembers that he’s got a bullet through his RIGHT shoulder when he removes the saddle bag” or “I’m wondering if you know how bad your spelling is? Because you could win a gold medal for that last word” without getting offended.
    The longer we’re at this, the deeper the trust needs to be with betas and CPs. Also, they need to understand the worldview in which our work is based, and respect that we know our stuff. Questions about tipis or who’s on the throne of England in 1776 are a waste of time, thus, it’s important to choose betas and CPs wisely.

  11. I feel very blessed because our critique group is helpful in the way you describe. I’ve also discovered that it is easier for me to continue on toward the end and not make the edits right away so that I can finish the manuscript and not get bogged down in rewriting the same chapters over and again.

  12. Mary Kay Moody says:

    I belong to a writing group and we have a critique group every month. I try to avoid submitting any work until the project is complete and, like Carol, I’ve gone through an edit. When working on a novel, often the beginning needs a huge reworking because the trajectory has shifted since the first draft. It’s a waste of time to have CPs work over scenes that may be cut, etc. Sometimes it’s a challenge staying that far ahead, but I think it’s important. It respects everyone’s time. Also, just like we writers, CPs can become so familiar with a scene or chapter that is repeatedly reworked and re-critiqued that they begin to lose objectivity and miss important elements.

    Thanks, Rachelle, for reminding us of the importance of timing. My first writing instructor stressed the left brain/right brain issue & strongly encouraged just writing a project before you begin editing. I’ve found the energy and enthusiasm for the project remains higher that way.

  13. Very helpful. Makes sense that both sides of the brain are tripping over one another.

  14. The feedback I get most frequently has to do with flow of ideas – anything that makes the reader say, “Huh? What do you mean by that?” Or, “You totally lost me here. Shouldn’t this be someplace else?” One dear member of my critique group is great about knocking on my head for paragraphs that get too long. It amazes me over and over how something that is SO clear in my own mind can say something completely different to a reader.