WHEN TO ASK FOR FEEDBACK
The best time to give your work to others to read will depend on where you are up to with your work-in-progress. You might be just beginning your manuscript and want to talk over your ideas. You might be part way through a draft and can’t work out the way forward. You might have completed numerous drafts and need a different perspective. You might want to know why you you’ve been knocked back by an agent or publisher.
Asking for feedback at any stage helps you break out of the isolation of writing – you are no longer working in a void, wondering whether or not you understand what is required of you or whether you are communicating what you intend. By seeking feedback from others, you are taking positive steps to develop as a writer.
WHO TO ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Choose your readers carefully and, more importantly, be clear about what you are wanting from them and what you can expect. Clarify this for yourself before you give your work to anyone.
Family, friends and colleagues
Are you after affirmation that the years of effort you have put into the manuscript have been worth it? Are you wanting family members to understand where your head has been at all this time? It’s fine to say yes to both of those things; they’re valid reasons for giving the work to people close to you. But don’t expect your mother or work colleague to give you a detailed critique or to be completely honest. You may get some idea of the emotional impact of the work by their response, but people who know you well are unlikely to tell you if they didn’t like it. And would you want them to?
Writing groups can be exceptionally beneficial to writers. You may expect more nuanced and detailed criticism from fellow writers, but be mindful that their responses to your work will be filtered through their own writing experience and aspirations. They may be unconsciously influenced by some aspect of their own work they are dealing with. Perhaps exploit this. If someone in your writing group has a particular strength – description, word choice, characters, dialogue – ask them for feedback about that.
Professional manuscript assessors
An independent, professional assessor is experienced in critically engaging with manuscripts and in giving feedback that draws attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the current draft. You don’t have to send your work to an assessor before submitting it to an agent of publisher, but it is widely . An assessment is a health check, a reality check.
Anyone can put their shingle up as a manuscript assessor. Shop around, but don’t only choose on price. Ask what you will receive for your money. Look for testimonials. Look for information about the professional experience of editors/assessors. Are they familiar with your genre? Make sure the business arrangements are clear and ask for them in writing. The assessor or agency should be more than happy to answer questions you have about the process.
Clearly there is an element of subjectivity in an assessment, just as there is in a publisher’s decision to publish, but good assessors are able to consider the manuscript on its own terms, assessing whether you have succeeded in writing the book you want to write, and offering advice on how to take it to the next level of development.
Another avenue for professional feedback is through pitching sessions at writing events and conferences where you can pitch your story idea to publishers, agents and editors face-to-face. Keep an eye out in industry publications and websites for opportunities. The Australian Society of Authors also runs virtual pitching sessions as part of their Literary Speed Dating program. Some pitching programs ask you to pre-submit a synopsis and sample chapters and this is a relatively cheap way of getting feedback on part of your work.
HOW TO ASK FOR FEEDBACK
Be as specific as possible. For example, I’m interested to know whether I have communicated enough sense of time and place. Can you tell me whether the dialogue is convincing? Is there enough going on in the opening chapters to engage you? If you are after more generalised feedback, it can still be helpful to guide the reader with specific questions: Are you curious about what happens next? Why? Why not? What are you left thinking about at the end? What are the sections/characters that stand out the most? Where does the pace lag?
Even if your readers can’t answer the exact questions, they at least help both you and them to have an idea of what sort of feedback you’re after. Asking a general question such as What do you think? can elicit all sorts of responses, but not necessarily be helpful.
So, what do you do now, with all that feedback? Take a deep breath. And another. Yes, you no doubt more work to do, but bottom line, remember that the feedback you get – constructive feedback – is about the story on the page, not about who you are.