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When to Get Feedback on Your Writing

Katie Khan
November 15, 2020
November 15, 2020

Constructive criticism can transform a manuscript, but when is the right time to seek out feedback on your writing? With so many drafts and revisions making up the writing process, there are plenty of opportunities for receiving critiques, but the timing is crucial. Many writers turn to online critique groups and beta readers for critical feedback on their writing craft early on, but that’s not always the best idea...

In this blog post, published author and writing coach Katie Khan thinks about the value of receiving feedback on your writing – and when is the right time to do it.

Should you get writing feedback on your first draft?

In short: no.

First drafts are precious. They are tender, private, and for your eyes only. A first draft is a chance to tell yourself the story; to figure out the hopes and dreams of your characters (and, crucially, their flaws); to discover the world on the page.

You might not have it all at the beginning, but you’ll certainly be one step closer by the end.

A first draft needs to be coaxed, which is why we suggest you keep it to yourself – and why, when you work with your writing coach at The Novelry, we won’t ask to see your prose too early in the process. Instead, we give you our best writing advice, and hold back on constructive feedback until later.

The drawbacks of getting constructive criticism too early in the writing process

Other writing courses may differ – I know this because I’ve taken a few over the years.

I have sat in classrooms workshopping 5,000 words of my classmates’ first drafts each week, during which I barely wrote a word of my own novel. I have read my early work aloud in the upstairs room of pubs across London and posted my burgeoning prose on blogs. And the feedback I received on my own writing… well. It was an experience, let’s say that.

Getting criticism early on in your novel’s development can be quite the trip, particularly if you’re trying something considered a little unusual with your work in progress – like, say, writing about a couple falling in space with only 90 minutes of air remaining, intercut with their love story on a frankly batshit utopian version of Earth. (‘I would never buy it, Katie, and I don’t read this genre, but here are my thoughts…’ so began some of the first feedback I received on my novel Hold Back the Stars in a writing course workshop.)

The problem is this: when we ask for feedback, we are often looking for praise.

When I show my early writing to anyone – Louise, Emylia, or my agent – I am secretly hoping for one response: their shock and awe that I am one hundred percent a stone-cold genius. ‘No amends!’ my agent will cry to the sound of popping corks, sending a magnum of champagne to my home address. What writer hasn’t dreamed of this? Or at least a response that indicates you’re somewhere close?

But wait. Please trust me on this.

Pause on asking your friends, family or fellow writers for feedback on your early first chapters. Don’t post it on a forum or find beta readers just yet.

The problem is this: when we ask for feedback, we are often looking for praise.

Because this is the truth: one ill-turned phrase in a throwaway response from a person whose opinion you’ve sought will upend your own sense of the novel. Negative feedback can shake your belief in the project entirely.

If we receive external input at a crucial stage of creation, the effects aren’t always limited to a tweak of our writing style. It can shift us onto a different course – perhaps a genre swap to something far removed from the original gem of an idea, or worse, the abandoning of the project altogether. Worryingly, we’re often moving huge pieces to fit with the feedback giver’s own taste.

So why do we trust that person’s taste more than our own? Why are you listening to that person?

The idea of asking people what they think is so bizarre as to be inconceivable to me […] I am a strong believer in the tyranny, the dictatorship, the absolute authority of the writer. On the other hand, when it comes to reading, the only thing that works is democracy.
— Philip Pullman

When to ask for feedback

If we presume, then, that the reason for wanting feedback is often a lack of confidence in our own work and our writing skills, we know why we’re sharing our early drafts too soon. Our belief in what we’re doing is wobbling, and we want someone else to tell us it’s worthy of our time or that it could even, perhaps, be great. It’s human. Because who wants to write 90,000 words only to find out they’re pish?

Here is what I’ve learned the hard way. Brilliant novels aren’t written in one stone-cold genius draft, hurled out into the world from the tips of the author’s fingers. Novels are built in layers, broken apart and remade, then cut, incised, and improved with every slice.

Getting feedback on your writing from professional editors and publishers

The publishing industry has feedback and editing built in. When you sign a book deal with a publisher, almost every publishing house in the world follows the same editing process:

  1. Structural edit – an in-depth rewrite and restructure of the story (often more than one);
  2. Line edit – when the story structure is working, attention moves down to chapter and scene level;
  3. Copy edit – once the chapters are flowing, a brutal edit occurs on the sentence-level prose;
  4. Proof read – when the novel is laid out like a book, the author spots all the mistakes that slipped through the three (or more) previous rounds and sends their publisher into a spin by crossing out words as the print deadline looms.

Sounds intense, doesn’t it? You’ll typically get plenty of written feedback at each stage. So it is intense, like excavating a sculpture from a big old rock.

Every publisher in the country knows it takes at least four intensive edits of a novel, with plenty of honest feedback at each stage, to crack it.

Before you send your work to publishing houses

Remember, the structural edit you’ll get from a professional editor at your publishing house isn’t on a first draft, because you’ll do three or four drafts on your own before sending it to an agent, who in turn might do a couple of drafts with you before sending the novel out to publishers. (Whew!)

So why would you show anyone your work at first draft stage, knowing, as we do, that it’s so far from being formed?

Take heart that, at first draft stage, you cannot presume to have it all right there, yet. But if you carry on, you will.

Take heart that, at first draft stage, you cannot presume to have it all right there, yet. But if you carry on, you will.

And when you’re ready, when you’ve written and rewritten the novel a couple of times… then it’s time to share your work – ideally with savvy people who have more critical distance from your story, and know how to share useful feedback for novelists.

get feedback from fiction editors
Get feedback from professional book editors with The Novel Development Course

Who to ask for feedback and writing advice

You’re on your second draft or, even better, third draft, and so you might – after all this time – be wanting a bit of feedback. A toe-dip. A temperature check. A smidge of friendly critique.

This is an exciting moment! Your secret project is in front of other people’s eyeballs!

Our members share work with their writing coaches – who have their own publishing experience and know how to get the best from the story – and with each other after second draft in The Novelry’s writing community.

We ask two things of our writing community: that our writers are kind and constructive, and that they are generous with giving feedback, offering three other writers feedback for everyone that you ask for yourself – this is what we think is a fair trade. It’s also another reason, if you’re on first draft, why it’s better to keep chiselling away at that rock rather than using your precious writing time offering feedback to others who are further into the process.

Dealing with contradictory feedback

But – huh? It appears some readers in these online writing communities are saying one thing about your writing, while other readers are saying another. How do you know which advice is worth its salt, and which you can say ‘thank you very much’ and quietly ignore when your beta readers have such different opinions?

Here’s a trick that’s helped me decide what to listen to when I receive feedback: the most useful criticism you will be given often feels like that person is poking a bruise. It’s tender because those are your soft places, the parts of the novel you secretly knew weren’t working, but which you hoped nobody else would notice. It hurts, perhaps even stings, because they did notice. They saw your flaws and prodded them. And that’s a great thing.

The most useful criticism you will be given often feels like that person is poking a bruise.

If feedback feels ‘close to the bone’ it’s because you already knew it was your weakness. Come on! You did know, if you’re honest with yourself.

The plot point that felt too coincidental; the character who disappears halfway through and never comes back; that awkward scene which had some nice sentences, so you kept it, despite it slowing down the pace… Secretly, you knew.

And now you’re left with no choice but to patch the flaw and heal the bruise. Fabulous. The novel is going to be so much better for it.

Read your own writing aloud.

This is one of my favourite tips for new writers, and one of the most valuable ways to assess your work, either solo or in a group. (Best to start with solo!)

You will feel the exact moment your story dies on its arse. You will feel your chest flutter and wobble at the parts which are too overwrought. Your body will diagnose your prose.

When reading aloud to writing groups, as our authors did during our Live Author Sessions at our Home Retreat Week, you will hear your audience laugh at lines you didn’t know were funny, or you will notice their attention flagging and realise a scene is going on too long. And that’s incredibly helpful live feedback to receive. Not everyone is so lucky!

Look for consensus in the writing community

If five people in your writing community say they couldn’t gauge the intentions of the main character, but one person says it’s great, we might be inclined to listen to our lone cheerleader whose opinion, funnily enough, matches our own.

But are there ways you could strengthen the characterisation without compromising the vision you have for the protagonist? Great! Do that.

Pleasing everyone is a fool’s errand, and you’re under no pressure to address every concern that beta readers raise with your work. But it’s no bad thing to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
— Neil Gaiman

While it’s plausible you might agree with a positive comment about your work, it’s far more likely you’ll be knocked off-kilter by one negative in a sea of positives.

Have you ever found yourself dwelling on a mistake or insult? Perhaps your boss at work gave you a pile of compliments during your annual appraisal, but also gave you one criticism – one thing they wanted you to work on in the coming year? Negative events have a greater impact on our brain than positive ones, which psychologists refer to as the ‘negativity bias’.

Negative events have a greater impact on our brain than positive ones, which psychologists refer to as the ‘negativity bias’.

This is something to watch out for. If you’re starting to obsess over a negative critique, at the expense of hearing the positives, imagine a siren wailing ‘Negativity bias! Negativity bias!’ in your brain as paramedics rush at your emotions with heart paddles.

I’m afraid, as a writer, negative bias will feel amplified. We’re not sharing office-based work that we undertake for an employer; we’re sharing the most private part of our creative lives with – we hope – like-minded souls. Writing is personal. It’s revealing.

Choose your critiquing partners wisely

Whose opinion do you value, and why? Who do you trust is rooting for you to write the best novel you can?

The answer isn’t always to choose your best friend, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’d generally advise you don’t look for people with the same background as you, so if your best friend is somebody you grew up with, their viewpoint may be too close to your own. And if only people who grew up in the same town will ‘get’ your novel, then its appeal is likely too limited to be published.

It’s also brilliant and useful to receive input from people writing in different genres, so never rule out the opinions of a crime writer just because you’re writing science fiction, unless they’re telling you it’s unlikely a story about the arrival of aliens could ever be popular.

Feedback you don’t need to take to heart

There is some feedback you can dismiss out of hand.

A hallmark of this sort is when it feels like it might not even be about your writing at all, the critique is so vague; or it homes in on a random element, like your use of the word ‘nevertheless’. People that offer feedback of this sort will never ‘get’ your writing or what you’re trying to do.

Personal taste is also personal bias, and you can’t write a novel that everyone will love. Sadly. One man’s Hemingway is another man’s Fifty Shades of Grey, and that’s fine. Take criticism from people whose advice you would also seek.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
— Theodore Roosevelt

Brené Brown, who was greatly inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech (above), puts it like this:

If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.
— Brené Brown

This is why I joined The Novelry as a member long before I became a writing coach. I want to be in the arena with other writers, in a safe space where we lift each other up.

Find the people you trust to steer you right.

In the past two years of writing my third book, I have been lucky to receive gold-standard feedback from my fellow writers that has changed, honed and shaped where I’m going with the novel. It’s pushed me in the direction I was dithering over going alone.

Good, helpful feedback feels like a supportive hand on the shoulder providing a steer in the right direction. If feedback feels like a shove towards the train tracks, you can say, thank you, but I’ll take it from here.

Someone writing in a notebook
Katie Khan

Katie Khan is the author of two novels. Her first novel, Hold Back the Stars, was published in the U.K. by Penguin Random House and in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster, and has been translated into twenty-one languages around the world.

Members of The Novelry team

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