I’ve talked before about how important it is to get feedback on your writing at all stages of the writing process. But what does that feedback look like? There are many different types of feedback you can ask for, and many different ways it can be delivered.
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I’m going to try and simplify it by giving you some guidelines for what kind of feedback is most beneficial at each stage of the writing process.
So let’s first define what I mean about “stages of the writing process”. Of course, the bigger the project the more stages you will have, and sometimes it will feel like you are moving backward instead of forward through them. The line can also be blurry between these stages.
That said, generally speaking, you start with the idea stage, where you’re just germinating the idea, then – if you are a planner like me – you will go through a planning stage. Once you start writing forward on your project, you’ll have your first draft stage, which I often just call drafting. Next is revision, which is for most book-length projects the longest stage. Finally, when you are nearing the end, you’ll do things like final edits and proofreading before you hit “send” on that final manuscript.
NOTE: Writing is not a linear process, although many of us were taught that it is. We often move back and forth between planning and drafting, and drafting and revising. But, for the sake of this topic, I’m going to talk about them in a linear way.
When you are first thinking about a book idea, what kind of feedback do you need? New ideas are delicate things, and we don’t want to destroy them by getting a bunch of different points of view. My opinion is that NO feedback is needed at this point. The idea is yours right now. Sit with it. Nurture it. Become excited about it. If you want to talk about it with a trusted someone, that’s great, but let them know that you don’t want feedback. You just want them to be excited that you are hatching something new. It is a beautiful, special thing.
Once you begin to think through the actual story, consider things such as what point you are going to make, whose story it is, and how the events may unfold. Big-picture feedback is definitely useful. This planning stage is a great time to have a trusted confidant or book coach help you sort out why your protagonist is making the choices they are. Remember, the emotional trajectory of the protagonist is what will connect the readers by giving your story a purpose. So as you begin to think through what’s going to happen in your story, ask someone you trust to listen as you talk through it and encourage them to ask you “why?” every time you tell them something new. Ask them to help you root down to the very core of your protagonist and the events. What inner story is driving the external one?
This is the place where writers often share pages with someone; a friend, a critique partner, or a workshop group. It can be difficult for someone who hasn’t read the entire manuscript to give you specific and useful feedback, so at this stage you really need to guide them, and here’s how I suggest you do so. First, think about what emotions you want to come across in this scene or chapter. Ask them: is this emotion coming across in a real way? Next, consider the things that you know might not be working, or that you struggled with during the writing. Perhaps the dialogue feels stilted, or the physical action feels awkward. Ask them to evaluate those things specifically. Finally, ask them to notice gaps or holes, places where something isn’t clear. It may be that you will be filling in those missing pieces elsewhere in the book, but it’s important that you know that in these pages it felt like something was missing.
Completed Draft Stage
Once you have a completed draft (congratulations!!!) and you’re ready for feedback to lead you into some revisions, I highly recommend that you hire someone to do a full developmental edit. Developmental edits look at the big picture, and a professional editor should present you with a hierarchy of priorities in terms of what you should work on first as you revise. If you aren’t working with a book coach along the way as you write, this is an investment I would strongly urge you to consider.
As you move through your revisions, any feedback you get will need to focus on the issues that you have been working on all along. If you are striving to make the world you’ve created more detailed for the reader, then that’s what you’ll want feedback on. If one of your characters feels flat and you are trying to flesh them out, you’ll want to hear whether or not it’s working.
As you can see, moving from idea through drafting and revisions, the feedback we want to get needs to go from being broad to more specific. In the early stages, we’re looking for big idea feedback, not feedback on things like word choice and sentence structure (which some feedback-givers can’t help but give you). In the later stages, we want feedback to start to zero in on problems we know we are having and how our attempts at fixing those issues are working.
“Nearly Finished” Stage
Once you have what you believe is a nearly completed manuscript, you’ll want to bring on board a few beta readers. These are people who will experience your book for the first time as a complete manuscript, and can give you overall feedback from the perspective of a new reader. I like to give beta readers a list of questions to answer. There are lots of resources for finding and using beta readers online. The questions you ask beta readers are usually broad but invite the beta reader to consider what they experienced as they read.
Before you ever send anything out on submission, of course you’ll want to have someone line edit and/or proofread your work for grammar, language, and other typos.
A Word of Caution…
Be careful about receiving feedback from a lot of different people, because there is a good chance you will receive conflicting advice. If you are sharing with more than one person at a time – say, in the example of beta readers or a critique group – decide ahead of time how you are going to implement their feedback, and whose feedback you might prioritize. You don’t have to tell them, of course, but I think it’s important to know for yourself.
This is such a quick overview, and of course every writing project, process, and feedback giver is different. But I hope you found a few nuggets in here today to help you think about what feedback might look like for you over the course of your current or next writing project. If nothing else, I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of receiving feedback at each stage along the way. Having someone read your story and respond to it can be scary, but if you approach it with a growth mindset and select people whom you trust to be both kind and honest, it can move your story forward and remind you why you are doing this in the first place.
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