I’ve given a lot of feedback in my life – as an English Literature academic, I graded thousands of undergrad and postgrad papers and then I became an A’ level examiner and marked over a 1000 student exams. Add to that the hundreds of reports I have written on people’s novels and non-fiction projects and the comments I offer as part of developmental editing and the times I’ve discussed authors’ work in writing groups and you can see how I’m pretty used to telling people what I think about their writing and ideas! In the case of my work as a literary consultant and mentor, I actually really enjoy providing detailed feedback as it allows me to help other writers get better at their craft and increase their chances of gaining literary success.
In fact, I think having feedback on your work is crucial for every single author, even the most experienced, as often we cannot see the wood from the trees after spending long periods working on our manuscripts. But who you seek feedback from and how you go about absorbing it and putting recommendations into action will make all the difference, so this is the subject of this week’s ‘real talk’ as I feel many new authors, in particular, struggle to understand the importance of editorial assessments and the way we all need to develop the grace to take criticism in our stride.
1. PLEASE ONLY GET FEEDBACK FROM PEOPLE WHO ARE AT LEAST AS GOOD OR EVEN BETTER WRITERS THAN YOU: Mentoring works because the mentor is ahead on the path from their student. They can thus shout back advice and warnings about avoiding perils on the journey because they have been there themselves and know how to navigate the course. Logically then, someone who is a newbie to the writing game cannot offer you the same insights as someone who has been writing as long as you or longer.
Look for experience then when considering who to share your writing with, but also consider their talent level – do you rate their work? This sounds ruthless, but if someone cannot write their way out of a paper bag, then please, for the love of tiny kittens, do NOT let them loose with a red pen on your work as they’re unlikely to be able to see its problems as they cannot see the issues in their own.
Even if your writer friends are good authors, in your estimation, please consider too whether your work is the kind of thing they enjoy. If they only write and read crime, for instance, your literary fiction may leave them cold and they will lack a frame of reference to assess whether your book fits well in its genre. They may well just give you negative feedback then because it’s not their cup of tea – this is a risk which comes with most lay readers and even some publishing peeps as talent is a subjective thing and there’s no accounting for taste.
However, I would argue that professional editors and literary consultants are much less likely to suffer from the knee jerk reaction of ‘I just didn’t like it’ because we are used to seeing a broad range of manuscripts and we can objectively assess whether a MS is working by looking at craft issues, like the plot. I have my own reading preferences in my private time, but when it comes to reading my clients’ work, I have discovered several chick lit writers who are now published (one even has posters at train stations) because, even though I might not read that kind of work before bed, my experience means I know a good book when I see one, end of story.
So, if you’re in a writing group, I’d say that I’d think carefully about whose feedback you take on board as a lot of new authors may not be skilled enough to give you detailed, accurate feedback and they may not be able to get passed their own prejudices as they’re not professionals. Hence, when you’ve taken your manuscript as far as you can by yourself, try to get a literary consultant or editor to look at it.
Your fellow writers, and even keen readers in your friends and family, can offer encouragement and some possible ‘ahas’ along the way, but, ideally, you need someone objective and skilled in analysing text and craft issues to look at your work before you submit to the industry as only editors and literary consultants see your work in the same way they do.
2. PROTECT YOUR WORK FROM CRITICISM DURING THE CREATIVE STAGE AND DON’T SEEK FEEDBACK TOO SOON: Whilst I have just said how much I feel feedback is crucial for literary success, especially from other talented writers or editors, I do think that one reason why 97% of writers never finish their novels is because they gave their work not only to the wrong person, but to them too soon.
I feel professional feedback is useful at any stage. I had a report just 100 pages in to the first draft of Welcome to Sharonville and the encouragement it gave me helped me stay the course during the rejections and difficult years that followed. However, if you start showing your work to a writing group or friends and family before it’s anywhere near ready, you’re more likely to get negative comments and they can cripple you if you’re just starting out as a writer or even just beginning a new book.
People can be jealous and competitive in writing groups too sadly, so by having your book be the best it can before you share it, such insecure authors will have less issues to attack, with any luck, or you’ll feel confident enough in what you’ve created not to care.
I personally don’t let anyone read my manuscripts now until I have a strong second draft and have taken the book as far as it can go. That way
my idea stays ‘safe’ and I don’t get criticism on stuff that I can easily spot and correct myself.
Wait then until you’re happy with your work before getting feedback – yes, it can be hard not to be read as you’re working on a long project, but I’d rather wow people with the best manuscript I can produce (even if it’s still got tons of stuff to sort), rather than handing them something mediocre and feeling shit about it after!
In terms of seeking professional feedback too, by waiting until you’ve polished the f*ck out of your manuscript, you will, arguably, get more out of an editorial report and you won’t have to go back for more as, if you’ve already dealt with the big first draft issues, the literary consultant or editor can give you higher level feedback to help you tip your manuscript over to being publishable.
3. TAKE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM PROFESSIONALLY AND CALMLY: A lot of people seek feedback on their manuscripts from professionals, such as myself, and I salute the bravery of every single one of them as receiving critical comments on one’s work is one of the toughest aspects of the writer’s life. I myself have struggled with it over my career, having faced rejections and even editorial reports which didn’t do much for my ego!
Let yourself cry, throw stuff, eat chocolate … whatever it takes the process the feelings of frustration and hurt and disappointment which come when we realise there’s yet more work to be done on our books or the longed-for breakthrough hasn’t come … But do not rant at the peeps who sent the editorial report you asked for!
If you seek feedback from a professional, you need to accept that they may not feel your work is as far along as you would like. They may see gaping holes in your plot or problems with your characters … And this is what you paid for!
I’m sure many authors have made voodoo dolls of me to stick pins in after I’ve told them their book needs redrafting or they’re not ready to be published and they need to learn more about the writing craft. However, at the end of the day, whilst I do say encouraging and lovely things to my authors and will always praise good work when I see it, I serve my writing clients better when I tell the truth – that is, when I tear books apart with my analytical mind and show all the flaws that agents and editors will see and offer creative solutions to those issues.
So, if you’ve taken your MS as far as you can and then get an editorial report, be prepared to get an editorial report – not just a schmooze fest! If you are looking for an ass kissing, literary consultancy isn’t the place to get it! Writing groups and your friends and family are better placed to gush over your work, but if you want some real insights into your work, go to professional and then act like a professional when you receive their remarks.
I read somewhere that you need to be humble to be teachable and an editorial report is often a type of teaching as someone who understands the writing world and literary craft very well looks at how your MS is working and not working and gives you it straight in a way that your loved ones may not be skilled or emotionally objective enough to do. They offer possible ways around your book’s issues in order to make your work stronger and this is exactly why such reports are worth their weight in gold. But you need to be able to take their suggestions on board. You need to be humble enough to realise that all manuscripts, even by published authors, have flaws and that every book you’ve ever read went through multiple drafts, plus agent and editorial changes before it landed in your hands.
Hence you need to set aside your ego, as hard as this is, when getting feedback, and think that, it may sting, but this is how the rotten stuff comes out of your work and you get nearer to having a publishable, brilliant book. I know our novels can often seem like our ‘babies’ as we spend so much time on them and so our emotional attachment to them is fierce, but please remember that all kids need correcting so they grow up in order to become good eggs – and our book kids are just the same. Coddling them and refusing to accept that they have flaws will not help at all!
After all, you need to get used to working with your agent and publisher on redrafting manuscripts – sometimes drastically – and writers who refuse to be professional when receiving notes on their work and aren’t flexible in reshaping drafts will have a tough and probably short literary career.
4. WHAT TO DO ABOUT CONTRADICTORY FEEDBACK: When I was going through the many drafts of Welcome to Sharonville, I got to the point where I had had various reports and rejection letters from agents and they were all saying different things, so I got completely confused about which way to take that book and so, after rewriting the opening SIX times, I just froze creatively. A lot of other big life stuff was also going on, but this mess of feedback, with too many cooks spoiling the broth, as it were, was a key reason why this novel got shoved in a metaphorical drawer for two years and only came out when I started working with a mentor who cleared my thinking.
So, as much as I think professional feedback is wonderful and necessary before you submit to the industry, please be careful about overdosing on critical appraisals, whether from friends and family, your fellow writers or even publishing professionals as it can lead to
total overwhelm and paralysis if you’re not sure what step to take next creatively.
In terms of agents, if some are simply saying, as they were to me, that they liked the plot, but not the style, and some were saying that they loved my style, but not the plot, then you know you’re dealing with an issue of taste, so you just simply need to carry on sending out until you meet the person who can embrace what you’re offering. But if you have readers are apparently saying very different things about your book, what the heck do you do?
Well, you look for commonalities between the feedback – shared concerns. If they’re all saying the beginning is weak, then it probably is. If only one person hates your lead though, that may just be a subjective reaction.
The best way to look at it is if five people say you’re a horse, you’d better get a saddle! You can’t argue with consensus, so you’d better start rewriting!
5. TRUST YOURSELF: Having said that we do often find it hard to see the issues in our manuscripts clearly after working on a mansuscript a long time, I do also think that all writers know, deep down, exactly what is problematic with their work, but that they come to professional editors, such as myself, to validate their doubts, so they can gain the confidence to do something about these issues.
I had a wonderful and talented client who used to say that he’d go crazy whenever he got feedback from me on his MS, but then he’d say, ‘Sharon is always right.’ I dunno about that (I wish!), but I think what he meant was that I could always see the stuff he knew was dodgy in his book and bring it to his attention, even if he had to be dragged towards admitting it openly, kicking and screaming!
It’s very tough to complete a book and we all want it done already, but if you find feedback resonating with you, then you know it’s got to be sorted.
This involves trusting yourself though and your sense of what works and what kind of book you are creating, but it’s the best defence against getting tied in knots by apparently paradoxical feedback.
New writers, such as I was when I got myself in a state over the various comments on my book are vulnerable to trying to carry out every single remark a literary consultant says, so be willing to be humble enough to take on criticism and to learn and grow from it, but also be prepared to stand up sometimes for things which you strongly feel are working. This is a skill you may need when working with agents and publishers who sometimes want radical changes, so develop this self-trust and trust in your work now and then you won’t find accepting feedback or making changes such a fraught process.
In the end, I finally trusted myself with Welcome to Sharonville and went back and polished the original beginning, adding in a few bits I’d gleaned as I’d grown as a writer over the years, but the novel was longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award, so I guess it was okay!
6. TAKE YOUR TIME TO PONDER FEEDBACK: Last, but not least, please, writer friends, do NOT dive straight into making changes when you have just received feedback on your work. Your subconscious will provide its own solutions to any of the creative issues that have been raised if you give it breathing room. By waiting, you also avoid making rash, knee-jerk choices about cutting and changing your book which you may live to regret.
Hence please read the report or listen to the feedback from the person you trust and then just leave your book be for a while – as long as possible, in fact, but a month is a good start. If you’re a novelist, you need to get used to being in it for the long-haul, so holding off for a few weeks before going back into a draft really ain’t nothing on our side of the tracks.
I hope that my comments on how to get good, reliable feedback and how to make the most of it help you all as it’s a key part of becoming a professional writer. If you have any questions about this process, you can drop a comment below or contact me. You can also join my private Facebook group where we discuss the writing life and support each other as we go through all stages of the writing process, including receiving feedback, or you can have a free 30 minute ‘Writing Breakthrough‘ session to discuss how I might help you with an editorial report or how best you can ‘action’ feedback you have received.