I don’t know about you, but I find asking the people close to me for feedback on my writing totally terrifying. What if they hate it? What if they don’t think it makes any sense? What if they think the character that I like the best is completely foul? What if they hate it? And then there’s that thing that happens where you send someone your work, asking for feedback, and you hear nothing back. Crickets. And you’re wondering, is it because they never read it? Is it because they don’t have any major thoughts to share about your story? IS IT BECAUSE THEY HATE IT AND THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO TELL YOU?!
I can’t promise solutions to any of this, because if I could I’d have had a lot more success than I’ve had with soliciting feedback from others. Partner, bless his cotton socks, has tried to read my writing and provide feedback. “It’s fine? I don’t know. You write really differently to how I would, and it’s not really my favourite genre.” We mutually agreed not to repeat that particular experiment! I am incredibly lucky, however, to have a little brother who is not only totally up for reading my work but is also phenomenally good at coming up with thoughtful and insightful critiques.
If you aren’t in a similarly privileged position, I have a couple of recommendations for you at the end. But if you do have somebody you trust to give honest feedback, who is actually willing and able to do so, here are some of the things I’ve found make the process as painless as possible for all involved!
1. Short chunks
I’m starting with this one to get it out the way, because I suspect it’s the least universally useful suggestion, but I’ve got a lot of mileage out of it: I like to send a chapter or two at a time to avoid over-facing my beta reader. This might partially be because of the stage of drafting I’m at as well, since I’m only on my second proper draft there’s still a lot that’s subject to change, and I want to be able to respond to and incorporate the feedback I’m getting as I go along. My redrafting is about four chapters ahead of whatever I’ve most recently sent to my brother, which means it’s easy for me to adjust course based on the suggestions I get back.
Another advantage to this is that it means a much quicker turnaround on feedback than if I was sending larger sections, or the whole story. I like that because I’m impatient! And the final thing that sells this strategy for me is the flexibility of it. If something changes and my brother doesn’t have time to read and write up feedback for me, I just won’t send him any more. Sorted!
2. Specific questions
This is something I think applies whether you’re getting a friend, family member or complete stranger to read your work. You want to give them some specific things to think about when they’re reading, so that they have somewhere to start when they’re thinking about feedback and you’re making sure that you’re getting what you need out of the exchange.
It can be hard, as someone reading with an eye to critiquing, to know what’s going to be useful commentary and what isn’t, and if you’re getting feedback from somebody who cares about you then chances are they want their comments to be useful. I also think it helps to navigate the potential awkwardness of inevitable negative feedback. In the latest section I sent off to my brother I said I was worried a certain conversation felt like an info dump, and asked him to look out for that and let me know what he thought. As it happened, he said it didn’t feel too expositional, but the fact that I’d highlighted that as a section I was concerned about opened the door for him to talk about some things he felt I did need to work on in that scene.
It’s hard to be honest with somebody you care about when something they’ve worked hard on needs improvements, especially with something like writing where the work can be incredibly personal. I think opening up a request for feedback with some of the things you know you need an outside opinion on can help ease that a little.
3. Discuss expectations
Are you looking for somebody to read the first chapter and no more, to make sure your opening is as strong as possible? Do you want feedback on the whole story, start to finish? Are you hoping for someone to look for any spelling/grammar issues, or do you want more broad-strokes plot and character feedback? Make sure you know what you’re looking for, and that you communicate that with the person reading before they get started. Some people will feel totally confident doing any and all of that, but it helps if they know going in what you want from them.
What you don’t want is a situation where you think you’re going to be getting detailed feedback on character development throughout your story, and your friend is expecting to make a couple of character-based suggestions at key plot points. Make sure you’re all on the same page to avoid disappointment or frustration from either side.
Really thoughtful feedback takes a lot of time and effort. What can you do in exchange? In my case my brother is also writing, and I’m looking forward to having the chance to do for his work what he’s been doing for mine. But what if the person reading for you isn’t a writer themselves?
I think it’s important to do something to show that you recognise the work they’ve done, but the specifics of that are going to vary wildly from person to person. Maybe you can help promote their work, or write a guest post for their blog, or help them set up a blog? Bake something for them? Walk their dog? Take them out for a nice meal? I don’t know what works for you and your situation, but I do think it’s important to recognise that a good critique is work, and if somebody is offering to do that work for you it’s nice to offer something in thanks.
5. Letting it go
Even if you do everything ‘right’, set everything up carefully and agree on the plan with your friend/colleague/neighbour/sibling, this isn’t a professional relationship. There’s a chance you’ll never hear back about the writing you sent them, or they’ll deliver a sentence on how “it was pretty good, yeah,” and that’s all you’ll get. Before you approach somebody to ask them to read anything for you, really imagine that outcome and make sure you’re okay with it. If you’re going to feel hurt or snubbed, if you don’t think you could help but take it personally, be honest with yourself about that.
Then, once you’ve sent somebody your work, try to forget about it. As soon as I send my brother an email with new chapters attached I put it straight out of my mind, so it’s a pleasant surprise when I get the feedback and I haven’t spent the days (or weeks, or whatever) since sending it fretting over when he’s going to get back to me. This is a favour, not a job. There’s no contract involved, and no payment on completion of work – it’s just something somebody is doing because they care about me and they’re interested in my writing. It’s really lovely, and the last thing I would ever want to do is sour it with nagging or resentment.
Okay, so all of this is (hopefully) helpful if you have somebody in your life who can and will read your work and tell you what they think. But what if you don’t? What do you do if you want feedback, but don’t know anybody who can give you that? Well, you’re in luck, because I have some suggestions for that too!
The writing community on Twitter is active and incredibly supportive and, while I can’t speak for everyone on there, I know that I keep an eye out for requests for beta readers. I love reading other people’s work, it feels like such a privilege to get one of the first looks at somebody else’s imagined world. If you don’t feel like just sending a request out into the void of the internet, try connecting with other authors who write in your genre and are at a similar place in their projects to you. You might not click with someone right away (or should that be write away…) but if you put the time in to building relationships there’s bound to be somebody who wants to partner up for a critique exchange.
Maybe you want something a little more formal? I’ve joined up as a beta reader with Meg Trast’s Overhaul My Novel service, and I’d highly recommend it from the author’s point of view. Beta reads through them are completely free, and the readers are given a detailed list of things to think about on their read-throughs to ensure we’re giving you a useful critique. It’s a service for complete manuscripts, so you might have a bit of a wait to get the feedback, but I think it’s a great option if you’ve finished your story and you want to get a reader’s response to the finished product.
And if you want something more formal still, you could consider hiring somebody to edit your work. I have freelance editing experience, and I’ll edit a sample of your project for free if you want to get a sense of how I work – more details here. The (already mentioned) marvellous Meg Trast runs professional editing through her site as well. And let’s face it, the internet is full of wonderful editors – have a look around, get in touch with a few and find somebody you trust with your story. They’re out there, I promise!