Bringing a novel from idea to completion is both an effort of love and a lot of hard work. Feedback can help us stay on track and make our stories stronger, but learning how to ask for the right kind of critique for the stage a novel is in can make the difference between a polished, completed novel and a file filled with unfinished manuscripts.
Stage 1 – The Cheerleader:
Someone who offers encouraging feedback with the goal of motivating the writer.
Some writers choose not share their novel until a first draft is complete. Stephen King recommends writing a first draft with the door shut, and rewriting with the door open. In other words, no one sees your story until it’s written. Getting feedback on your work before it’s completed can do more harm than good if it makes you second guess your story and your vision. You might end up seeing nothing but problems and become frustrated with yourself. You might lose sight of what made your story idea so beautiful that you had to sit down and begin writing.
But writing can be a lonely process. It’s often filled with uncertainty, and a lot of us benefit from encouragement along the way. If you find yourself beginning stories but not finishing them, asking a friend to cheerlead for you can help you make it to the end of that first draft. But remember: this is not the stage for brutal honesty or critiques of any kind, which will typically only stifle the creative process. Let your potential cheerleader know that there will be typos and plot holes; the voice will be off, there may be scenes that meander around until you figure out where the story is going, and yes, maybe someone’s eyes will go from blue to brown halfway through a chapter because it just occurred to you that Dreamy McDreamboat should have dark, smoldering eyes– just tell your cheerleader to just go with it. The help you need at this point isn’t cleaning up your story, it’s finishing the story.
How to be an effective cheerleader:
If you’re the one who’s doing the cheerleading, remember that it’s a rough draft. Find the positives in each chapter and let the rest go. You can always offer a critique once the story’s completed if you like.
Stage 2 – The Critique Partner:
Someone who looks at a story with a critical eye with the goal of helping the writer polish the manuscript.
Once you’ve finished writing your story, the real work begins. Receiving feedback from critique partners is where the majority of a story’s improvement usually occurs. Before you send that manuscript out to your critique buddies, read through it yourself first for typos, passive voice, repetition, and whatever else you’re able to handle on your own. Remember that you’re asking for an investment of time from the critique partner. Offer the cleanest work you’re able to produce, so that the critiquer can focus on improving the story and not your grammar and spelling.
Be prepared to go through several rounds of critiques, and stagger them out. If you have five writer friends, send it out to two and see what improvements they suggest before sending out to the final three. Don’t be afraid to be specific about what you need from each round. Is characterization a weakness in your story? What about scenes that seem to lag, issues with dialogue or lack of description? If you’re not sure, ask for a general critique from two or three trusted writer friends and see if there is any overlap in their feedback. Your goal here isn’t to get back page after page of smiley faces (although that does feel great!); your goal is readying your manuscript for an agent or editor.
Receiving honest feedback can be difficult, even painful. If you find the comments hurtful, wait a few days or even a week or two before going over the critiquer’s feedback. Sometimes taking a step back gives us the necessary distance to remember that our mission is to produce the best possible book we can.
When you think you’ve gone through enough rounds with various critique partners, a good idea is to take a break for a week or two, then go back to your manuscript and read the entire story out loud. Once everything seems to be working, send it out for a final critique.
Tip: It’s important not to go on auto-pilot and make every sweeping change that every critique partner suggests. That’s a good way to write the soul out of your novel, the voice out of your characters, and end up with a story that’s no longer your own. Roni Loren has a great post on this: Death by Critique – 6 Tips on How To Avoid It
How to be an effective critique partner:
Honesty is the best policy. If you don’t mention something that isn’t working for you, you are doing the writer a disservice and depriving him or her of a chance to improve the book. Think of it this way: if you noticed a problem in voice, or a major plot hole, chances are an agent or editor will notice too. That being said, phrasing is everything. Err on the side of kindness if you’re the type who writes little notes along with your feedback. Anything that isn’t helpful should be left out, including unnecessary comments that could be taken the wrong way by the writer. Some critiquers prefer to be more clinical in their approach and leave emotion out of it as much as possible, which works too. Just advise the writer of your particular critiquing style so he or she knows what to expect. Lastly, if there is a recurrent issue, such as the writer using excessive passive, descriptive dialogue tags, adverbs or some other issue in the mechanics of the story, highlight the first few instances and then leave a note letting the writer know that this is an issue that should be addressed throughout the rest of the book.
Stage 3 – The Beta Reader:
Someone who reads a polished story for general flow and overall picture, with the goal of helping the writer prepare for querying and submission.
By this point your story is not only completed and revised, it’s been looked at with a magnifying glass, right-side up, upside down, and from every angle in between. It should be as polished and ready as you can possibly make it without professional advice. Think of companies that offer beta-versions of games or software; they are trying to gauge if their product works, and if any kinks need to be fixed. They don’t offer something to beta-testers if it still needs major improvement. In the same way, your novel is being test-run. You believe it’s solid and you’re sending it out into the world, but before that world includes agents or editors, you turn to beta readers for the thumbs up… or for an explanation of why they think it isn’t ready. The beta reader’s job isn’t to critique, but to help let you know if the story works as a whole, if the characters are relatable, if the ending is satisfying, and other big-picture elements. Beta readers are the fresh eyes you need to make sure your novel is really ready. Be sure to let your potential beta readers know that the story has already undergone revisions and that you plan on querying soon.
How to be an effective beta reader:
When approaching a beta read, think of the manuscript as if it were a novel you purchased for your enjoyment. What kinds of review would you give it? Even published novels can have elements that don’t work as well as others. Are the transitions off? Is there a character who seems inconsistent, or scenes that bog the story down? As with a critique, be honest and also considerate with your choice of words. The most difficult but potentially most important thing to keep in mind: if you see issues that indicate that the story isn’t ready, that the writer needs to go back and continue with critiques and revisions, be brave enough to tell him or her so. If you don’t, the writer may move on to querying the book before it’s ready.
The stage your manuscript is in determines the level of critique you need. Just remember that as the writer, you are the story’s owner; consider the feedback you receive carefully. Ultimately, you are the only one who knows what truly contributes to your story. If you don’t agree with a critiquer’s suggestion, follow your own instincts and believe in the vision you’re creating.
Diana Paz is a web content writer and aspiring YA author. She grew up on Miami Beach, moved to Los Angeles in high school, and went to college in San Diego. Basically, she’s a beach bum. She graduated from California State University, San Marcos with a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts. She loves old movies, epic fantasy, all kinds of music, and heading to the beach with a good book. Preferably sipping a caramel frappuccino. Find her at dianapazblog.blogspot.com or @dianapazwrites