Monday, November 07, 2016

7 Things to Remember When Giving (or Receiving) Feedback on a Manuscript

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The manuscript critique process is often stressful. If you’re the one asking for feedback, you wonder, will readers like it? Will they get it? Will they laugh at the little joke on page nine? If you’re doing a critique for someone, you worry about sounding too judgmental. You might wonder, will the advice will be taken the wrong way? Will the writer even listen to what I have to say? What if I’m wrong and my advice ruins the book?

Despite the stress, it’s a vital part of the writing process. A good critique helps us improve our manuscripts, and learning to critique well helps us improve our writing skills. It also allows us to build relationships with other writers, and develop the skills for working with editors if we decide to publish.

To help make this process flow more smoothly, here are some things to think about when asking for feedback on your manuscript:

1. The person you're asking to read your work is doing you a favor.

You’re asking someone to take time out of their busy day to read your manuscript. Critiquing is a lot of work, and they don’t have to do it just because you asked. Say thank you even if you think everything they suggested is total bunk. If they said something you found especially helpful, let them know. Most of all, be respectful and appreciate the favor they’re doing for you.

(Here's more on getting the most out of a critique)

2. Don't tell them they're wrong about anything they say in the critique.

You asked for feedback to get another writer’s opinion, and that opinion is how they feel about the work, so it can’t be “wrong.” You might not agree with it, and that's okay, just don't tell them that (it’s rude). However, it is acceptable to say you were trying to do X and open a discussion about why that didn't work for them and how you might fix it.

(Here's more on the difference between a real problem and a "not for me" issue)

3. Consider all feedback carefully.

First reactions can sometimes make you think, "this person totally missed the point." Before you disregard a comment, try to see why the critiquer felt as they did. Often, problems are pointed out in one place when the real issue occurs in another part of the story. For example, perhaps not enough groundwork was laid for the resolution of a scene to feel credible, or an important bit of backstory wasn’t dropped in at the right moment to clarify a motive at a critical turning point. It’s not uncommon for the most out-of-the-blue comments to be exactly what a manuscript needs, because that person saw something in a way you never would have.

(Here's more on putting feedback to good use)

4. Ignore whatever doesn’t work for you.

The only things you have to do with a critique are thank the person who gave it to you and read it. What you do with it are entirely up to you. If you think the whole thing is worthless, toss it and don’t ask that person for critiques anymore. If you think they had a great point in some areas, but wanted to take the story in the wrong direction in others, ignore the parts that don’t help you. It’s your story, do what you feel is best for it.

(Here's more on ignoring writing advice)

If you’re on the giving end of the critique process, here are some things to think about when offering feedback on a manuscript:

1. Don't get emotional.

It's easy to color your comments with words that make the critique feel personal. Watch out for adjectives that could come across as judgment on the author. Instead of, "this was a really slow scene," try "the pacing felt slow in this scene." Also be wary of saying a writer “needs to” do something, or “should do” something. You’re not telling them what to do you’re offering advice, so a simple “perhaps do X” or “maybe try Y” feels more diplomatic. The smallest words can make advice feel negative, so be wary of words such as, just, really, again, don’t, and only. For example, “this really felt slow” sounds harsher than “this felt slow.”

2. Don't care if they listen or not.

Give the best advice you can and let the writer decide what to do with it. You might be right about something, but if they're not ready for the information or they don’t agree with it, nothing you say will help. And remember, your “great advice” might not work with what they're trying to accomplish. As a critiquer, your job is to offer feedback and walk away unless asked for clarification.

(Here's more on critique etiquette) 

3. Be helpful to the story they want to tell.

One of the harder things to do in a critique is to focus on the story the writer wants to tell and not the story you think the writer should tell—especially if you see something “better” in the story that takes it in a different direction. It’s fine to mention that idea in case the writer agrees, but don’t spend the rest of the critique trying to force the story to fit your idea—such as only give advice that supports your view and ignore anything that helps their view. If you truly feel they’re missing a great opportunity to make their story better, you could add a little, “if you choose to do X, you could…” comment to support your idea.

Putting your work (and yourself) out there can be hard, just as offering advice to someone you're not sure will take it well is rough. But if you remember what it feels like to be in the other person's shoes, you just might find that perfect gem of advice you were looking for.

What advice would you give writers looking for or offer feedback?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I choose to accept that advice, thanks. :)

    One image I like is that each person's advice is a sample poll of my larger audience. No one person is "wrong" or "right," they simply show that there will be some readers who want more dialog, more backstory, whatever it is. Even someone who completely missed a point of the story shows I could have made that point more clearly. After that, it's just a case of whether I can give more to that kind of reader without hurting the story and the other readers.

  2. Also, be very clear with your CPs about what type of critique you give and what you expect to receive. If you expect grammar fixes and in-depth plot analysis and they send back "great job I liked the part where Snoopy danced with Woodstock", someone's going to end up with hurt feelings.

    1. Excellent reminder. Expectations and needs play a big role in the critique process.

  3. I get it about not telling a reader/critiquer that they are wrong... but sometimes they are, and sometimes they need further education.

    I write about uncomfortable or shocking subjects, and a person's first reaction to something they don't like to hear is often to deny it, which will enable them to continue to ignore its existence in the future. But my goal as a writer is to bring these things to light.

    I have readers who will say, "no, that's a medical impossibility," when five seconds on google will tell you it is a well-known, named medical phenomenon. Or "no, the police (or social worker, or foster parent) would never do that," when, in fact, it is a common occurrence and a problem with the system.

    The first feedback I often get from a beta reader is, "that was a great story, but I'm glad it doesn't happen in real life.) When, of course, the reason I'm writing about it is because it *does* happen in real life and people should be aware of it instead of ignoring it.

    So yeah, sometimes I do send them back articles to read or a few stats about the issues involved.

    1. Absolutely, which is why I said "opinions." Factual errors aren't included in that. :)

      However, if the fact is something few readers will know, and you get a lot of comments that it's "wrong," it's something you might want to address in some way. With shows like CSI and all the medical dramas, readers can feel more educated about things than they really are, and they might think it's wrong when it's not. You can't be there to tell them it's *their* error. There are times when you might have to correct a false assumption in the book you know people commonly get wrong (this would be situational of course, but I have seen it happen).

  4. great advice, thanks! Passing it along to my teen students