When you are just beginning, you might just want someone to marvel, as you have, that you have written something, that there is a collection of words on the page. That recognition and support can be hugely beneficial as you write forward.
As you start to question what is that you have written, and how to shape it, it becomes more important to find a trusted reader who will give you more direct notes, and further along the way, critical feedback.
This is the focus of Barbara Turner-Vesselago book, How to Talk about Writing which considers the type of comments and framing of feedback that is useful to a writer at the early, middle and revision stages of writing as well as post-publication and can be a useful guide to making sure you and your reader are on the same page.
For more developed work, Jim Shepard teaches a close-reading practice. Unless you workshop with him, no-one will ever give your work that much attention, but it’s worth knowing and applying to your own work, and, if you are honoured to be reading another writers work, give it the attention it deserves. Jim shares it all in this video.
Where to get feedback
Daily feedback on the new work you are generating in Freefall Writing Workshops is a rare but precious developmental tool. At this stage of the work Barbara’s feedback focus’ on where the energy is, or what is is working in the writing. A feedback loop that helps the writing unfold.
More readily (and freely) available, I’ve found well-read friends willing to review early drafts of manuscripts. I’ve been blunt that I want honest critique, but still always felt the review has been sugar-coated somewhat. Regardless, hearing what someone else see’s or understands in the characters and story has been helpful for me to contemplate if what they are seeing on the page aligns to what I think and want to be there.
Through various courses, workshops and conferences I have met other writers who have been incredibly helpful readers. Having an understanding of the craft, I’ve found writers tend to challenge me more directly on voice, character arcs and story points, as well as let me know where the work is at more generally – is there more to explore in another draft, is it time for a more a formal edit.
Writing groups can be a good source of feedback, if you find or curate the right group for where you are at with your writing and the type of feedback you want. It is definitely valuable to hear the views of different people in discussion regarding your work – for me, it has helped force a deeper analysis of the critique to see how it matched the story I wanted to be telling and see where the gaps are.
However, I have found the page limit and gaps between meetings hasn’t always aligned with the pace of my writing schedule, but I have a habit of being impatient. If the structure of the group and frequency of meetings works so that you are getting feedback, able to take on notes, then present a following chapter or independent story then I think writing groups can be really helpful to keep the writing progressing forwards.
There are also workshops for critical review, though they seem to be more common in the USA than Australia. I’ve only attended Sirenland, which, held in Positano is an incredible experience for all manner of reasons. Enduringly, it allows you to be part of an incredible network of writers. During the week itself, the competitive selection process makes for a high calibre of writers, with workshops led by internationally renowned authors who provide guided feedback, review and invaluable writing advice. I am not sure how this will run in a Covid world, but Sirenland has strong ties to One Story through which online classes and workshops are held throughout the year, some of which offer feedback.
The one caveat I have for recommending workshops is that the amount of work being reviewed is usually limited to twenty pages. Perfect for a short story. Good if you are looking for refinement on the opening pages of your novel and to see if it is being understood by the reader in a way that sets them up for the rest of the novel. Can be challenging otherwise.
Paid Manuscript Review’s are offered by many teachers, writers, writers organisations and hubs, including Writers Write. However, this can be expensive and in many cases you don’t know who will be assigned to undertake the review, which has always been off-putting to me.
I am on the fence about the value of paid reviews. Fundamentally, whoever is providing the feedback is not responsible for getting your work into the world. Only you are. So you have to trust that whoever you have engaged is going to help enable you to do that.
It’s still a gamble, and an expensive one. So make sure that the type of feedback you will get is suited to the stage you are at with the work. I’ve undertaken two paid reviews. While I found value in both, one I would not repeat.
Taking on notes
I stand by Neil Gaiman’s statement,“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
I’ve found feedback incredibly helpful to propel the work forward, and understand problems that I can’t see on the page. However, most people will tell you what they think you should do rather than showing you where the problem is. I’ve found it helpful to try and unpick this, to understand the fundamental flaw they are trying to stick a band-aid on, and then fix that issue.