When Should Writers Get Critiques?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Recently a newer writer asked me when she should start searching out critiques for her manuscript.

Her question brought to mind two separate issues regarding getting feedback:

When is the right time in the life of an author to start soliciting feedback from others? Should a writer send off a first book? Or should they wait until they've written a couple of books before looking for a critique partner or garnering outside feedback? Are there benefits to waiting?

And when is the right time in the life of a book to send it out for critiques? Should a writer pass it along to beta readers or critique partners right after finishing the first draft? Should she solicit feedback before doing her own self-editing? Or should she do the re-writing first, and then ask for critiques?

I'll give you my thoughts on both issues, then you'll have to fill me in on your opinions in the comments!

1. When is the right time in the life of an author to start soliciting feedback from other writers or editors?

I believe newer writers need to be careful about getting critiques too soon in their writing careers. The wrong kind of feedback (or too much) can overly-discourage and crush the writerly spirit. Usually our first couple of manuscripts are full of problems. And rightly so. We're still learning and growing in our writing skill.

In hindsight I'm relieved I never solicited feedback on my first couple of manuscripts. They were riddled with mistakes–backstory dumps, passive verbs, clich├ęd descriptions, etc. If another writer would have ripped apart my manuscript at that point, I'm not sure that I would have had the strength or desire to keep going. I would have felt terrible, like I had no potential or talent.

Instead, ignorance was bliss. I kept writing, and of course, kept studying how to become a better writer. With each book, I continued to improve, so that over time I could see problems in those earlier books for myself.

I encourage newer writers to set aside their first manuscript (or two) for a while and work on a new book. Then come back to the book in six months to a year. By that point, you'll have gained objectivity and hopefully some new skills that will help you self-edit the book again. (Or perhaps you'll find like I did that the books will need to be completely re-written to be worthwhile.)

2. When is the right time in the life of a book to send it out for critiques?

This is a question I've struggled through. And while I don't think there is a right or wrong answer, a little planning can save some time and effort (and frustration!).

The first step of any editing process is to get big-picture feedback. At this stage we can look for beta readers or someone knowledgeable of our genre to give an over-arching critique–what works and what doesn't as far as plot lines and character development.

I've learned the hard way, that it doesn't really make any sense (and is essentially a waste of time) to line-edit a manuscript before doing rewrites. Why pour our attention into the commas at this stage when large chunks will be added or deleted?

After making rewrites on the bigger problem issues, then it's time to focus on getting a more detailed critique of the smaller details. That means checking for repetitious words, historical accuracy, setting and sensory details, varying sentence structure, etc. A good critique partner (particularly another writer) can be helpful in pointing out these kinds of details.

Then finally, before a book goes to print, every writer needs to have a skilled editor (or two) comb through the manuscript for copy edits. This is the stage for nit-picking, for finding every jot and tittle that's wrong.

In other words, in the editing process make sure to go in order from macro-edits down to micro. Sometimes you may even have to do each a couple of times before moving on to the next level.

And when asking someone for a critique, be sure to specify what level of feedback you're looking for so that they know where to focus (i.e. big picture versus details).

Those are my opinions! Now I'd love to hear yours! When do you think is the right time in the life of an author to start soliciting feedback from others? And when do you think is the right time in the life of a book to get input?

Thanks to everyone who helped me celebrate the release of A Noble Groom last week! I had one of my daughters draw the names of the winners for the two autographed books. And the winners are: Shelly Daum and Marissa Mehresman. Congratulations! I'll be in touch with you soon!

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