Writing Better: On Soliciting Professional Feedback

I’ve had a lot of thoughts for blog posts lately, but my time has been sucked up trying to take my book from good to sellable (per the feedback of an agent who would like to see it again). Since it is my goal not to let an agent down if at all humanely possible, I’ve been focusing on that task. As I am through the second round of changes and some of my beta readers are hacking up the text for me, I can take a breather, which really means I can work on another novel and finally get a blog post out.

Ahh. Just got my first cup of tea, things should become more coherent from here on in.

I’ve been thinking about what has helped me improve my work and gotten me to the point where I have an agent interested in one of my books. It has taken many things, including the support of some wonderful people, but there is much that you must bring to the process before you can rise up on that foundation.

One of the single most important things I learned was to treat it like a job. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy writing. Enjoy the hell out of it. Just remember, if you want to be a published author, you also have to take it seriously and be willing to put in the hours to make your work worthy of the time readers will put into it and to market it to those readers.

Learning to write well requires effort. Write a lot. Read a lot. Study the work of those you admire. Read books and articles on writing. Read the blogs of agents, they have vast knowledge about trends and about what sells. Above all, when you feel you are ready, put your work in front of people.

Who do I give my work to?

Friends and relatives are always an easy place to start and you can gradually figure out who is interested and will make a good long term beta reader. Then you can start educating them on the kind of feedback that is most valuable to you.

Critique groups are another good source, so long as you learn to sleuth through the feedback and find the wisdom. Remember, people in such groups have different agendas, styles and skill levels.

Professionals in the industry. It is easier than I would have believed to get your work in front of agents and editors.  Obviously, you can submit work to magazines, agents and book publishers in the usual ways and I’ve gotten some valuable feedback this way as well as a few less valuable form rejections, but that is hardly the end of it.

Conferences are great for getting feedback on pitches, queries and synopsis, and for soliciting interest from agents and editors. See how they react to your idea and to how you presented it. Find out what worked for them or turned them off. I met the agent interested in my current book this way and got an opportunity to get detailed feedback from another agent on the first three chapters of that book.

Contests are another great medium. There are many short story contests, including Writer’s of the Future where I got feedback that opened my eyes to a plot problem in a short story that made the semifinalists. Large writing groups can put on some great contests and keep you apprised of other such opportunities in your area. You can also find contests all over the web these days. Watch blogs from agents, editors, publishers, and published authors for contests in which feedback on some portion of your book or your submission packet (query, synopsis, etc.) will be professionally critiqued as part of the prize or as a reward for participation.

Webinars are another resource for professional feedback, such as those put on by Writer’s Digest. These give you a chance to build your writing skills and, in some cases, a critique of some kind comes with the price of admission. I recently attended one where the presenting agent gave a pitch critique as part of the admission.

What do I do with all this feedback?

Trying to find the key to succeeding as a writer can sometimes feel like shooting mosquitoes in the dark with a long bow. It doesn't have to be that way. When you've accumulated feedback from a variety of sources, then you can start mining for gold.

This can be tricky. I entered a contest with two different novels this year and received feedback from two category judges on each. The feedback was… fascinating.

One novel scored higher than I expected and the judges both praised similar things, world building, premise, dialogue, etc. They both had a problem with a few things including the viewpoint in the first chapter and a stiff tone in some of the text, which gave me some great ideas on what I needed to do to improve the work.

The second novel was the real puzzler. The two judges in that category were widely at odds in their opinions. One gave it a near perfect score, commenting on the great pacing and great characters. The other gave it a good score, but cited problems with the pacing and the characters.

Hmmm. Well, people are diverse, that’s why you have to learn to sift out the gold.

Look for common complaints in feedback from different sources. These are the things you really need to work on and getting feedback from unrelated sources will show you what the most glaring issues are. It will also show you what you do best and can build upon.

Every bit of personal response you get from anyone should go into a common pool, even feedback for different projects. Your weaknesses and strengths will come through in all your work and finding these things will help you focus your efforts.

It took me over half my life to believe that I could make my writing into more than a hobby. Since I finally committed myself to it, I have discovered a whole world of resources that can help me make it happen. Don’t be afraid to dive in at the deep end.

Happy writing!