Feedback, appraisals, and how to improve your writing

All manuscripts – no matter how brilliant a writer you are, or how expert you may be in a particular field – benefit from constructive criticism. I would strongly suggest that you do not submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher until it has been through a process of seeking feedback, really listening to the feedback, and then revising your work based on that feedback.

It takes a degree of courage to allow others to read your work at first – your work represents many, many hours of hard work and may contain themes that are very personal to you. But reassure yourself that your manuscript will only benefit from such feedback and remind yourself that a poorly written or argued piece of writing will attract much harsher criticism in the long run.

When seeking feedback, you need to be clear about what you are looking for. Are you looking for unbridled praise, or do you actually want useful criticism that can be used to improve your work? Keep this point in mind when choosing who you will ask to read your work. A friend, family member or colleague may seem like a convenient choice or may represent your ‘ideal reader’ but the reality is that they will probably hold back on true criticism because they (a) like you, (b) have no experience of critiquing writing and (c) may not be able to effectively communicate problems that they identify in your writing.

So where do you go for constructive criticism? Enrolling in a writing course or joining a local writing group both provide great opportunities for workshopping your writing. Your state writers’ centre (see list here) or sometimes your local library should be able to provide details of both. There are also a number of online websites that allow you to post up a manuscript (often section by section) for feedback from other members. They generally work on a reciprocal system, so you will be expected to critique others’ writing too.

A professional manuscript appraisal is another option for receiving thorough and targeted advice by a professional who knows the publishing industry. Again, your state writers’ centre can generally provide advice on where to go for a manuscript appraisal and usually offer reduced rates for members.

Once you’ve submitted your work for critique, prepare yourself for the fact that not everyone is going to love your work. Receiving criticism can hurt and many people’s first reaction is to dismiss the reviewer’s comments as rubbish. However, you need to remember that although the reviewer may have picked holes in your manuscript (many holes, if they are any good), they are not trying to personally attack you – they are trying to improve the quality of your writing and its chance of future commercial success. Although there may be initial shock at reading their comments, make sure you don’t just dismiss them. Don’t blame the reviewer for ‘not getting it’, for having different tastes to you, and don’t argue.

Stop and think about how you can use the feedback you’ve received. Review, revise and rewrite if necessary. Even if you don’t agree with some of the feedback you’ve received, it is usually beneficial to at least revisit that section of the manuscript. Justify (to yourself, not the reviewer) the decisions that you’ve made. And always remember that if more than one reviewer picks up the same issues, then you almost definitely have a problem.

Receiving and using constructive criticism can be one of the hardest parts of the writing process but your work will undoubtedly improve as a result.