When to Stop Taking Feedback
How do you know when you’re done writing a book?
Or a story, essay, or article? Anyone who writes seriously — meaning, writing with an aim to publish — knows that the answer to that question is not when you reach “The End.” Yes, your first draft is an achievement worth celebrating, but as Ernest Hemingway famously said,
The first draft of anything is shit.
You’ve been told this, much less directly, since you were writing five-paragraph essays in seventh grade. It’s one thing you learned in school that is in fact true. Writing for publication is like tackling an obstacle course. Completing your first draft means you’re gotten over one of the major hurdles, but there are still monkey bars, a rope climb, an inverted wall, and plenty of rough ground to cover before you reach the finish line.
You need eyes on your work before you send it out into the world
Sometimes, if you’re writing short-form and are under a tight deadline, those eyes might have to be yours. The trick, in that case, is to give your piece a rest — even half an hour or less can help, if you distract yourself effectively with another task or something else that occupies your mind — and then return to your project and read it aloud. Even if you have to mumble to yourself at your office workstation or commandeer the staff restroom, don’t skip this step. Especially not if you’re the only one who will edit your work before you hit the submit button. I’m no brain scientist, but reading your words aloud to yourself engages some other cranial apparatuses than the one you used to compose your work, thus allowing you to see and hear errors, gaffes, misplaced modifiers, and phrases or sentences that are simply unclear.
For longer-form writing, and for any kind of fiction, however, your work needs and deserves feedback. Switching metaphors here, your earliest draft is a tender sprout that needs to be nurtured at least through the seedling stage before you expose it to the elements. It’s best to do some pruning and weeding before you share it with critical (and I mean that in the nicest way) eyes.
But once you’ve got that green shoot hardened off (okay, I’ll stop now), you do need feedback from one or more critique partners or beta readers. You can certainly pay a professional editor to help hone your work, but don’t start there — a pro editor can help you best when your work isn’t completely raw, and it’s a far better use of your money and time if you get other eyes on your work first.
For most of us starting out, feedback means finding a critique group
Or a single partner, although the benefit of having a group means you’re not depending too much on only one outside perspective. Some writers swear by working with a single, trusted critique partner, however, and that’s fine. The point is to get honest, unflinching, and constructive reflection on your work.
Finding people who know how to read deeply and offer clear, articulate, and helpful comments takes a lot of effort, often in the form of trial-and-error. But once you do, your critique partners are one of your best writing resources, worthy of cultivation and deserving of your generous investment of time.
Still, there comes a time to cut the cord
Your work-in-progress may have to go through any number of drafts, with levels of revision ranging from major structural overhauls for plot, pacing, or character development to minor tweaks for clarity or refinement. How many passes will you need, and how long will it take? The variables that determine these are so wide-ranging from writer to writer and project to project that the only person who can even take a guess at those answers is you — unless, of course, you’ve got a pro editor with a deadline breathing down your neck (in which case, lucky you — it’s astounding how your muse responds to a paycheck and a deadline).
Getting feedback is crucial to moving your writing to a higher level. Still, your work is your baby and your responsibility, and getting it where you want it to be — clear, engaging, and unputdownable — before you send it off to an agent, an acquiring editor, or a publisher is your job and nobody else’s. There comes a time when you’ve gleaned everything you’re likely to get from your beta readers and critique buddies, and hopefully at least one proofreader. Then it’s time to shove your fledgling out of the nest (did I say I’d stop with the metaphors? I lied).
What are the signs you’ve reached that point?
As with everything else related to writing, it’s subjective. But there are certain indicators that tell you it’s (probably) time to move your project to the submission phase:
- the feedback you’re getting on your last pass reflects that your WIP is doing what you want it to, with only minor suggestions or corrections
- you’re not getting questions about clarity, point of view, story logic and/or plot, or character development
- criticism has dwindled to the nitpickiest of comments — as in, at the comma level
- the comments you’re getting are either suggestions you’ve already tried and then rejected or, after due consideration, you don’t agree with them
- your beta readers/critiquers are giving you conflicting feedback, and you realize it’s more a function of their individual tastes than the quality of your work
- your gut tells you you’ve taken this thing as far as you can, and you truly believe it stands up to comparable work
Notice what’s missing in that list: you’re sick and tired of revising. Sorry. But if you’ve hit most of those points, especially the last one, then you might be done.
Or you might not. You’ll only know that when you let your baby test its wings (couldn’t resist).
Revising the Novel You Thought Was Finished
How to persevere when your manuscript boomerangs
Could you keep tweaking your work forever? Yes. Should you?
Short answer: no. Not if you ever want it to see the light of day. To quote E.M. Forster:
“A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.”
Recognize that for the life of your project, people will have varying opinions about it — that’s the nature of literature, and it explains why the same story prompts a wide variety of reviews from readers. It’s what writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson meant when he said “No two persons ever read the same book.”
And remember, when you’re submitting your work for commentary or critique, even though you’re secretly hoping they’ll do nothing but rave about it, you’re basically granting them license to find what’s wrong with it — and trust me, they will. One more quote from H.G. Wells:
“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”
Do your level best, and then some, but learn when it’s time to move on. There are other stories waiting to be written. I don’t know about other forms of art, but with literature, the goal is brilliance. Not perfection.
I’m a writer, educator, voice actor, and sometimes a horse whisperer (when they feel like listening). Published in The Startup, Writing Cooperative, P.S. I Love You, The Ascent, Illumination, The Narrative, and more. Award-winning short fiction in magazines & journals. Visit me at www.JanMFlynn.net.