All writers need feedback on their work. But, whom do you ask?
A year ago when I started writing fulltime, I quickly completed my first short story. It is called “Infinite View.” The story is constructed in three parts. Of course, I thought it was pure genius, and I decided to get some feedback. First, I asked my wife to read it. She said she liked the beginning and end but thought I could eliminate the middle. She suggested I send it to her brother, who is a University level, Journalism Professor. He said he liked the middle and end but thought the beginning could go. He asked if he could send it to his girlfriend, a voracious reader, and good critic. She thought the beginning and middle were good, but suggested I jettison the end. I looked at the document, processed the feedback, and thought: I could satisfy everyone, if I just hit delete.
What’s a writer to do?
The advice you receive on getting feedback is varied and confusing. Some suggest to only let your work be read by someone who is in a position to buy it. Others recommend workshops; perhaps get an MFA, and others say to develop a set of trusted beta readers from the writing community.
I was fortunate to find The Mill (here in WI), and I signed up for a fiction workshop. It was run by Steve Polansky, an experienced University writing Professor and published author with great credentials: a novel, a book of short stories, New Yorker, Glimmer Train, etc.
The workshop is 8 weeks and costs $200 ($180 if you become a member of The Mill for $35). It was well worth the investment. The first story I submitted, “Frames,” another work of my genius, came back from Steve looking like a term paper that received a grade of F-. The line edit called out antecedent issues, attribution issues, POV issues, but also had margin comments such as: ‘your prose really crackles here’, ‘great sentence structure’, and ‘fresh idea’. I was devastated and encouraged. The good thing is that once you research and fix the mechanical issues, you will rarely repeat them in future work. The typical charge for a line edit that includes, Proof Reading (basic errors, typos), Copy Editing (grammar, consistency), and Content Editing (overall flow) could run about $5-$10/page. Over the course of the workshop I submitted four stories, about 70 pages. On the open market this would have cost me $350 – $700. So the workshop was a great deal.
Another benefit is that I built relationships with other local writers. We provided feedback on each other’s work during the workshop, and we continued to meet and support each other after the workshop ended. To swipe a blurb from the Workshop description:
“The best things come, as a general thing, writes Henry James, “from the talents that are members of a group; every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, emulation.”
In addition to local workshops, there are other options, and one that I can suggest is the Facebook group: The 1% Writers Club. Run by Jennifer Blanchard (check out her books on Amazon), a best selling author and astute writer’s coach. You will find almost daily VLOG’s from Jennifer that will inform and motivate you. Also, you will extend your reach to others in the writing community. I’ve found a few folks that are now on my shortlist for beta readers, and I return the favor to them. This is free.
I spent 3 months in South Korea this year (a long story), and I developed relationships with a few writers through the Seoul Writers Workshop. I am continuously trading work with a few writers, and this has been very valuable for my development.
The hard work of editing and revising starts with the writer. If you don’t have the time or money to go through an MFA program I would suggest three books. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Davis King and Renni Browne, Writing In General and The Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills, and, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Reject Bin by Noah Lukeman. They contain a wealth of information on improving your craft.
How would you like to spend 8 hours listening to Stephen King? Get his book, On Writing: a Memoir. I’d recommend the audio version, read by King. It puts you across the kitchen table with King, as he gives writing advice, and his life story.
So, just because your friend, or significant other is in two book clubs, or actually finished Moby Dick, be wary of who you let read your work, it may set you in the wrong direction. But, you need to get feedback. Be choice full, and get your work in the hands of others who are equipped to help you improve.
Yes, getting feedback is hard, but, no pain, no gain. Don’t be fragile: you won’t break, and the more you get, the easier it is. Commit to the hard work of acquiring many productive avenues for feedback, and your work will move down the path from good to great.
Michael Hopkins is a freelance writer and serves on the board of The Mill. He lives with his wife, cats and chickens on a modest farmette in Wisconsin. He is currently fretting about misplaced commas.