#708: My friends promised me feedback on my novel, but then never came through. What now?

O Captain my Captain:

How on earth does one ever take charge of the creative process when it requires the input of others? Please help.

The specifics: I’ve written a novel. (Okay, actually I’ve written three. But I could imagine that someone might want to publish this one someday.) Various friends, colleagues, etc. have offered to read it and provide comments. Of those people (all of who have received it roughly 6 months ago), I’ve gotten responses from … one. Out of ten.

The jerkbrain has a really good answer to this: it’s such shit that nobody can finish it, and they don’t want to be honest, so I should just smash the computer and move on with my life and find something else to do. Preferably something where I can fool people into thinking I’m competent. Fuck my dreams. Fuck the work I put in. I’m bad at this and that’s that.

How do I silence the jerkbrain? Actually, more importantly, how do I actually get some useful feedback so that I can actually work on making it better? (That would go a long way towards silencing the jerkbrain, since it would give me something to actually work on!)

I’ve tried leveling with the people I’m the closest to, and asked them to commit to reading it and getting me comments by some specific date. And: radio silence from one, broken promises from two more. And some good news: regular updates from one about the life events that are keeping her from getting there, which is awesome, and keeps giving me hope!

— the next Bulwer-Lytton [or insert your least favorite author here]

Dear Bulwer-Lytton,

Thanks for your question, I love when someone sends in the opposite of a prior question!

You have learned something, and that something is not that your novel is bad. That something is: People who like you say ‘I can’t wait to read your novel, please give it to me!’ because they are excited for you and want to share in your achievement, but that doesn’t mean that they will actually read your novel “soon” or “at all.” It’s insidious, because the longer they go without doing it, the more the shame and pressure and obligation surrounding it grows, and the harder it is to cut through all of that and just read the thing.

I charge people $300 to read & give feedback for a feature screenplay. That’s not an ad for my services in that regard, since if you’re going to spend money on something like that, you should probably find someone with professional writing credits or Hollywood connections to do it (maybe) instead of me. I actually have no idea what the going market rate for this is, this is just my price. Why $300?

1) I don’t actually want to read people’s scripts and give them notes, I do enough of that as a teacher. In my free time I want to work on my own writing. Adding a cost keeps the requests few and far between. It makes it worth it to me to block the time to spend on the project.

2) It attracts people who have a near-final draft ready to go and who are serious about wanting the feedback. People value what they pay for.

3) You don’t have to take any of the feedback, and I don’t have to care whether or not you did, and nobody has to have feelings about it – that’s what the money is for.

I’m not saying that you, the Letter Writer should pay for feedback on your novel (I have another, better suggestion coming up below), but I wanted to share that because reading a long piece of writing and giving notes on it is actually work. “Read my novel” is a big ask, and it’s possible that the friends and family who volunteered to do it in that first fit of excitement either a) did not necessarily factor in that you meant, like, now or b) didn’t really understand how much work it takes until it was too late and your manuscript was sitting in their Obligation Pile of Shame and Regretted Favors.

Next time you’ll know this: If someone volunteers to read your novel, send them the first chapter or so. If they write back to you wanting more, you have good feedback from that act alone: You wrote a good first chapter, you hooked them, they do actually want to read it, and they will likely give you notes. If they don’t ask for more, it might just a thing they can’t prioritize with limited bandwidth and time, they might not be great feedback-givers or simply, they may not be your audience. If no one gets back to you after reading a chapter, you also have useful feedback that maybe your opening chapter needs a stronger hook.

What you really need, in my opinion, is a writer’s group. Some like-minded people, in the same creative trenches you’re in, with the expectation that everyone will read each other’s work and everyone will give feedback, but without the initial emotional connection and history that you have with people close to you, with regular meetings and enough structure to keep you working. It may take you a few tries to find the right group, and you won’t like everyone’s comments (or their work) and vice versa. If you can’t find a writer’s group near you or one you like and you need some feedback and some structure in your life, you might also look into taking a class. That link goes to a Chicago-based resource, but Google things like “Writer’s workshops” or “writing classes” near your location and see what you turn up. Community colleges can have great offerings.

Also, holy shit, you wrote three novels! Let us bask for a moment in the glory of your accomplishments!

Tom Hiddleston as Loki throwing his hands up in the air proclaiming

Seriously, that’s amazing!

If you want to rescue things from Awkwardland with your friends, you might want to let them know that while you’re bummed they didn’t get a chance to read your novel, you’re going to look to a writer’s group for the feedback you need, so there is no pressure on them to get back to you. Find trusted first readers, let your friends go back to being your friends, and all will be well.

169 thoughts on “#708: My friends promised me feedback on my novel, but then never came through. What now?

  1. I think it’s quite likely that they didn’t realise quite how much work it is to read and give feedback on a novel. It’s not something you really think about most of the time. I mean, (a lot of) people read, right? So it can’t be that much harder to read something and then opine on it. But… it actually is. Especially a novel-length something. I think asking friends who’ve never done any kind of feedback-giving or editing before is always going to get a pretty low response rate just for that reason, so the writer’s group thing is really good advice. People are more likely to have practice at it, they know about writing so they can often give advice on how to improve what’s weak, and they have incentive to actually put effort in because they’re hoping to get effort back as well.

    1. 1. Love your username

      2. I think that’s quite likely. It’s difficult for non-writers (-insert creative field of choice) to opine on a thing because they often don’t have the vocabulary to explain what they mean.

      Also friends worry about your feelings. It’s the worst.

      1. Yes! I’m a lit teacher and we spend a looooot of time teaching kids how to talk about literature beyond ‘I like this” and “this sucks”. It’s work, it’s hard, and it has to be taught/learned/practiced.

        1. This is so true about so many things.

          I work and am practiced in the nonprofit project world, and am comfortable writing in my space and judging how long something will take. I’ve recently been put on a project that involves talking about design aesthetic – and I’ve quickly learned that after saying “design aesthetic” my language for talking about designs and why two designers are/are not compatible is beyond limited. I am in that Sesame Street world of saying “these two go together”, “these two don’t go together”. But when partners ask me to explain why (particularly when the responses need to be tactful), my limited language becomes painfully obvious (to me).

          Many of us read books, many of us shop for clothing – but talking them at a professional level…..that’s a whole other beast.

    2. Yes, this! I have a lovely, perfect friend who wrote a lovely, perfect book. (It really was quite good.) I was so excited for her and asked to be an early reader. She sent it to me, and 5 pages in, I knew I was in for a slog.

      Even though the book was very good, and even though I’m a literature major who loves nothing more than to dissect books, it was HARD giving commentary on her book.

      I finally sat down and made myself do it, after about 6 months and several follow ups from her. It took more than 4 hours for me to type up all of my notes. And that was me trying to be judicious and only select what I felt strongly about. It was tough!

      The whole enterprise is hard. From the fact she was my friend and I cared about how she felt enough to be careful in my terms and examples. (I didn’t not say anything I felt needed to be said, I just said it carefully.) To the fact that a raw book, no matter how skillfully written, no matter how full of promise and rife with glittering passages, is an utter mess in some parts.

      It made me REALLY APPRECIATE the role of professional editors, from agents to fact checkers, from copy editors to senior editors. Her book needed restructuring across a couple of major sections in order to tie up the threads, and that was difficult to convey. I think I conveyed it, but I’m sure not with the professionalism someone in the industry would have.

      Also, who am I? I’m just her girlfriend with a lit degree. I was pretty convinced of my assertions, but it was still hard taking a stance on some of my suggested reorderings. I tried to emphasize how good I really felt the book was, and that she was completely free to not listen to a thing I said.

      In the end, she said she really appreciated it (another 6 months later). At the time, I got no response at all! I may have upset her although I tried really hard not to. She was working on another book in the meantime and put the one I’d commented on aside. I think the distance of time may have taken some of the sting out of anything I said. I know she has been working on yet another book since then, but she hasn’t asked me to be a first pass reader again!

      TL;DR – It’s hard reading your friend’s book! It’s hard to have your book read by a friend! Be careful what you ask for, both ways.

      1. Yeah, in all honesty, getting just a random person, or a writing friend, or anyone who’s not doing it for pay, is just plain hard to get what you want out of them. I’m a speed reader and good at critiquing and this sort of thing would be easier for me than anyone else, but…well, at best they only kinda halfway took my suggestions and then sent it back to me with only half the problems fixed, all thrilled.

        And even worse: some people…don’t take criticism well. Like holy shit, they don’t. It can seriously risk a friendship to critique their novel.

        Or you end up reading their work after they self-published and… well, let’s just say one fellow, whose work I generally like otherwise…wow, did not like the book at all. Too many skin-crawlingly creepy characters and I would not have read it at all had it not been his. I just haven’t said a word and I feel bad about it, but no response is probably better than “Uh…not to my taste, sorry” or worse (“had I been given this before publication I would have had a lot of critiques for you”). I am a book reviewer and I just didn’t mention it at all because I can’t give it a good review. I want to support the guy’s other works, but not that one. Meanwhile, apparently everyone else in my writing group loves it. I feel bad, but ARGH.

        I think the Captain is right on writing groups (because at least those people are volunteering to do it), or paying someone. But holy shit, don’t ask your friends. Don’t even MENTION it to your friends.

  2. I definitely agree about finding a writer’s group. Googling “online critique group” can help you connect with a bunch of potential beta readers online. Libraries and bookstores also sometimes host regular writing workshops, which can help you meet fellow writers who might provide honest feedback on your work.

    Less general options: Writer’s guilds can be another potential resource, though their meetings are largely concentrated in major urban areas. For students, creative writing classes and student clubs can be another way to get your work critiqued.

  3. Oh, dear LW! I completely understand this situation, having been there myself. A few ideas:

    1. Cut down the number of people giving you feedback on any given project to 3. Four at the most–sometimes I’ll ask someone new to read a later revision, so there are fresh eyes. But any more than that and it’s hard to wrangle them.

    2. Audition people. Seriously. I like the Captain’s advice of giving them a chapter or two first, but even if you don’t do that, think about whether potential readers talk about books, whether you like the same kinds of books (a person who loves cozy mysteries may not be the best for your deep space apocalyptic thriller). It’s not that you can or should only ask for feedback from people who are going to love what you write, but it’s definitely worth asking whether the reader would like this book, in its best form, written by someone they don’t know. If the answer is a strong NO, maybe pass on them.

    (It’s also worth noting that sometimes people who love reading and love books don’t necessarily love engaging critically with them.)

    3. Give a clear deadline for when you need feedback. I mean, don’t be a jerk about it, but if you really want feedback by the end of the month and they don’t realize that and think it’s a vaguer “read whenever!” deal, then there are crossed wires and sad feelings.

    4. Agree so much with the Captain’s suggestion about finding a writer’s group! Even if you find people who are more lapsed writers, having that sense of what’s involved helps tremendously, as well as the sense of commitment involved in giving feedback. Related to this, Maggie Stiefvater, YA author and wringer of hearts, does a semi-regular (annual??) critique partner match-up, and I know of people who have found great CPs from this.

    Maybe all of these have already occurred to you/don’t work in your situation, but hopefully you find the right combination of people and situations that work for you. And best of luck!

    1. Ooh, ooh, to build on #3, give a clear, SOONish deadline for them to read it and give you notes, and build in a “If you can’t get to it by then, I understand – I’d always love to know your thoughts, but I’ve got other readers I can move on to and I don’t want to overfill your plate!” clause in that gives them permission to bow out after a certain amount of time.

    2. Your parenthetical to #2 so true. I love to read, but the extent to which I want to critically engage with what I am reading is this “I am finding this very enjoyable.” Or “Hey, this is boring/not to my taste, I’m going to stop reading it now.”

      If a good friend wrote a novel, I probably WOULD want to read it, but I wouldn’t want to give her notes or be involved in that process. I’d probably buy a copy of their finished work regardless, and then I may or may not ever finish it.

      1. This is my level of engagement too. Will buy a finished copy to support and help promote online, may or may not read it. I love editing for free for friends, but my max length is an essay or journal article and my main motivation is to help my ESL friends.

    3. I think the suggestion of dividing the novel into chunks for your readers is a great one. Just being handed 500 pages to not only read, but thoroughly comment is daunting, and the perceived scale of the task can make it hard for people to get started. It may seem never-ending and could be difficult for people to manage their reviewing time into reasonable chunks of time to work on a portion of it. In contrast, if you give people 20 pages at a time, people may look at that and see something they can just sit down an knock out in one or two sittings. Even if they end up reviewing the entire book, giving it to them in sections may help make it seem less insurmountable.

      For the whole book at once, many folks may procrastinate (it’s not their job, so there’s no “I just have to buckle down and do this”) because contemplating the “weeks it’ll take me to do right” just seems so involved. With a chapter “Oh, I can just do this tonight and get right back to LW!”

    4. To build on #2, you’re also auditioning how the people give feedback and how you respond to your feedback. For instance, maybe you use emoticons all the time, and your one friend never uses emoticons, and you keep thinking they’re angry at you when they aren’t. Maybe not a good person to provide you written feedback. Maybe you have another friend who’s a really good writer, but you’ve gotten feedback from them before, and you just get defensive and kind of hurt because of it.

      Along with your friends’ taste in novels, it’s also worth considering how they give feedback and how you respond to their feedback. Some of that you don’t know before you try, but you may want to think about it beforehand.

  4. What a friend and I had some success doing for each other was using GoogleDocs, uploading a scene or a chapter at a time. The comment/sticky note ability makes it pretty easy for us to leave little notes like, “You’ve dropped a name in here that we’re obviously supposed to recognize but they haven’t been introduced yet,” or “this phrase is super evocative!” It’s also helped with the overwhelmingness of getting a whole huge thing all at once.

    I love reading, love writing, and love giving useful feedback to people who I know will take it in the spirit it’s been shared in, but a whole novel gives me a weird sense of Massive Responsibility That Surely I Shall Fail. The Captain’s suggestion of sharing a chapter and seeing if they want more is a really good one, and a way to slip by that feeling, which is apparently pretty common!

    And if you have trouble finding an IRL writer’s group there should be online resources, though I don’t personally have any links at my fingertips right now. I’ve met some people via the NaNoWriMo website who do online versions of writer’s groups, often using GoogleDocs for sharing and critique.

    1. Yep, my friends and I often use sites like Livejournal and post a chapter at a time. Comments are often the equivalent of, “I’m reading and I like this but have nothing substantive to say”, which is often all the feedback a writer needs to quell the “oh god it sucks” jerkbrain.

      1. The advantage of this model is that the writer can post to a blog, give people they want to read it access, and those people can go in their own time and read it or not. You’re not singling anyone out to do you a favour; you’re just putting it up in the open.

        1. These days I use a Dreamwidth account that does polls, and always include a kudos-poll that says “I read this and liked it” so leaving feedback is as simple as clicking a button. A lot of the time getting reader feedback is about lowering the barriers.

    2. It IS a super great idea, but I would be concerned with the copyright of my hypothetical novel and google’s (or livejournal)’s terms of use. Can anyone comment on this?

      1. Set it so that by default it’s private, and only accessible to the friends you choose to make it accessible to. That way it doesn’t mess with your first publication rights.

        I have never heard of Google or Livejournal or any similar service claim that because a work was posted on their platform first, an author cannot publish it or claim copyright. i know that people often read TOSes and think this is what the service is saying, but that more frequently refers to the ability of services to show the text in something other than the exact same context it was posted (for example, a Livejournal post of mine can be shown on my journal subdomain, be emailed to friends who ask to be notified when I post, on the main site when a friend logs in, and then again on their friends page; Livejournal has to assume limited copyright in the sense that if I have consented to show a specific post to specific people, it can choose the delivery method for them.

      2. In Word, if you go to the Review ribbon, you can add notes. Pages does something similar. You’d just have to send a small file instead of using a site.

        Or use Dropbox.

  5. Another thing you could do in addition to all of the above is to kindly ask them to read an excerpt that you feel could be compelling as a microcosm of the work as a whole–of the entire novel’s structure, characterizations, linguistic style, etc. You know, an excerpt like one you would see on an author’s website anyway. The excerpt you share can be longer than that (5 to 10 pages), but still short enough for people to actually feel capable and interested in making the commitment.

    This will work best (in my prediction, I must admit I’ve never done this before!) if you provide them a little worksheet, some kind of structure, of feedback. In the form of open-ended questions, like…

    What intrigues you the most?
    What gave you a thrill?
    What felt dull as you read it?
    Were there any moments of disconnect where the language seemed to be stylistically unfit for the signified?
    Were there any moments of zinging connection in which the language and the content really jived and resonated with you?
    What do you, as a reader of this microcosm/excerpt, perceive to be the central themes of the novel? (or central conflicts, adventures, etc)
    How do you feel about this character? This one? This one? (etc)
    Is there a “speaker”, and if so, how do you feel about this entity, both in terms of their perceived personality and in terms of tone/delivery?

    I think these questions and others like them could A) be really fun for people to answer, and B) provide you some insight that is not directly related to the CREATION or CHANGING of your work, but rather to how the work is ALREADY perceived. I say this in contrast, or in addition to, the Captain’s suggestion that you join a writing group. DO! Join a group!

    But I do think that the problem with such groups is that unless people are skilled evaluators (which is truly a skill, not just something people of an expertise in a field can do), a group can become stagnant really fast. Like, people unskilled at giving feedback will say such boring unhelpful things as “you could do this” or “if I were writing it, I would do this” or “no way would the character EVER do THAT!” (this feedback might be helpful at times, of course, but I find it limiting, personally).

    Better to get people to respond emotionally and creatively, almost in the form of a journal entry. Frame the notion of feedback as *reflecting on your reading experiences, both emotionally and intellectually* (and even physically–where did you grip the book tighter? where did you giggle? where did you set the book down and yawn?) rather than in terms of *feedback to improve your novel,* which can devolve into writing advice/storytelling cliches (“your lovers need to be in kaaahhhnnnflict”) and awkward evasions of sincere critique.

    Make it a fun writing project for THEM. Isn’t that what all writers want of their readers, in this day and age, present company (Captain) included? Don’t we want our writing to inspire beautiful written responses? Create some kind of worksheet of evocative questions for people to respond to in addition to the work, and they will have a great time, and you will have some earnest critique.

    1. I love the idea of creating a survey or worksheet to help guide or frame the responses. ❤

    2. This set of questions is amazeballs. I am so going to do this with the next round of feedback and whatever else that I get. Thank you! (Apologies to everyone else that I am getting through the comments very slowly — I will respond to a bunch of stuff tomorrow!)


  6. I’m in the middle of reading and critiquing a friend’s novel right now, oddly enough. And I have to call out this bit:

    “Read my novel” is a big ask, and it’s possible that the friends and family who volunteered to do it in that first fit of excitement…

    Reading the novel is one big ask on its own. Depending on how long it is and how quickly the person reads, that could be anywhere from 2 hours to 10 or 12 hours of time. But providing feedback is a much bigger ask. As, effectively, an editor, it requires me to actively consider what’s working and what’s not working.

    I can’t just say, “Hmmm, that was nice”, or “Not sure how I feel about that”. I have to provide written feedback, and that means putting my thoughts in order, finding coherent words to express them… and then taking the time to actually type them all out, too (or hand-write, but I want someone to be able to read this).

    Someone who’s never done that before has fairly little idea of what they’re getting into when they say they’ll provide feedback. You say you’ll do it, thinking, “Hey, how hard can feedback be? I’ll just say what I think of it”, and then you realize that there is a lot there in a full-length novel to comment on. There’s characters, interactions between them, writing style, voice, tone, possibly world-building, there’s plotline, underlying themes, individual scenes… it just goes on.

    So my guess is that many of the friends really had no idea what they were getting into, and are now in over their depth.

    1. Yes. I edit for a living, and even with that there are whole categories of books I simply don’t work with, because the learning curve for editing them (as opposed to just enjoying them) is steep and I don’t have the energy/time. And the kind of editing that’s usually called “feedback” (developmental editing) is a lot more time- and energy-intensive than copyediting, because you’re not just correcting errors and smoothing prose. You’re also having to educate the author on what did and didn’t work in terms of the larger structure of the book, and why. (Which is why authors include acknowledgement sections, to honor that effort on the part of their beta readers.)

      tl;dr Good feedback is a lot of work, and it helps to have a reader who is genuinely interested in and familiar with your type of book, and in giving feedback.

    2. I am not a professional editor at all, but I have done some editing for friends and I really need to read through a piece twice before I feel confident enough to comment on it. Once to get the general shape of the thing, and then again to see what in particular would improve that shape. For something as long as a novel, that is a LOT of reading time. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it is a big commitment and to echo the Captain, it might be more commitment than your friends initially expected.

      1. I AM a professional, and not only is this kind of reading (which what I would call “developmental editing, and I, like the Captain, also charge a bunch for it, not because I don’t want to do it but because done well it is a FUCKTON of hard graft often with a side of playing shade-tree shrink with someone’s insecurities) a big ask, it requires a fairly complex skill-set.

        Dear LW, it is possible – if you consider the whole group it is actually probable that this will be true in at least one case – that they read it and liked it and can’t manage the feedback. It would be reasonable for you to ask, if you’re at a place where you can do it and not feel anxious and shamed yourself nor be angry at them, a few questions, a bit like this:

        “Friend, understanding that things don’t always go as planned and there is no shame here, may I ask you some questions about the book I sent you?

        Did you start it, or did life kind of mug you?
        If you started it and didn’t finish it, where did it lose you?
        If you started and finished it but couldn’t think of anything to say, did you enjoy it?
        Did it really not work for you and you weren’t comfortable saying that?
        Did you like any parts especially?
        Dislike any parts especially?

        Got any advice?”

        And this may get you something.

        This next bit is writing advice, which you did not ask for but which is I think relevant to what you did ask, so:

        Everyone’s mileage varies, but for nearly everyone on this planet, ten people is going to be many too many. If you had gotten long, detailed responses from all ten, you would most likely be flailing around right now trying desperately to reconcile all their responses and work put how to incorporate them without swamping your own voice.

        You got detailed feedback from one reader. Awesome. Now you know who to run the next book – or the next draft – past. One often is enough, if they’re a good one.

        I have a whole bunch of stuff I want to say about working out what kind of reading you want from a person and making that happen, both by picking them carefully and by priming them, but I’m going to come back later because it is very late.

        1. One of those types is me. I genuinely want to read friends’ draft novels, and do read them, frequently enjoy them, but really cannot think of any intelligent feedback to give after. I mean, “I enjoyed reading your book. Better than some other, published, books I’ve read recently.” is better than nothing, but not greatly helpful.

          In fact, I have someone’s book sitting about a metre away from me under some layers of dust because I just don’t know what to tell them. I read it months ago and it was ok!

          Questions like those above might prompt some kind of critical thought, I guess. The best interaction of this kind that I’ve experienced was when a friend asked really specific questions regarding things they were thinking about, like ‘Do you think the historical sections are too long?’, or ‘Did you find Xxxx a sympathetic character?’, and ‘Is Xxxx too recognisable?”
          Of course, that only works when a person has actually read it.

          1. Actually, “I enjoyed reading it, I’m just having trouble giving a real critique” is tremendously kind to the jerkbrain. Much better than radio silence! -LW

    3. I’m a freelance editor/copyeditor, and I still occasionally beta-read for friends. When I get paid, I will read and make notes on the whole thing, then I will write an editorial letter of typically 10-20 pages highlighting major issues; I will go over problems repeatedly – usually reading the whole book two or three times. I have a feeling that most people who aren’t used to critiquing see their job on this level, and that’s very daunting indeed.

      When I beta-read, I will give up 4-5 hours of my time. That means I will call out the major issues that I come across in the order I hit them. If I love the book, I will continue reading in my own time – hey, new book to read – otherwise I will say why I stopped reading.

      Picking what *kind* of feedback to give is a challenge in itself; and writers don’t always know what they’re looking for. It helps tremendously when your beta readers know what you want – do you want to know their reactions to the text (I felt the murders were too gory); are you looking for copyediting (all characters regardless of background use the same slang term), do you want structural input (too many viewpoints), do you want a plot critique (I didn’t believe that nobody would notice x)…

  7. Congrats on writing 3 novels!! Fist pump!! I also want to publish a book; best advice I was given, write it first! HA! So your are most of the way there. I would love to read your first chapter! What do you write about? Why don’t you past a few pages to your blog and see what the response is here?? Check me out if you have a chance http://www.anitaozo.com 🙂

  8. I was a writer, a few years back,and promised a friend feedback on her novel. And I started. But oh god,the first chapter took me days, and you know what, I didn’t have time. So rather than send her that….. I flaked and stopped reading her emails. Shitty thing to do but it made sense at the time 😦

    It’s a huge undertaking, giving feedback ona novel, and if your friends aren’t writers it’s likely their feedback won’t be much use anyway.

    Second suggestion of writers groups either online or meatspace.

    Also yes well done that’s amazing. I never got more than ten pages into a novel 🙂

  9. I feel like I’m in a unique position to comment because I have given a friend feedback on one novel and they asked for feedback on a second. My observation is that reading seems to be really hard for people. It takes them a long time and it’s not a priority. Keep in mind that the average person might read 20-30 pages in an hour, so for a 250 page book you’re talking 8-13 hours of commitment.

    So maybe your friends might sit down and read your book when they are free, but only get through a page or so. Maybe they feel like they can’t start reading it because they know they can’t finish. Also, maybe since they are your friends they feel they can’t come back and say something like “this thing you worked so hard on isn’t my taste. sorry”.

    Question: are you asking people who like to read books? How many books do they read a year? When’s the last time they finished a novel in the same genre as your novel? My friend had given snippets to several people and even then it took them weeks to get through that part.

    It was different for me because:
    1. I LOVE to read books in the genre they write
    2. I make time in my day for reading books
    3. She gave me a chapter and asked for specific feedback (“did you think X action was believable? What do you think about character Y”)
    4. I came back to THEM and said “ohmygodistheremore???”

    In short, good luck! Your accomplishments are amazing! I second the Captain’s advice to find a writers group. Don’t take it personally that your friends can’t do the thing.

    1. That bears some resemblance to how I ended up actually finishing my first novel. I had about 20 chapters – say 2/3 of a finished book. I kept rewriting and re-rewriting what I had rather than finishing. So I gave the first chapter to a friend, who read it and asked for more. And more. And more. And when I hit the last bit I had written and stopped sending new chapters, he started pestering me non-stop for the next bit, until I finally got off my butt and wrote it.

    2. I think it’s pretty common for people to have books lying around that they’ve “been meaning to read” for quite some time-even years. Even for people who read a lot, the list of “books I want to read” list can grow faster than the “books I’ve finished” list. I have several friends who read a lot, but have to read lists 50+ books deep (I tend to be more of a “decide the next book after I finish the one I’m reading now”, and while I read all the time while I was younger, I tend to go through ~6 months were I read a lot and then ~6 months where I read hardly at all). So it’s really not necessarily a personal affront if your readers don’t really even get to starting to read your book in the first place. Life happens, and it’s a pretty big commitment to provide comments on something as long as a novel.

      And favorite genres are important too. If someone doesn’t care for science-fiction, you could have written the best science-fiction novel ever, and they likely either a-won’t finish it or b-not care for it. Just things to keep in mind to try to keep your expectations realistic.

      1. From one of my favorite writers:

        If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
        by Italo Calvino

        “Sections in the bookstore

        – Books You Haven’t Read
        – Books You Needn’t Read
        – Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading
        – Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written
        – Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
        – Books You Mean to Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
        – Books Too Expensive Now and You’ll Wait ‘Til They’re Remaindered
        – Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback
        – Books You Can Borrow from Somebody
        – Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
        – Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages
        – Books You’ve Been Hunting for Years Without Success
        – Books Dealing with Something You’re Working on at the Moment
        – Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just in Case
        – Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer
        – Books You Need to Go with Other Books on Your Shelves
        – Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
        – Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time to Re-read
        – Books You’ve Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It’s Time to Sit Down and Really Read Them”

        1. Sounds about right!

          For the LW, people have a lot of different intentions when it comes to book. So someone either not reading your novel at all, or reading it in part or whole but not getting back to you isn’t an automatic critic of your book! The majority of the time, it has more to do with the other person’s reading habits and intentions and daily schedule that it does with anything regarding your work.

        2. Funnily enough If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is somewhere on one of my bookshelves as one of the Books You’ve Been Planning to Read for Ages …

        3. That is SUCH a good book; it was one of the ones we read/analyzed in my postmodern lit crit course. It took me two sections of the second-person thread to start treating “you” as a proper noun, after which it was far less confusing. 🙂

  10. I am sort-of one of those people who said “I’d love to read your work” to a friend and then just sat on it. Well, I got around to reading the first three chapters after a few weeks, then asked for the next three but just haven’t started reading them yet. And I love my friend, and I really wanted to read them. But it just hasn’t happened yet. So it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about your writing.

    Also super congratulations on writing three novels!

  11. An online resource that you might find helpful is critiquecircle.com. It’s a site where you exchange critiques — you get points for critiquing other people’s work and then use your points to post your work for critique in turn. Not all the critiques you’ll get are useful, because people there are at all levels of experience and skill, but all are interesting. And the readers there are motivated, so far more useful as readers than the average friend-and-family critique. In my experience, apart from not realizing what a big job it is to read and comment on a book, RL readers are 1) reluctant to be critical, 2) eager to say nice things, 3) unable to separate you-the-person from you-the-writer. Complete strangers, who know you only through the words you’ve written, are much more useful for providing good feedback. And it’s much better for your RL relationships.

    (My experience includes independently publishing four novels, of which a couple have spent most of the past year hopping on and off the Amazon metaphysical bestseller list, and which combined are closing in on 1000 Amazon reviews, averaging above 4 stars, so… yeah. Critiquecircle. I don’t hang out there anymore but I got a lot out of it when I did and my best beta reader is still a guy I met through there. My family and friends do read my work these days and generally tell me lovely things about it, but not useful lovely things.)

    1. You’re so right. Funnily enough, I just gave a short talk this weekend about the risks of asking friends and family members to comment on your manuscripts. People who love you are often primed to love what you do.

      How do I know? I’m an editor who used to work for a publishing services company. When clients didn’t want the editing services I encouraged them to get (and they really did need them), it wasn’t uncommon for them to say they’d had some friends look at their work and their FRIENDS thought it was FINE.

        1. I hope this isn’t overstepping, but if you’re interested, here are a couple of blog posts I wrote on the subject.

          Why friends and family make bad reviewers: http://covertocoverllc.com/blog/?p=436
          How to increase the odds of getting honest feedback from friends and family: http://covertocoverllc.com/blog/?p=519

          Some of this dovetails with what others have said about asking specific questions. Asking specific questions may be the most useful thing of all.

  12. Ohhhh LW, I feel your pain. I think almost every writer has been there. And I suspect we all have that terrible jerkbrain saying that probably our friends read it and it sucked and they’re too nice to say and UGH that is the worst feeling. But I feel pretty confident in assuring you: them not reading it has nothing to do with you or the quality of your writing, and everything to do with them and where they are and what’s going on in their heads. Probably, like the Captain said, it feels too daunting. Or they just got too busy, or they’re going through something, or whatever. Like often happens with anxiety, the Jerkbrain says “It’s something horrible *I* did and it’s *my* fault and *I’m* the worst (etc),” when it is actually about that person and their own brains and lives.

    When it comes to friends whose feedback never quite appears, I treat it the way the Captain has often recommended trying to make plans with someone who may not be so into you. I reach out with a poking email – “Hey, I was just wondering if you had a chance to look at my novel? If you’re still interested in reading it, I’d love to hear your feedback, just let me know when you think you’ll get to it!” and hope that spurs them to do it, or at least give me a sorry-I-can’t-after-all, or a date to expect to hear from them. When we reach that date, or if I don’t hear from them about it, I send a second poking email – “Hey, I’m hoping to finish this round of revisions on my novel this month/start querying soon/whatever, and I’d love to have your feedback if you’re able to send it to me” or whatever, and then let it go. If I don’t hear about it after that, I assume I never will, and let it go.

    It definitely still stings, and what I learn from when that happens is, “Okay, this person is a lovely friend on many levels, but not a Writing Friend,” so when it comes to the next round of feedback I hope for, I leave them off the list of people I ask. And I try not to hold grudges about the crit never appearing by reminding myself that it really wasn’t about me or my project. (With varied level of success, but I do try.) But basically, I started doing this because it gives me my own personal version of closure so I can move on and stop worrying about it.

    Another thought – if you get the sense someone is putting off responding to you because they just don’t know what to say, when you reach out, maybe tell them you have a few specific areas you’re working on/plot points you’d like feedback on/whatever and see if they’re willing to answer just that. It gives them some sense of what you need and how to be useful and may make the whole thing feel less overwhelming.

    And like everyone has said: writing groups are SO HELPFUL. My writer-y friends formed one a few years ago – we were all people already talking about writing, but giving that some structure helped us all get more thoughtful feedback and helped us set and keep goals.

    And finally – a few years ago I was in the position the Captain described of “I feel like I’m ready and close and willing to put my money where my mouth is” (and lucky enough to have the money to put there) and I did a professional weekend-long workshop. That sort of thing (or a freelance edit or whatnot) may not be feasible, but if it is, it can be VERY useful.

    Good luck and Jedi hugs, LW – if you have written and finished three novels, you have already done SO MUCH and that is really, truly incredible.

  13. So, in high school, my friends and I used to pass around our fanfic and original short stories for feedback. It was fun, because we were in high school and anything that was not School Stuff was automatically more fun and higher priority, and doable because it was always short stories or single chapters. (We also passed around the same physical copy, and so would end up getting into arguments in the margins with each other about how a certain bit should be edited.)

    Nowadays? With an adult life and a better sense of priorities? Even a short story would be a big ask, if it needed real feedback. Heck, even in high school if a friend had tried to give me a finished book-length draft that would have been kind of overwhelming. Chances are your friends didn’t realize how much work it would be, in their excitement over your accomplishment, and now are feeling more and more overwhelmed by the delayed fulfillment of their offer. It’s unlikely that it says anything about you or your writing, except that you may be asking too much of your friends, and that they may be agreeing to too much. The couple of high school friends who still write rarely ask me for feedback *before* the piece is published (obviously they have people they do ask – those people may be paid, I don’t know), and generally only ask for feedback on small excerpts.

  14. HI LW.

    A list of things I think.


    2. I suggest you go on Scribophile, a fairly regimented writing criticism website where you critique other people’s writing for so many “points” and then exchange those “points” for critique on your own writing, and do, oh, ten reviews;

    3. because this will both buy you some feedback on your own writing and give you a deep and profound appreciation that giving detailed editing feedback is REALLY LABORIOUS AND TIME-CONSUMING. I got off that site because line-editing a poorly-written ten-page chapter that is the first of thirty makes me want to EAT AN ARMADILLO. OR SOMETHING ELSE EQUALLY NONSENSICAL AND DESTRUCTIVE.

    4. actively seek out some Writing Friends whose taste you trust. Writing groups are awesome but — especially if you are trying to fit in to an already-established group — it’s important to realize that there already be a dynamic that doesn’t suit you or your writing. (The leader of the closest and oldest writing group to me is obsessed with smells and rape scenes. So, not helpful.) The Writing Friends I have I met through: writing summer camp after sixth grade; college roommate; poetry Tumblrs. Writing Friends are not to be abused, but they are an invaluable asset.

    5. Read a bunch of books on writing. READ VORACIOUSLY ABOUT WRITING. A good series is “The Art of. . . ” published by Graywolf Press, or Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter. I used to read Writer’s Digest as a kid, which is not a very classy magazine, but it helped some. Look, this is my prejudice, because I know people work in different ways, but: at the end of the day, the best editor for my work is ME. I AM THE ONE WHO HAS TO LIKE THE FINISHED PRODUCT BECAUSE I AM NOT IN CONTROL OF WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK. Other people can provide a new set of eyes or an angle you didn’t consider, and that can instructive, illuminating, or even earth-shattering. But I am pretty big on honing your own taste and your skills until you can feel when the muscles of your writing flex under you and start to pick up and run. I am also (somewhat unintentionally) big on letting stuff stew for as long as you can possibly bear and coming back to it with a clearer brain.


      1. I agree! Can’t eat the cake of finished books until I have something I want to send to agents, though! -LW

    1. My writer’s group celebrates completions/sales/momentous things with cake. It is of the good, and I second your motion that the LW should go out and eat the Cake of Finished Books. Because cake. And finished novels.

  15. “It’s insidious, because the longer they go without doing it, the more the shame and pressure and obligation surrounding it grows, and the harder it is to cut through all of that and just read the thing.” Ah, so you can see into my brain when it comes to replying to anything like this! That’s exactly it. I get that on a minor level when it comes to emails, and I also have friends who are interested in my feedback for creative projects and it’s *so much worse* for that. The longer it goes on, the worse I feel, and I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I even think of opening the novel/play/etc.

    1. I am so, so bad about this. (I’m actually a very prompt beta-reader and book-reviewer . . . but if I owe someone a substantive e-mail, or a response that requires decisiveness and planning, I get into a Shame Cycle if I can’t respond fairly quickly, and it often winds up in the Pit of Unanswered E-mails. I have a pretty serious chronic illness and also deal with depression and anxiety, and stuff sometimes just gets out of control and means that I’m less and less likely to respond as time goes on, because I feel so guilty about it.)

      On the other hand, I genuinely love reviewing friends’ books — but it helps a lot if I think I’m going to enjoy them.

      I have one friend whose subject material isn’t to my taste, so it’s much harder for me to commit the time and energy to read and respond to them — whereas certain other friends, whose work is in my favorite genre, are so much easier to commit myself to starting (as well as finishing.)

      I’m a fast reader and spent a good portion of my professional life doing copy-editing and transcription on a daily basis, so editing comes easily for me (I’m One Of Those People Who Grumbles About Typos In Published Works, heh.)

      With that said, I can understand why reviewing a novel, for someone who *isn’t* a fast/easy reader, and who isn’t accustomed to doing either edits or providing feedback, can seem like an overwhelming prospect for a friend . . . even a friend who is genuinely enthusiastic about you and your work.

      The Google Docs method works surprisingly well — it’s how I have edited/provided feedback to a number of people. When I’m dealing with a manuscript in another format, I usually create a Word document and take notes in chronological order, denoted by page number. I share my spontaneous responses to various parts of the book (“Squee!” “Ahhhhhh, this is terrifying!” “Delightful turn of phrase!”), any editing suggestions I come across, and typos/garbled sentences/unclear phrasing.

      Perhaps you could come up with a sample page of the type of feedback you’re looking for, to give to your critique partners? Otherwise, people are going to be stuck trying to re-invent the wheel — an example might not be a bad idea.

      I genuinely do understand your distress and disappointment about the absent reviews/responses — my heart is always in my mouth when I share a new piece of work with someone whose opinion is very important to me . . . and the longer they take to respond, the more anxious I get.

      On the other hand, I’m usually sharing a piece of art or a short piece of writing, not something that takes the level of commitment of a novel.

      I think that the comments you’re getting here are very wise — reviewing a whole novel is actually a very large favor to ask, and requires a significant time commitment on your friends’ part. I think that you should feel complimented and loved that you have friends who are enthusiastic about your writing and willing to *try* to commit to reading your novel . . . but I also think that it might be better to seek other sources of feedback and critique, since you’re obviously not getting the level of response that you’ve been hoping for.

      And, hey — congratulations on finishing THREE (!) books, and I wish you the best of luck in both getting the feedback that you want, and in getting your book out to a wider audience! 🙂

      1. Totally with you on the Shame Cycle thing. “I must get around to that…. but it requires effort and I’m tired… I never did That Thing, omigod I’m such a loser… I’m just going to get under the covers now…”

        Also, typos in published works! Aaaaargh! I’ve been reading a lot on Kindle Unlimited lately, and I think many of them are (must be. MUST BE!) self-published because they’re full of typos, random punctuation, missing words and general grammar abuse. These are the stealthy dog poos, deceptively deep puddles and ankle-grabbing roots in my walk through the story park. Eventually, I just think, “bugger this, I’m off home for a cuppa.”

  16. I’m in very similar career stage to the LW: two awful will-never-see-the-light-of-day novels and one I’m working on editing that I really, really hope is good.

    I would enthusiastically second the writing group–writing groups are amazing. Not only does trading critiques really help with the abject-begging-for-huge-favor aspect of getting feedback from friends, but you’re likely to encounter people who know a lot more about writing than your friends do. Most writing groups I’ve been in involve bringing in a certain number of pages per week and getting a group critique. It’s a fantastic way to see how your novel is striking people. The way people’s enthusiasm for my novel has grown over the course of many edits has really helped me get a sense of how much I’ve improved and how well it’s working. It also taught me to write. While I still can’t be certain that the book is any good, my chances of it being good are vastly better than they were when I was working in isolation.

    (This kind of read-a-section-each-week group became less helpful towards the end of my editing process on my current novel, when my writing was effective enough that nobody had much to critique about any given 8-page segment, and I ended up spinning my wheels for a while. At that point, part of my writing group splintered off to share entire novels with each other. (When people critiqued my full novel it transpired that I still had a LOT of editing to do: 8-pages-a-week can’t really catch large-scale pacing issues and certain other big-picture things.) Since everybody involved in the splinter group had an entire novel to share, and we had spent a long time in a writing group together, people were way, way better at reading books in a timely way.)

    I found my writing groups by taking classes at the local university’s extension program: two classes I took turned into ongoing writing groups led by the class instructor. There are pros and cons to this method: it meant someone was at the head of the group who knew a lot about writing, but it also continued to be a paid service, which is not something that will work for everybody. I suspect Meetup.com or similar sites are a good way to find a group–be choosy, though! Not all writing groups are created equal! Some are too positive and won’t help you find the aspects you need to work on. Others are too negative: while a harsh, honest critique is a great and generous gift, people who don’t see what’s wonderful about what you’re going for won’t be able to help you get there. And if you sense the critiques are about people’s issues with each other rather than about craft, run: the drama isn’t worth it. (Though it *can* provide great writing material…)

    And just to question your jerkbrain a little further: even if your friends aren’t getting back to you because your book is terrible, that doesn’t mean you’re not good–it means you’re not good YET. I have given horrible short stories to people who asked for them and who never mentioned them again, and I’m pretty sure the silence was because those stories were unspeakably bad. I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but I’m confident that I’m a massively better writer than I was when I wrote those stories. It’s hard and horrible to learn that either your book isn’t as done/polished/brilliant as you hoped it was, or that YOU are not a Great Writer yet, but that doesn’t mean stop writing. We’re all terrible writers until we become better ones.

    1. I am actually at EXACTLY the same point as you. I know the whole thing is a huge ask — but the issues are pacing and structure, they’re not line-editing kinds of things.

      Sending many hugs. We are going to DO THIS THING.


  17. I’m a frequent beta-reader for a friend’s original short fiction. It’s not novel length, so the time commitment is lower, but it’s usually something I need to do with a few days’ turnaround. I love doing this for my friend! It’s fun to see pieces before they are released out into the wider world! I get to pick her brain about worldbuilding details that might not make it into the story! Still, though, it is something I take seriously and put effort into, and it can be a significant mental commitment.

    Something I like to do, when I start, is ask what sort of feedback my friend’s looking for: narrative flow? word repetition? engagement with a character? It’s a very different thing to read with an eye for grammar or syntax than for dramatic tension or character development. That helps me know where to focus my attention; I can make other comments as needed but it’s nice for me to know what my main objective should be. Giving people that sort of guidance when you share works with them in the future will probably be a big help.

    LW, it could also be that giving honest feedback is intimidating or awkward to your friends. There is a LOT of room for pretty harsh commentary even with a piece you love! Even if someone loves your novel they might think “I know I’m supposed to like the love interest but that romance isn’t believable!” or “I couldn’t understand the bit with the penguin even though the heist depended on it!” and if they haven’t been in that situation of giving feedback they might not know how to do it diplomatically, or feel like they can’t at all. This is where writers’ groups will help, I think, as the culture of the space will be more likely to foster honest feedback. I think a lot of folks internalize “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” and apply it to “don’t give even positive criticism about something you mostly feel good about” where friends are concerned.

    1. So much this.

      It’s very hard to diplomatically critique the writing of a close friend. I’ve mostly messed it up in the past.

      And what if you are writing in a genre that is not one they like or normally read?

      It’s best to go to other writers.

    2. “Something I like to do, when I start, is ask what sort of feedback my friend’s looking for: narrative flow? word repetition? engagement with a character? It’s a very different thing to read with an eye for grammar or syntax than for dramatic tension or character development.”

      Oh, I ran into SO MUCH TROUBLE with this once — my Beloved Significant Other shared their first novel with me (a piece that had been written many years ago, and they had written quite a bit since, and had polished their craft in the intervening time), and I thought they were looking for copy-edits and fairly intense critique . . .

      . . . and, no, they had wanted general feedback, preferably of the sort that involved cheery enjoyment of the subject matter. They did NOT appreciate getting back a document full of red editing marks, and it actually caused quite a bit of hurt feelings.

      (To be fair, they knew that copy-editing was part of my day job, and that I had done beta-reading and copy-editing for professional authors. I had genuinely believed that they were looking for manuscript clean-up — we had just totally failed to communicate about expectations.)

      Now, when a friend (or partner) asks me to review or provide feedback, I always ask what they’re looking for — line-by-line edits, vague general feedback of the “Oh, I really liked it, and I thought it was witty and incisive, and the plot was a lot of fun” type, or chapter-by-chapter notes about character motivation and my responses as a reader.

      I do think that the “If you can’t say anything nice . . .” factor may be part of the issue here — the average person is going to think of “critique” as “criticism,” and isn’t necessarily going to want to hurt their author friend’s feelings by pointing out weaknesses in their work, or in admitting that the work wasn’t to their personal taste.

      This is why finding a writer’s circle, class, or critique group is a very good idea — while it may *include* friends, widening your audience to people who are comfortable giving honest critique (and praise!) is likely going to be your best bet in terms of getting actual responses to your work.

      1. This. Even if no hurt feelings result, it’s a waste of everybody’s time if your reader friend meticulously copyedits a chapter you decide to delete later.

      2. Seconded! Some people just want you to uncritically say that you love it, and “actual criticism” isn’t what they want. It’s a Guess Culture thing that you end up having to figure out on your own even if they “ask” and claim they want criticism, though.
        All of this stuff is even worse higher stakes if it’s your SO or relatives, though.

    3. Yep. Clear communication about what kind of feedback the author is looking for is essential. I teach English lit and composition at the college level, so giving feedback on writing is my gig. LW, you don’t say whether you have any formal training or any experience workshopping your stuff. (If you do, ignore the rest of this post.) If a friend who didn’t have formal training or experience in a writing workshop environment asked me to read her stuff, I would probably say no. In fact, I have said no, and directed the authors to online writing workshops. Taking critique and criticism is a skill. I have a whole lecture I give my students about the frame of mind they need to be in when they read my comments. I am not trying to give that lecture to my friends. Also, giving detailed feedback is surprisingly difficult and time-consuming, even when you have a lot of experience with it. Readers without formal training or experience could easily be overwhelmed, especially with something as long as a novel. LW, if you’ve never taken a creative writing class, that could be a really good option for you. I don’t know about countries outside the US, but if you’re in the US, your local community college probably offers classes at a variety of levels, from recreational classes through classes that will earn you college credit. Check out ratemyprofessor (dot) com to find someone who seems to know what he or she is doing. At the very least, it will give you a starting place to build a writing community.

      1. Thanks! I do in fact have quite a bit of experience with this — I have another life as an academic and as an editor, and in both hats I have gotten an awful lot of very direct feedback and loved it. Still, it’s a good reminder: lots of people are shit at knowing what kind of feedback they want, and at taking it when they get it.

    4. My needs for feedback on my writing can change depending on where I am in the writing process: early on, I don’t want to hear ANY negative feedback. Got enough of that going on in my own head, thankyouverymuch. I want encouragement, what is liked, scenes/characters/phrases that excite. Later, I’ll ask for the kind of feedback that can dig into character or world development, motivations, etc. Both the nitty gritty and the high metaphysical can be welcome. At the end of the process, when the work feels finished (or as finished as it is likely to get) then I want the nits and crits, the typos and the bad grammar because it is time to clean up and get it ready to go.

      What I’m saying is that what I need from my readers depends on a lot of things and it is up TO ME to tell my readers what kind of response I’m looking for. The notes above suggesting that you supply a short list of questions to keep in mind and a date-due-by are both wonderful.

      And a writer’s group. Friends and family, unless they are also writers/editors, are not good for anything other than the encouragement stage, if that. If you have a local college, see what they might offer for classes or workshops. If you have a Convention nearby in the genre that you write, they may have groups (WisCon, happening this weekend in Wisconsin, has been running workshops and a writing programming track for years). Meetup and online are also possibilities.

      Feedback is important, but the right feedback is essential. Good luck!

  18. I agree with the Captain and with thelittlepakeha – reading to critique is much harder and more intensive than most people think, and it’s very reasonable to suppose that it’s a level of commitment that your friends / family didn’t realise they were making, and can’t now deliver upon. It’s also true to say that a desire not to upset / offend a person you know and love may be a factor in holding some of them back, especially as they are not frequent or professional reviewers. (I assume they are not!)

    I am both a writer and a beta reader myself, although I mostly write poetry. I beta read for six science fiction authors, two of whom are personal friends, four of whom I have never met (although we have a cordial-acquaintance online relationship). Beta reading, if you do it justice, is labour-intensive, thought-intensive work. Like the Captain, I charge to beta novels, although I do short stories for the love of it – but only if I have time, energy and desire to do so. All my authors know that I will give them a clear “sorry, I can’t this time” straight away if I am not in a good space to do the reviewing. Because of this, they all feel free to give me deadlines that are real – it helps me decide if this will be a “yes” or a “no”.

    From the other side of the fence, I would say that family and friends are not the best beta readers in most cases anyway, unless they are very experienced critiquers. They won’t read with a writer’s or editor’s eye (unless they are one!) and their affection for you will colour what they say and how they say it. With my poetry, I am in two Facebook poets’ groups where I post WIPs and get solid, poet’s-eye feedback from people with no vested interest in my reaction to what they say. I find this much more helpful to improving the work than the delighted cooing that I generally get from my family and friends, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since I have adopted this approach, I’ve started selling poems and getting shortlisted in competitions.

    So, yeah, like the Captain says – writers group FTW. And if you can’t find one IRL that suits you, try online!

  19. Great big Jedi hugs, OP, and thank you for writing in. I am in a similar (though much less impressive) boat. I’ve (almost) completed one novel, and was hoping that the push of some good feedback would help me barge through writer’s block on the end of #1 and the middle of #2. But, the lovely people who offered to read said novel #1 have never said a peep about actually reading it, and I’ve been sinking into the writer’s block until now it feels a lot more like the Writer’s Slough of Despair.

    I can’t offer much in the way of solutions; other lovely people are doing that, and thank you all for it. But I can say: Hang in there! You are not the only one that this has happened to, and maybe now that we know about each other, we can be encouraged that maybe it’s not that we stink, it’s that feedback is as tough to create as it is to receive sometimes.

    1. Yes! We can do this. Also, I’m starting to wonder if those of us who are all feeling the same should just create our own internet critique group… 🙂 -LW

  20. I think the advice the Captain gives here is really useful. I’d just like to add something from the perspective of someone with a lot of writer friends, but who isn’t a writer herself.

    When my writer friends tell me about the things they are working on, I get very excited and want to hear all the details and tell them I can’t wait to read it! But I do mean READ it. Not provide commentary beyond positive “Oh my god, I loved X character/Y plot point/Z chapter!” If I enjoyed it, I can probably send you a very long email telling you which bits I enjoyed, what character was my favourite, how much I cried at the sad bits, and so forth. I am a cheerleader friend, one you go to when you’re feeling bad about your writing and need someone to tell you (truthfully!) that it’s great. I am not a “constructive feedback” friend.

    However, I have had at least one miscommunication, where I said “I’d love to read what you’ve written so far!” So I got an email saying “Here it is, tell me what you think!” I sent an effusive email back telling her how great it was and what parts I’d liked the best.
    The miscommunication came where she had understood “I’d love to read it” as “read and provide feedback” and I had understood “tell me what you think” as “did you enjoy it? What parts did you enjoy?” So we both got very frustrated and hurt with each other, because she felt like I had not bothered to give her anything concrete that she could improve on, and I felt like she was being kind of mean, because I’d told her so many nice things about her writing.

    I’m worried I’m not making myself very clear here. The point I’m making is that maybe find out which of your friends are cheerleaders and which are feedback-givers. Especially if your friends are not writers themselves, they maybe having the same misunderstanding that I did, and didn’t realise that until after they’d agreed, so now they’re panicking that they’ve signed up to provide detailed feedback that they aren’t capable of giving.

    1. I’m like this, too. I have a lot of friends who write fanfic. My friends are often looking for beta readers and sometimes I feel bad that I don’t contribute that sort of thing, but I do a LOT of editing/providing feedback on writing at work and it feels like work to me. Fandom is my escape from work. I LOVE reading their fics, but I am not the right person to beta for them. I can cheerlead enthusiastically, and I will flail happily at them when they post the finished works and tell them things I love about it. But I want to enjoy the experience of reading it, not find it work.

  21. I have a friend who writes and publishes books. She gets really great reviews, and I buy the books and do other things to be supportive. However, I haven’t actually finished any of them. They are in a style I just do not relate to or care for. She’s never asked me to critique them, but if she had, it would have been really hard for me. It doesn’t mean they’re not good books! It just means they’re not my cup of tea.

  22. Another thought: not only is reading-to-critique more more work and time than just reading for pleasure and maybe coming out the other end with “This is really good, if you like detective stories read this” or “eh, didn’t work for me,” reading an unedited book is almost guaranteed to be more work than reading one that has been edited, even if you aren’t critiquing. It’s not just the large structural stuff that you’re looking for help with–there will be little glitches of spelling and typos, and yes, the reader can and will sort most of those out, but it will also slow them down. Given a choice, almost anyone would rather read a book where someone has deleted the duplicate words and inserted the missing “not” and fixed the place where “I cannot hear them” became “I cannot bear them.” (Those are things that the spelling checker, blessed be its name, cannot fix for you.)

    (I tried critiquing a novel for a friend once, and the main thing I learned is that I don’t have that skill; fortunately, she knows other people who do.)

  23. LW, congratulations on having written three novels!

    Seconding the advice to find a more structured (and ideally reciprocal) way of seeking feedback, whether in a critique group or elsewhere. And Maureen Eichner’s comment above is terrific.

    I’m a professional fiction editor. Back when I was trying to break into the industry, I was so hungry for experience that I would often offer to read friends’ work … and then struggle with guilt about not getting back to them, or not giving them the kind of feedback that it turns out they were after.

    Sometimes I would put a lot of time and effort into a hardcore structural edit, and then find out that what my friend *really* wanted was for me to tell them that their work didn’t suck. Those situations left neither of us happy.

    LW, I’m not sure what kind of feedback you’re seeking on your manuscript. But does sound like you’re after some affirmation that all your effort so far hasn’t been in vain. Good news: this is the feedback that your Trusted People are likely to be most qualified to provide!

    It’s all about expectations. If affirmation’s what you want at this point in time, frame your initial conversations around that. Unless someone actively dislikes your manuscript – which is possible! not every book is for every reader! – this is the easiest kind of feedback to give, so it can reduce the pressure around having to give detailed, constructive comments. And as others have mentioned, selecting the readers who are actually interested by giving them a short sample first can be helpful for all involved.

    In terms of more general jerkbrain stuff around writing and publishing … all of the authors I know struggle with this to varying degrees. You can only really control what goes onto the page, and pretty much everything else is up to other people. It’s 100% okay to have ambitions for your writing, of course. But the happiest writers I know – unpublished, midlist, bestselling – are the ones who primarily focus on their process and their craft, which are the parts that they DO control. Is that something that might be helpful for you?

  24. I think the advice the Captain gives here is really useful. I’d just like to add something from the perspective of someone with a lot of writer friends, but who isn’t a writer herself.

    When my writer friends tell me about the things they are working on, I get very excited and want to hear all the details and tell them I can’t wait to read it! But I do mean READ it. Not provide commentary beyond positive “Oh my god, I loved X character/Y plot point/Z chapter!” If I enjoyed it, I can probably send you a very long email telling you which bits I enjoyed, what character was my favourite, how much I cried at the sad bits, and so forth. I am a cheerleader friend, one you go to when you’re feeling bad about your writing and need someone to tell you (truthfully!) that it’s great. I am not a “constructive feedback” friend.

    However, I have had at least one miscommunication, where I said “I’d love to read what you’ve written so far!” I got an email saying “Here it is, tell me what you think!” I sent an effusive email back telling her how much I’d enjoyed it and what parts I’d liked the best.
    The miscommunication came where she had understood “I’d love to read it” as “read and provide feedback” and I had understood “tell me what you think” as “did you enjoy it? What parts did you enjoy?” So we both got very frustrated and hurt with each other, because she felt like I had not bothered to give her anything concrete that she could improve on, and I felt like she was being kind of mean, because I’d told her so many nice things about her writing.

    I’m worried I’m not making myself very clear here. The point I’m making is that maybe find out which of your friends are cheerleaders and which are feedback-givers. Especially if your friends are not writers themselves, they may have had the same misunderstanding that I did, and didn’t realise that until after they’d agreed, so now they’re panicking that they’ve signed up to provide detailed feedback that they aren’t capable of giving.

    1. As a writer with non-writer friends, I absolutely agree! I have a sense of which of my friends are best at enthusiasm and moral support and which are best at being a little more critical, and I know who to go to when. (The people in my life who are best at pulling things apart, though, are fellow-writers from writing groups–which was great for me to find, and also great for my non-writer friends who no longer have to deal with me begging them to be harsher than they’re comfortable with.)

      I’ve found it useful sometimes to ask less critical people (the ones who are up for it!) specific questions about the story rather than the writing that don’t require too much direct criticism: “How did you feel about character B?” Or “Did you guess the mystery before the end–did the reveal make sense to you?” Or even “Can you describe what character B is like as if I’d never met them?” because sometimes one of the hardest things to figure out is whether my characterization actually came through the way I wanted.

  25. Slightly OT, but still germane (I hope): The thing I like best about The Captain and Her Army is the sensitivity to people, even those who are Not Paying Nicely. As above, where there are several suggestions about how to help the potential readers from felling bad about not doing what they offered to do. Seriously, most places would blame and shame, and it is just a refreshing thing to come here and find suggestions for solutions that are not “Take off and nuke them from orbit.”

    Big (virtual) hugs and thanks to all. You keep my belief in the essential goodness of humanity alive.

  26. Please substitute “Playing” for “Paying” above. Although I think it would still apply….

  27. Wow, 3 novels! Right on!

    I am on both sides of this fence. Two of my friends have sent me whole novels to beta-read for them and I promised I’d do it and then I never did it. I didn’t have the time. And, like the Captain said, I felt terrible. The longer I waited, the worse I felt. I totally let them down and I still feel like a schmuck for doing so – I feel even worse because neither of them ever said anything to me about it. If you’ve given your novel to friends and haven’t heard back from them, they may be sitting on a pile of bad feelings and could welcome the opportunity to have a discussion with you about it. I’d have felt better if a) my friends had totally yelled at me for being a doofus or b) my friends would have forgiven me for being a doofus. It would have felt better than the continuing awfulness I feel for letting them down.

    Now I have written my own novels, and I have had plenty of people volunteer to read them, so I have sent them out and have never heard back again from those people. Having been a schmuck myself, I am pretty sure that they just don’t have time, and if they tell me that I’ll forgive them because *I understand.* But it is really horrendously painful to sit there, all anxious, waiting for feedback that never comes.

    So, my advice.

    1) Don’t give a novel to someone unless they specifically ask for the whole thing *and they have experience beta-reading.* Experienced beta readers will clear a few days and ask for the novel and slot it in to those days when they have time.

    2) Do give people the first 3000 or so words *if* they ask. If they read it and get back to you within a week, wanting more, give them more. If they don’t, then they don’t have the time and you don’t have to worry about it any longer. Stay friends, but cross them off the beta reader list.

    3) Find a local writer’s workshop. As it turns out, my Local Area Recreation Department runs one. Most cities are chock-full of them.

    4) Find a *reputable* online site. I use http://www.scribophile.com. There you must give 3 full reviews of work of the length you write in before you can post a work for review. Everyone reviews other people. In fact, many people post more reviews than they post of their own worth. I posted a short story in 3 parts and got a total of 25 reviews on it and I only had to review 3 stories to do so. You also only review the genres you want to read, and you can pick the stories, etc. Go poke around there. You may be pleasantly surprised, and you can get stuff reviewed for free (except your time reviewing the works of others).

    5) Be kind to yourself. Just because someone doesn’t read your stuff doesn’t make you a bad writer. And not everything is for everyone. I have read plenty of stuff that was beautifully written that I absolutely hated, and plenty of stuff that was poorly written that I enjoyed. Peoples’ likes are individual. You have no idea why they didn’t read your stuff unless you ask them, so don’t assume it has anything to do with you. *Ask them.* 95% of the time they’ll probably shamefacedly tell you they didn’t have the time, and if it turns out they didn’t like your stuff, they might just not like the genre. I don’t like memoirs, but I have friends who write them. I don’t read their memoirs, and they don’t ask me to.

    Good luck!

  28. I did this thing that was kinda a big deal in the library/book world. And then I became the GO TO person for this type of ask in my city. And I got a lot of requests (still do). Seriously people phone me up because they know XYZ person who recommended me… Some I could politely turn down. Some I couldn’t because relationships or politics or whatever. Here’s the thing, I love critiquing novels/writing for an award panel or to write a review. I don’t love giving feedback directly to authors. I’m too nice to want to give perfectly solid feedback if I am face to face (or email or phone) with the author. I always try to soften it. My one try at a writer’s group/class did not go well. Behind the closed door for an award’s panel or writing a review? Much better at feedback. So I am getting much much much better at saying no. Currently I say I am too busy with the BABY. (BTW one of the awesome side effects of having a kid is your ability to use them as an excuse to not do things you don’t want to but need a convenient excuse. Baby is 11 months, when do I stop getting the “new mom” slack? Because I love it.)

    So I would be doing what your friends are, saying yes and then avoiding actually reading/feedbacking until you drag me out for a coffee shop where I will give you back a few pointers and keep trying to change the subject. (True story.) This isn’t helpful advice, but it is the view from the other side of the table.

  29. I have a similar tactic. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get up the gumption to finish a novel (my attention is notoriously flighty). So I shoot three chapters to my beta reader aka my sister and, while she reads and makes comments, I have the push I need to get through the next three chapter.

    Also, congrats on three novels! I got through one and a half so far. Keep rocking it!

  30. I have to tell you, LW, that I love to write, but the most complicated thing I can handle is maybe a series of four connected blog posts. The creativity and skill required to write a novel (and more than one at that!) is completely beyond any level of ability that I can comprehend. On a scale of creativity from zero to God, people like you who can write ACTUAL BOOKS are basically at God level from where I’m sitting.

    Okay now that I’ve told you how much I admire you, it is possible that some of your friends have started reading your book and couldn’t make it through. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! It could just be not to their taste. There’s a reason that every wildly popular book / book series invariably has quite a few people that don’t like it – everyone is different. I agree with the other commenters that you would probably benefit from a writers’ group; you would stand a much better shot at getting some good feedback.

    Good luck!

  31. I think after this much time, the kindest thing you can do is let your friends off the hook — any critique they DID give you would be rushed and perfunctory, born of a desire just to get the damn thing off their plate rather than really to do a good job.

    Or at least, that’s what you might end up telling yourself.

    The script I would use is, “Friend, I’ve been noodling with My Great-Ass Novel and looking at some of the feedback I’ve received*, and I think I need to take it in a new direction**. Please just delete the files I sent you, and thank you for the offer to look them over. Maybe we can revisit this*** once it’s beaten into a new and better shape, but for now, don’t sweat it.”

    * “I’m too busy to do this after all” is feedback, just not the type you were looking for.
    ** “Away from you” should probably remain unspoken.
    *** This is the same “maybe we should” that’s found in “We should totally get together the next time you’re in my town!” The one that means “Look, you’re a nice person, but I don’t think my schedule is free that day, whenever that day turns out to be.”

    1. The danger is that the friend might think, I almost spent all that time reading something that didn’t count anyway? I’m never agreeing to read for Friend again. Letting people off the hook is great. I think it’s possible to be honest about it.

      1. How about if “Please just delete the files I sent you” becomes, “If you haven’t gotten to it yet, awesome – you can just delete the files and not worry about it, and I’ll still count it as a point in your favor that you were willing to try. If you have feedback that you *want* to send me, just send me a general outline, because I don’t need point-by-point if I’m thinking of taking it in a new direction anyway. Thank you so much for agreeing to look them over.” Then I think it has less of a pulling-the-rug-out feel, but it lets them off the hook without making them make any shamefaced admissions.

        1. That’s more what I was thinking. Thanks for being smarter than I was about it. (You too, cinderkeys!)

        2. That’s pretty good. Plus, it’s fine to say you’re thinking of taking the work in a new direction if you actually are.

  32. I’ve worked as an editor. While I was an editor, the stuff I rec’d on the job was easy to evaluate and reply to, because it was professional stuff and I had no emotional connection. Friends who knew my job would ask me to look at their writing and I really, really had to plead no. For the most part I did not need more to read. But I also found the one friend’s manuscript I did accept that it was very hard to be constructive . I kept wanting to pull my punches and smooth over objections. It wasn’t a matter of the manuscript being bad, it was me being too close to the writer and their hopes and expectations to really see the way to a proper critique.

    It’s hard work to write anything and kudos for you to get entire manuscripts under your belt! (You’ve already accomplished more than eighty percent of my slush submissions back when I was an editor).

    I very much agree with the idea of a question form. It not only helps people formulate their replies, but allows you to direct the nature of them. Sometimes how to respond to writing can be more daunting. Even great novels. (You know, you give the book you adore to a friend and the only response they can give you is–“oh, it was nice, I liked reading it”)

    The writing group suggestion is also spot on. It’s usually a great way to get support and good input, and support other writers in turn. It can also help to narrow down to particulars. If you want to know things like “does my character’s backstory make sense?” “Is this scene believable?” “Will readers get this particular reference?” If you put in the nuts and bolts questions, it becomes easier for readers to be helpful in answering.

  33. I’m part of a group of readers for friend who is a published novelist, we get the drafts before they go to her editor and do a combination of proof reading and commenting on the content. Because she is published, she has deadlines, and will send out an email as they approach saying words to the effect of “please send in your notes or sign off on the draft,” which gives anyone who hasn’t had the time to work on it and easy out.

    As an unpublished author, things are a bit more flexible, but you could adapt this to say something like:

    “I’m starting a new draft of my novel next week. If anyone has any notes for me, please send them through, even if they are incomplete. If you haven’t managed to make notes, I hope you enjoyed reading, but as I’ll be working on a new draft soon, so please don’t worry about making notes on the current version. Thanks everyone for your time.”

    That way you give them an out, and if anyone has made some notes, but is worried that they aren’t very comprehensive, they are more likely to send them on than keep feeling like they ought to get around to making more, but somehow never finding the time.

    And then you can find a group of readers who are also writers, and you and your friends can go back to being friends who don’t have any outstanding obligations.

  34. I signed up to be a test reader for Book Hive (book-hive.com) which “offers online focus group research for authors who want to test finished manuscripts”. There are other online resources.

    The question I like to ask to get feedback is “What’s the one thing you would change?” This takes some of the pressure off to give a full in-depth critique and makes it easier for the reader.

    1. Yes. “What is the one thing you would change?” is awesome and I am going to use this so hard. -LW

  35. I’m actually in this kind of situation as a beta reader (though to be fair half of it is just huge block of text with no paragraphs and that’s REALLY hard to read so I’m trying to block it out into specific chunks and read a little at a time and making markings where I left off and already told the author that the large blocks of texts make it hard to read and hurt my eyes so it’ll take a while for me to read).

    I do beta reading in between reading and reviewing books that I either own or get from the library. And my beta reading (as well as book reviewing) is something that is done in my spare time. Now, if you write something that really hooks me I’ll say to hell with everything else that isn’t big important life stuff and just sit and read til it’s done (and sometimes making notes sometimes not). Which actually tends to happen more often than not.

    Heck, if you’d like someone to do beta reading that will be honest about what they feel works for them and doesn’t work I’d be more than happy to do so LW. My contact info for book reviews (and beta reading) can be found on the link in my sidebar on my page http://www.blowpopsbooks.wordpress.com (warning there is a flashy gif on my contact page that I’m going to eventually take down but haven’t due to motivational issues related to mental health issues). Some of my reviews are very in depth and great. Others….not so much.

    However, I think the captain has some great advice. As does the person who mentioned doing stories in google docs (which I love for much the same reason they mentioned). A slightly riskier idea, LW, (if no one else has mentioned it I don’t recall seeing it though) is to have a tumblr devoted just to your writing and posting chapters there and getting word out that way. Or a blog where you have a chapter or two up of the book so people can “preview” it and potentially give you feedback.

    1. You’re a more patient person than me. I can’t even read long blocks of text in Facebook posts. I’d probably send it back saying that the first thing I noticed was the huge text blocks, that I can’t handle them, and that I’d be happy to review a revised version with that one issue resolved.

      1. Well I did email them and tell them that the huge block of text was very off putting but I also did what I do to everything that is sent to me that isn’t in a google doc. I put it into a google doc and broke it up a bit (though not sure the paragraphs work how I did it since I threw them in at random) and everytime I read a little more I do a red arrow next to where I stop. While making notes in the doc so that I can send them to the author as I read it.

        Though I did the breaking up into paragraphs and putting onto my personal google docs (which I’ll also delete when I’m done because there’s no reason to keep it after it’s done) on one of my higher energy days. e-books and things I need to read on my phone or computer (since I can put docs on my phone to read which is partly why I use google docs) lately have been taking me forever. And it sucks for me. I managed to read one ebook fully and that’s cause it was like 8 pages long and a short fluff story. I feel like crap about it because I’ve had their story for over 2 months now and normally I would have been done with it in 2 weeks or less. Though part of it is that it’s only mildly keeping my interest and I can’t figure out if it’s the lack of author’s paragraphing or if it’s just the story itself that doesn’t hold much interest. Or if it’s a combo of the two. *sighs*

  36. This is something you have to get used to add a writer. People get curious about your work and offer to read it, but they rarely deliver. Friends make bad beta reader. In fact, friends tend to not understand much about writing or publishing. IME, it’s best to keep your friends and your writing sperate.

    A writer’s group would be great for OP. Critique swaps with other writers or paid for feedback from an editor could help (if you can afford it). You can also find beta on Good reads.

    I’ve written and published three new adult romances. It’s not a genre non-fans understand or appreciate, so feedback from friends isn’t particularly helpful. I also have to deal with a lot of romance is stupid/how could you write that/is that like 50 shades/omg is there sex in it. It’s made me hate a lot of friends/potential friends.

  37. Not the first, but another bit of perspective from the beta-reader side of things. I beta read for a friend of mine (A) from college awhile ago, and I apparently did a good job because when another friend of mine from college (E) was looking for a beta reader, A recommended me. Oh, how nice!

    However, I wound up utterly flaking out on E’s novel feedback, and got in the spiral of shame as weeks stretched into months without making much progress on it. Ultimately, A had happened to write a novel that hit all my happy buttons and so I was thrilled to read it and provide some feedback. E happened to write a much slower, more intellectual novel that I just wasn’t feeling, and reading it and providing feedback wound up feeling like a complete chore.

    What E eventually did was get in touch with me and say “Hey, I think we should both just admit that you aren’t going to get through my novel to give me feedback, so why don’t you just send me anything you *did* get to, if anything, and I can run with it. Maybe when I have another draft, I’ll see if you’re in a better position to give it a read, but no hard feelings”. And I deeply appreciated her doing that, because I had made it through a couple chapters and put down feedback, so I was at least able to send her that, and escape the shame spiral about not wanting to do any more.

  38. Well… whether this is useful for you, dear LW, you’ve probably substantially increased the chances that I’ll get back to that novel that I was beta-reading for a friend, so… thanks for writing in.

    As someone currently in such a stall, there are a lot of reasons for it, none of them all that compelling by themselves. Stuff happened, life happened, moods happened, work happened, other compelling interests happened, all somewhere around chapter 5. I got out of the habit and now have a nice mental block about going back to it, complete with a fun coat of guilt. Especially as the unread chapters piled up. It’s good to get the reminder that the writer on the other end of the radio silence probably still just wants to hear from me, though. Once I’m caught a little more up at work…. well, I’ll catch back up to where I was and then try one chapter at a time.

    Definitely not personal, and not about my friend’s work at all. And maybe the one-chapter-at-a-time feedback will make the pile seem like less of one, or at least get the author some feedback and validation before life-and-work-and-everything-else happens again.

  39. I used to be an editor, LW, and I really want to underscore the Captain’s advice that you join a writing group. Here’s three major reasons why this will change your life for the better:

    1. People in writing groups have immense expertise about the mechanics of writing.
    2. People in writing groups can be your emotional supports for the process of submitting your work.
    3. People in writing groups have connections to other writers, as well as to agents and editors.

    A disproportionate number of the novels I and my colleagues purchased were produced by people in writing groups, and many of those people retained those connections as their careers advanced. I cannot recommend this enough.

    A side note: in my experience, it’s unlikely that your friends and colleagues will give you actionable feedback anyway, either because they lack expertise in offering feedback or because they want to provide support and praise rather than critique (which is a good and noble role for your social network to fill).

  40. I’ve published over ten books (and sold around, uh, gosh, must be getting toward 20,000 copies now). I’ve found that other writers are the best source of feedback. I started out using the Critters site (good for SFF writers) and a writer friend I knew in real life. It can be a challenge to find someone not only willing to read your book, but into your specific type of book (the best kind of beta is someone who gets your sub-genre).

    Look for reciprocal arrangements, and start off by putting in some crit work yourself. I found critting other writers really helped my own writing, because I had to analyse and explain why something didn’t work.

  41. And if finding a writing group near you is challenging for any reason, there are always online ones! Finding groups that will provide quality critique is the main challenge, and in my experience the best ones are communities where everyone is expected to contribute.

    Scribophile is good – you earn points giving critiques to others, and then spend those points uploading your work. The system is set up to encourage all new items to be read and critiqued so everyone gets feedback.

    I don’t know of the Absolute Write forum is still good since it’s been a long time since I used it, but there it’s more of an open forum community themed around writing – there are discussions about the craft, themes, publishing opportunities etc, and you don’t gain access to making new posts in the work critique sections until you’ve proven yourself to be willing to critique and participate for others.

    That said, one thing – beta readers aren’t necessarily the first thing you should turn to (and those forums I mentioned distinguish between beta readers and the critique mostly offered on them). In both those communities, step one is uploading a short section of your work – in Scribophile, people tended to be less willing to critique something over 3000-5000 words, so posting up a chapter was the generally accepted method. You’d then post the next chapter the next time you got your points in order. People who liked your work could be counted on, often, to follow and critique each chapter as it came up. On Absolute Write, if I recall correctly, the upper limit on what most people would willingly critique was about the same. And the general plan was that, once you’d had a few chapters critiqued and polished the novel, you would then go about petitioning for someone to volunteer to beta read the whole thing. Beta readers were a lot more strict in their criteria for accepting to read the novel, generally.

    The reason for this is that critiquing a whole novel takes a LOT of work. And the truth is that a lot of the things that might need tweaking in your work can be identified and commented on by reading just a small part of it.

    1. I’m not, unfortunately, staying in one place for the time being — there’s a group I can likely join when I am back to staying put, though! 🙂

      One of the problems is that at this point the small things are largely okay. The issues are timing, structure, all the stuff that you can only get at by reading the whole thing. And also the hardest things to critique!

      But following your and others’ advice, I’ve joined Scribophile and am looking forward to digging in!


  42. Friends, family, and coworkers – however much they like reading generally – are probably not effective givers of feedback, for two reasons: 1) they aren’t used to giving feedback, and 2) they are your friends, family and coworkers.

    I’ve generally found, when I’ve done creative writing courses (which function like a writing group in a lot of ways) that people go through stages in their feedback-giving journey. To start with, they don’t feel comfortable saying anything critical. Then, they tell you about grammar and spelling errors, but nothing more substantial. It often takes quite a while before people are able to add more meaningful comments. Being part of a group where you give and received feedback is incredibly helpful, both because the people giving feedback are engaged with the writing process and can comment in depth, and because you yourself get the opportunity to give other people feedback – and this, believe me, is an incredible gift. It kick-starts and energises your ability to look critically at your own writing in all kinds of ways.

    As for the #2 part, the thing is, giving effective feedback entails an element of criticism. You’re already worrying that because feedback isn’t forthcoming, it must mean that your work is utterly dreadful, but in the flipside your readers may be worrying that if they say anything negative at all, then you’ll be terribly offended. People giving feedback need to be able to tell you what isn’t working – not in an overly negative way, but things like ‘I thought the stuff about Matilda and the bees was going to turn into an interesting subplot but it just petered out – I’d like to see that go somewhere’ or ‘you know, I think you’ve been a bit heavy-handed with the theme of loneliness in the first half of the book, and then conversely not included it enough later on’ or ‘maybe lose 50% of the adjectives in the descriptive passages in chapter 2? I feel like this would really strengthen them’ or whatever. This aren’t mean things to say, but they can feel like mean things to say when you aren’t used to giving feedback – which among us has never been told ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’? – so for people who aren’t comfortable doing it already, and who like you, it’s very hard to do.

  43. ok, I think the possible value of this anecdote to LW outweighs the shame of the name-dropping. (Hopefully L. will forgive me)

    I have already read the new Lois McMaster Bujold novel. I read it chapter-by-chapter, as it was written. It’s awesome, btw, I adore it beyond words, but I’m avoiding discussing the actual contents because if I say nothing I can’t say too much and spoil something for someone.

    But anyway. In the course of the two years I was getting chunks of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen in my inbox at odd intervals, I flaked on Lois innumerable times, once for two months. Because life is unpredictible. Because as much as it was hands-down the best kind of work ever omg, critical reading and feedback is still WORK.

    Equally, when I wasn’t flaking, I got at least two plaintive replies in the course of this saying “oh thank goodness, everyone else has dropped off the face of the earth.”

    So, Dear LW and others: put THAT in your jerk-brain and smoke it. Whenever you need to.

    1. You know what? I honest-to-god started crying when I read this comment.

      I am drawing a close to my first novel (about 10k words from the end, I think) and have been in the last few days engaged in the process of approaching a carefully selected group of close friends about a first-pass read of what I know to be a very bad first draft, a gentle and broad soft-critique before the real process of serious and professional critiquing starts. I’ve obviously never done this before and it’s scary as hell and I really don’t have the faintest idea what I’m doing, but the alternative is not doing it, so one foot in front of the other.

      The decision to take the plunge and write this book was *directly* inspired by the afterword to the 1999 Cordelia’s Honor omnibus. (Like, I had just finished Barrayar, read the afterword, went to sleep, woke up the next morning with a plot outline, and wrote eleven pages before I left for work.)

      It is important to me to remember that the creators whose work I adore are people first, people doing a challenging job for love in the midst of their own life-challenges, and the work gets done because they surround themselves with people who support them, and who in turn have their own lives and challenges too. Sharing art is a process of being human. Being given this anecdote about one of my lifelong heroes to carry with me into this process is a bit like being given some little treasure of a paternoster or worry stone. You couldn’t have known that, but you chose to tell the story, so thank you.

      1. A sort-of second: five years ago, I couldn’t get past my friend’s opening scene— too violent—- and as a girrul growing up in the American South and the U.K., I couldn’t even articulate to myself why it bothered me, because that would be Saying Something Bad and Expressing a Negative When It’s Just an Opinion. I figured THAT out TWO years ago— several months after she happily announced her appearance on the best-seller lists. I’m actually glad I flaked.

        Also, emphasizing: tell that jerkbrain to shush. Rejection is part of the process, happens to many, many WONDERFUL authors. Think of them as cool battle scars… but learn how to let them not get to you.

        1. Thank you! It had already occurred to me to gently remind my beta readers and crit partners that Feels About Criticism Are My Shit To Deal With; this reinforces that, and puts it into perspective. I’ve been a working professional in the visual arts, so I’m no stranger to bleeding in public, as it were, but wow, this is different.

    2. Singularly jealous here… Oh, and how did/do you cope with critiquing the overall arc/plot/effect/insert word here of a novel when you’re only reading it a bit at a time? This is an open question to anyone who cares to answer it, BTW.

      1. Well, you can only react to what you have to react to, which is part of the point for the writer, usually: they want to know what you think right then, what you expect next, etc. Sometimes I sent a page of incoherent squee, sometimes I sent little essays about the characters or about a theme, sometimes it was “so this is what I’m expecting/wanting/dreading here”. Not assuming I’d GET it, but letting her know what effect the foregoing had had. My wife was reading along as well, and we beguiled much of a road trip plot-bitching and then sending emails about it on stops.

        This will amuse you, especially: we had a significant insight at Yellowstone which later apparently came in handy.

        At the end I think I sent some longish comments on the whole arc(s).

        1. Yellowstone is very inspirational 🙂 Thanks for the response. Getting big picture commentary has always been my biggest issue.

  44. One thing that’s hard about writing is that, generally speaking, there’s a pretty big disparity between the energy you put into it and the energy readers will want to put into reading (let alone commenting on) your work. Unless there’s some other big motivating factor (like being paid), for most people a text has to be very exciting for them to read it. The hurdle may be very high – personally, I’ve put down books by Nobel Prize winners because something came up, and then never finished them. Good quality provides no guarantee that people will read your work. There’s also probably a big disparity between how much you care about your work, and how much your friends care. Even if they are genuinely interested in your work it might still not be important enough for them to actually read the entire novel. They might not dare to be honest with you and tell you they’re just not invested enough to put in the effort to read and comment, because it will come across as not liking your novel even if that’s not the case.
    I know it’s disheartening, but it’s definitely a common experience writers have, and not a reason to believe your work’s not good.

  45. Man, I’ve been asked by 2 friends to read and review their writing.

    Well, actually 3 friends, but that 3rd manuscript was just 12 pages, and though it was really, truly terrible, it didn’t take me long to read it, so I thought “Ah, why the heck not”? It’s a time-investment vs. the mild amusement I will glean from this exercise.

    But the other 2 included the latest installment in a never-ending fantasy series that my close friend had been writing for years, which she gave to me during a Chemistry lesson, and the first chapter of a Sci-Fi epic that one of my new university friends had written.
    So, both were written by teenagers, and I was apparently expected to read and critique them in my own time, while I was meant to be studying, and neither of them was really my cup of tea in terms of genre or subject matter. Both were roughly long enough that I could have had more fun using the pages to encase the authors in papier-mache.

    The length, coupled with the cheerful expectation that I would love it and have lots of enthusiastic things to say, made the whole thing a goddamned chore, and I still haven’t read either of them.

    Demanding people spend hours of their time validating some piece of work you’ve produced is a great way to strain a friendship. Definitely find people who are also writers to critique your stuff, but don’t forget they’ve got their own projects they want to be working on, so their “free” time is still valuable. Also, remember to offer something in return, whether it’s proofreading their stuff, or you treat them to coffee while you both discuss your latest chapter.
    If you have a friend who seems genuinely keen to read your stuff, then maybe serialize it. Send them a couple of pages every week via email, *as part of a friendly social exchange* so that it’s a social activity between the two of you and not a bunch of WORK that you’ve just dropped onto their desk.
    Rather than put someone on the spot with a general “what did you think?”, meet them halfway and identify questions you can ask to get the specific advice you want. Like: “I worried that the dialogue sounds a bit stilted here. Did you get that when you were reading it?” or “Have I done enough to flesh out [Character]? I wanted him to be [3 character traits], does that come across?” or just “I’m pretty happy with this chapter, but did you catch any spelling and grammar mistakes?”
    Let them engage with the text as a reader, and do your damnedest not to be offended if they think xyz could be done better, otherwise they will want to stop being honest with you, and will want to stop talking with you about your writing altogether.

    But don’t let your Jerkbrain get you down – 3 entire novels is extremely impressive of itself, and that means that you’ve already got the dedication to be A Writer, you just want someone to tell you that you make the grade to be published. That’s a totally different kettle of fish, but there are lots of books and classes and groups to help aspiring authors get into print, so look them up. 🙂

    I look forward to seeing you on Amazon’s stacks some day. Good luck, LW!

  46. LW, I’m a writer too! Something I’ve learned is that reading and critting a novel is a lot of hard work – so much so it is a specific skill that people charge for.

    Unless your friends have that skill (I suspect most are passive readers, where they don’t critique the work as they enjoy it) then they simply can’t do as you ask.

    Captains advice to find a writers group is excellent, and may I suggest AbsoluteWrite forums? You can’t post your whole novel, and you have to have contributed to the forums a bit before you can post chapters, but you can find people who’ll read it and crit it for you. And, more importantly, they have the skill, experience and distance to give you an honest response.

    Your friends are excited for you and wanted to support you, but I don’t think they realised what they were taking on. Let them off, and let them support you in the ways they are better at – being a shoulder during the submissions process, being there at your launch party etc.

  47. I was a member of an online group called Critique Circle. It’s about $60 a year to join. You’ll have to trade favors there, but you should get some good feedback.

  48. If you do get someone to read your work, one habit to avoid is arguing with the feedback you get. Ignore it if you like, dismiss it in your own head, but please don’t shoot down/argue away each piece of feedback as you get it from the reader. I’m not saying there’s any suggestion you do this, just chipping in here as someone who gets asked to read people’s creative work fairly often and finds this behaviour puts me off doing it more than once for any given writer.

    We talk about protecting the writer’s morale during the feedback process, but as the Captain says, reading is work too, and it’s work that can be demoralising if you feel that your contribution is being dismissed. It’s just exhausting to try giving a critique while everything you say is being argued down.

    “I thought the scene where they walk on the moors could be a bit more concise?”
    “No, it couldn’t. You’re wrong about this.”

    “I thought this character’s dialogue was a bit stilted.”
    “Ah, that’s because this character is actually a robot, as you’ll find out in part 2 of my trilogy.”

    Once I tried doing a critique by email to avoid this kind of back-and-forth (and actually finish what I had to say without giving up). The person then sent back a line-by-line rebuttal of everything I said, apart from the bits which were just content-free praise! And yes, they had asked me to read their work, and yes, they subsequently asked me to read other things!

    1. 1000 times this. Absorb the feedback, and apply it (or don’t), but don’t argue with it point by point if you want to remain on good terms with that person.

    2. If I spent hours and hours carefully reading someone’s writing to provide throughout feedback, and then they responded by telling me how stupid and wrong all of my thoughts were, I’d never read for them again! It’s one thing if I see the final draft and they decided not to take 100% of my suggestions, it’s another if they berate me and put me down for not giving them word for word the feedback I was supposed to. If you already know exactly what’s good and bad about the manuscript, why are you asking me?

      Be kind to your readers. You don’t have to take everything they say as gospel, but thank them for their contribution and parse through their feedback privately.

    3. There’s an amazing essay by Karen Joy Fowler in one of the Writers of the Future anthologies that has very good advice on how to take criticism, and the first piece of advice is that it’s perfectly ok to feel, in the moment, that the criticism you are receiving is absolutely wrong. But you shut up and take the hit and only when you are absolutely sure that you have survived do you look at it again and entertain the idea that, maybe, some of what you received was absolutely correct. I still re-read that essay at least once a year.

    4. I totally relate to this. A friend (male) sent me (female) his manuscript to read. I commented on how the development of his female characters made me uncomfortable. The young, pretty, sexy ones were the sympathetic characters while the not-so-sympathetic ones were invariably older, obese or unattractive. I then received a diatribe from my friend on how I didn’t really know what I was talking about and how some ‘actual’ feminists he had shared the manuscript with hadn’t raised this point etc etc. Needless to say, I was put off and never bought this book or his subsequent one.

      LW, maybe you could take a moment to reflect on how open you have been to feedback from friends in the past. Either related to your books or any other area. If your friends have not had a positive experience in the past with your reaction to their feedback, they may be reluctant to engage again. Just a thought.

  49. LW, I just wanted to say that 100% of the writers I know have had this experience so it’s not your book! This is just what happens with beta readers, and the Captain and the commentariat have some great suggestions for getting feedback.

  50. I have a dear, dear friend who edits my stuff. It’s great because, like LW, I also write! He’s a freelancer who copy-edits for a living, and so he is always asking me to send him things. This reminded me to send him a “Holy crap thanks so so so so much for all you do” email.

    For myself (this might be a good habit for you to get into as well, LW), I need ongoing feedback *during* my writing process. I don’t think I’ve ever sent more than 20 pages at a time for anyone to read, let alone edit and give me feedback on. This is mostly because like you, LW, I’ve realized how daunting anything more can look when it’s not written by a favorite author.

    I also would never send my stuff to more than 2-3 people at a time, and the people I choose for that are very carefully selected. Like, one of them is really great at catching my random grammar hiccups and weird sentence structures, but can’t offer me anything better than “I like it!” when it comes to the content/plot/characters.

    What I’m getting at is that not everyone is equally good at critique. Some people are just not geared towards constructive criticism OR praise, and perhaps wouldn’t be useful for you anyways. Some people don’t get that you’re not looking for compliments* or that you might want feedback about more than just spelling errors. Plus, It’s hard telling somebody you really like, who has accomplished something huge (three novels, let alone one!), that their creation is anything less than perfect

    I’m with the Captain on this- you gotta find yourself a group willing to workshop this. And when you write your next piece, consider sending drafts one chapter at a time to the friend who *did* get back to you.

    Good luck LW!

    * I just graduated with a degree in a creative field, and the critiques tended to be terrible. “I like it,” is wonderful to hear the first few times, but after a good handful of years you want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them and scream “OK GREAT BUT WHY?! WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT IT?!”

    1. Forgot to add the flip side!

      I once had a friend send me a draft of something-or-another in the midst of a death in the family, drama in a fail start relationship, and a particularly nasty depressive episode.

      Now, I did totally agree to read this, but did not anticipate any of that stuff happening. I (correctly IMHO) put my emotional health first and told my friend that I would get back to hir and hir piece as soon as the dust has settled.

      Nope! Pretty much every time zie and I talked, zie would badger me about reading hir piece. Which, lo and behold, did not make me want to read hir work. Mostly it made me not want to talk to hir at all.

      I did eventually get to read it a few months later, and really did love it, but our friendship suffered as a result.

      1. Sympathies. I can’t even imagine how that went down.

        “How’ve you been, Somniorum?”

        “Oh, you know. It’s been hard, coping with Family Member’s death. I really miss Family Member.”

        “Uh huh. So have you read my manuscript yet?”

  51. I’ve had a success with a friend who is also a writer so I could say “Hey, I’ll critique your book if you critique mine.”

  52. I used to write a lot and now I do all sorts of artsy things so I have a lot of experience with finding ways to get feedback. What I discovered is that it’s easiest to get feedback from people in the same field. I started taking photo’s in clubs and made connections with others that do the same. Together we help each other and I find it benefits me to critique their work to “have a sharper eye’ and it might benefit them for the same reason. Plus it can be fun. Learning someone something about something I love is great haha.

    So what if it’s hard to find these people? Well I have had teachers, that are getting paid to give me feedback. Or I have asked friends/family to help me. I either depended on their awesome generosity of time or I would offer them something like dinner! It’s fun and feels better than paying them. It can be something else too, but from my experience they took my request more seriously when they got something in return. Which makes sense to me because as the Captain said, reading an entire novel or even a chapter can feel like work. If you do need something by some date you could for example suggest ‘Hey how about I make you dinner and while I cook you could maybe read that chapter I just finished? I’d be super thankful! And we can enjoy a nice meal afterwards’.

  53. You wrote 3 novels, LW, and that’s awesome!

    I have been wanting to get back into writing (I used to write stories all the time as a kid/teen) and I have yet to take the time to sit down and write (even though I’ve got a few ideas for stories), so kudos on doing it!

    One thing I didn’t notice anyone else recommending is there is a subreddit on Reddit.com called /r/writing where writers can go ask for feedback on some of their stuff. They do a weekly thread where you can post your work and get feedback. So you could potentially post a couple chapters in there, and see what everyone thinks, etc. Might even make a thread asking if anyone would be willing to give feedback on a finished novel.

  54. You ask about silencing the jerk-brain and talk about your dashed dreams. One way to deal with the jerk-brain is to be specific about what your dreams are. Getting published? Getting read? Getting praise? Making money? Getting on the Daily Show? Selling the movie rights? These are all related but not actually the same. Give some good thought as to who your audience is and what you expect their reaction to be. Think about your goals. That way, when your jerk-brain says “you’re no good,” you can answer with “No, I just got a rejection from an agent. There’s a difference.”

    1. You know, it’s a funny thing. But the part where I’m struggling as far as the jerkbrain goes is this:

      I want to start querying agents and all of that. But I can’t yet, because I know there are some timing and structure issues. But I can’t totally fix those timing and structure issues without some help from people who are less close to it (and thus more ruthless) than myself. So on the one hand I feel like a lazy failure for not querying agents, and on the other I feel frustrated because I can’t take that step.

      At any rate, I know quite well that this is circular and not worth indulging in. But as always, getting what you feel to line up with what you know is less than simple!


  55. Spouse of a creative person here, and I just wanted to share a few thoughts, since we’ve had some bumps in our relationship in the beginning over what, exactly, “read my work and let me know what you think” means.

    First, consider what type of feedback you’re looking for. Line edits for typos because you’re about to send it off to a publisher and you want a second set of eyes to back you up? Big, sweeping, “developmental edits”? Something in between those two? Be specific about the kind of help you’re open to up-front, so the person who is signing up to read for you understands what you’re asking.

    Second, is the person you are asking for feedback from the right person to give you that type of feedback? Example time: I am super-helpful to my spouse in the idea-formation stage, like, when he has a plot bunny skipping around in his head and he’s trying to figure out how to catch the bunny and wrangle it into an actual work. I’m also a heck of a line-editor. Typo on page 372 of 514? I am ON it. I’m really, really bad at the developmental-type edits, the “is this bit of dialogue working for you here?” or “how do I strengthen the theme through the middle part?” or whatever, because I have a strong writing voice of my own, and I end up inserting my own voice where it’s not really needed or wanted. So I’m not my spouse’s first reader anymore, because I’m extremely not-helpful as a first reader. Instead, I help him by talking through new ideas with him when he’s still trying to figure out how to commit them to writing, and then jump in as a final reader when the work is basically complete and he’s just looking for clean-up.

    Third, if you’re mainly looking for “yes I liked it/no I didn’t like it”, and not so much detailed feedback, make sure your friends know that. Reading a novel can be quite a time commitment for some people (not nearly as much as writing one, so go you! I admire your writing-to-completion skills more than I can put into words here), so “please read and edit” could just feel super-overwhelming, while “just read it and send me a thumbs up or a thumbs down” might feel more doable.

    Lastly, keep in mind your genre may not be for everyone, no matter how fantastic the writing is, so don’t take someone’s not having finished your novel yet personally. If a friend wrote a sci-fi novel, or a mystery, or a crime novel, I would be all about that and probably read it in two days. Historical fiction or romance? Not so much, because those genres aren’t my bag – but not reading it quickly (or possibly at all) wouldn’t change the fact that I think you’re awesome and I’m incredibly proud of you and your work. It just means I’m not your audience, and that’s okay.

    So, TL;DR – You are awesome, and your jerk brain needs to stop interpreting lack of feedback as negative feedback, because it isn’t. Take all of the Captain’s wonderful advice about places to find feedback, and let your friends be your friends. I can guarantee you that they love you and are so proud of/impressed by you and your work, and their helpfulness (or lack thereof) as editors doesn’t change that.

  56. I’ve got a long history with writing and editing, including being a columnist at a newspaper and reading and editing my team members’ stories both at the paper and at a PR/marketing gig I did later on. I’m also on hiatus after my first semester as an MFA in creative writing student.

    Part of the MFA program involved showing our work to others in workshop and then critiquing it. Much, much harder than I had ever DREAMED before entering the program (and one of the reasons I’m on hiatus, BTW). Your friends may have had the very best of intentions, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s got their own lives, jobs, etc., and they may just be too busy to read it. Critiquing is a whole ‘nother thing, as commenters above have pointed out.

    After being in workshop, I realize that the feedback I would ideally like would come from people who know what they are talking about. Not that I’m saying your friends don’t know anything about literature. But I find it’s more helpful if readers are familiar with the basics of what makes a story good, what draws a reader in, etc.

    As for jerkbrain, all writers have it. As one of my professors said, “We all feel stupid when we are writing.” You’ve just got to push through it. DO NOT let it make you stop writing.

  57. Don’t stop writing. If I learned anything from writing, it’s that nobody fucking cares about even their friends’ work.

    People will forget. People are losers and will put your lovingly written book down on some countertop, let it get buried by 10 piles of junk mail, and totally forget it exists. Does this mean your novel sucks? Not in any way at all! Your novel could be the next bestseller to top the lists all over the world and they would forget. It could be the most sublime piece of work they will ever read, and they will forget. It’s because people mean well and just don’t follow through.

    You need a commitment out of these people. “Hey, read my novel” will not win over the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that infects people in general. You need a “hey, I want to publish soon, do you think you could get back to me by the end of the (fortnight, month, whatever)?” Because then they have a deadline, and they know things are important to you. Remind them if need be, and if they still lag, I’d say tell them that you really are counting on them and look, you didn’t hand it to them just on a lark.

    Also realize that you’re probably going to get a bunch of feedback that is like “Yeah, it’s good!” or “Eh, not my genre” or “I’m no good at writing, so I can’t really offer critique.” People suck at this.

    Get a writer’s group, is my advice, but on the other hand a writer is a different audience than a non-writer, so I suggest drawing from both.

    1. Aurora, you might not mean this, but ‘these people’ are us. Look at this thread and see how many commenters have flaked out on a commitment because they were busy, depressed, overwhelmed with how much to say, what to say, or how to say it. That doesn’t mean that people ‘suck at it’. And they don’t _owe_ the LW a critique, even if they had agreed initially, so the LW doesn’t ‘need a commitment’ – they may need a new strategy (such as the writing group) or ways of making it easier on people (such as telling them they want to move forward with publishing and can they have a response by x), but you seem to be viewing all such transactions through a lens of bitterness (which I can understand, I have a novel in my trunk that I like which _nobody wanted to read_ and nobody could give me a reason why; I had All The Feelz) but I find in general that assuming that my friends might be stressed out by a request is much kinder to me and them than thinking they don’t care, they’re losers, or they suck.

  58. Hey LW, I was one of those people asked to help review and edit a friend’s novel and totally fell through and never did. At first my reasons were being busy and over time it turned into pure stubbornness due to the fact that our friendship was kinda starting to decay. At the time she did this though, she didn’t just email out a full length novel to people, but rather she emailed a chapter and asked for feedback on that chapter. Which worked fairly well for her, she apparently had like 6 or 7 people replying to each email.

    But on the other hand, the people she had helping were… Well, they were other high-schoolers and they were a heavy mix of reading and style preferences which really did not help. It’s tempting to just have your friends look it over, but I would highly recommend looking into hiring someone to help edit (expensive and possibly not an option bc of it, but also guaranteed results) or look into websites and communities where people help edit each other’s work (with the cost of having to trade favors and read other people’s manuscripts to edit too). Friends may be eager to help, but as you now know it’s hard to get them to follow through and even when they do there’s no guarantee the feedback will be what you are looking for.

    Now, the site seems to be more aimed at high schoolers and I haven’t used it since my high school years, but Figment.com is another writing community that might help you with feedback. I remember a lot of the comments I received were of the general “I loved it!” kind but there were a ton of authors who would critique your work if you critiqued theirs, and the site is totally free. But going to a writing site like that or Livejournal where you’ll at least get some sort of feedback will really help your jerkbrain shush itself and stop telling you that your writing is awful!

    Believe me, I’m still struggling with the fact that anything I post, art or writing, doesn’t get noticed by anyone and it makes it hard to want to keep working on my projects. It’s hard, especially once you’re trying to edit something you’ve looked at a million times! I hope you can figure out something that works for you, especially since you’ve already done something super awesome and finished not just one but THREE books.

    1. There are basically four ways you can get feedback on your writing: friends and family; exchange with other writers, professional editing, and a writing mentor. They all have advantages and disadvantages. As an editor I would say _don’t_ hire a professional until you have acquired a certain amount of skill and a large toolset for fixing things; because I will tell you what the weaknesses of a mss are, but not necessarily how to fix them, and while I, personally, would be willing to work with a writer to acquire the skills to improve, many editors are not. (They don’t have the time: they edit, and send it back. And then they move on to the next mss. They’re often booked months in advance, so a request to give you another five or ten or twenty hours of their time might not be welcome, even if you offer to pay. (And quite frankly, that’s a lot of money to drop on a hobby at this stage).

      There are a lot of things you can do to become a better editor of your own work; and that’s one of the first thing you should work on. There’s a feedback cycle: if you can _see_ that something is a problem, you can work on not writing the problematic words in the first place; and ideally your critters/editors point out a problem a few times, and you learn not to have it in your final mss (you might still write it in first draft; everybody works differently) so that the next time you get feedback, you will work on a higher level.

      I’m still struggling with the fact that anything I post, art or writing, doesn’t get noticed by anyone

      I think that’s just the fragmented nature of the internet at the moment. I remember when even relatively obscure livejournal posters routinely got thirty or forty comments – these days that gets on you on the top ten list – and a typical day on my list was in the ‘skip 250’ range. These days, I can go two or three days without needing to go back a page on the same number of contacts/feeds. Instead we have the quick like culture, which some days is great, but doesn’t lead to interaction. I hope you find likeminded folks to geek out with.

      1. An editor will be willing to help you improve if teaching is one of their strengths AND if you pay them for the coaching. Not everyone will have the time, but that’s true of every kind of project.

        1. Coaching is a special skill, and from my experience hanging out with editors only a small percentage of them *will* do this – a lot of them might know what the words should look like on the page, but might not necessarily know how to get a writer to acquire that skill. So it’s not a skill I expect editors to have (just as some people copyedit and proofread, or copyedit and index).

          I also feel (based on hanging out with writers) that teaching someone how to write is not a quick process, and at $25-50/h, it quickly gets past people’s abilities. (I also worry about trying to learn to write from one person: getting coaching to reach a new level when you’ve already got a considerable skillset is one thing; but for people starting out, crit groups and local/online writing courses where you get to exchange cries with other writers and see how _they_ tackle problems are much, much better. A *really* good editor/writing coach will bring out a writer’s vision of a text; a mediocre one will make the writer conform to *their* ideals. And when people start out, they cannot always tell the difference.

          (I don’t know whether anyone has mentioned nanowrimo yet, for instance: I’ve always found it a good way of meeting other writers and being immersed in writing talk.)

          1. Good points. I was thinking of the kind of coaching I’ll offer in the context of a critique or edit — a one-shot deal. I’ve never acted as an ongoing consultant or teacher. It actually sounds like a lot of fun, but I’d want mentoring from somebody who’s done it before.

  59. Another writer here! The advice in the comments is pretty damn solid, LW, but if you want, here’s what worked for me (not sure if this applies to novels, but I suppose it’s worth a shot):

    –I second the suggestion to keep the amount of betas small. For one story, I had SEVEN betas, and I think there were roughly four or so whose advice I found useful. I use no more than four these days, and now I usually have two. This way, it’s easier to keep track of comments, and also makes the editing process go faster, since you’re not waiting on so many people.

    –I also second joining a writing group, but don’t get discouraged if some of them don’t work out for you. I’ve had ones that are fabulous (and made many friends, some of whom are my aforementioned betas), but I’ve had some that have been flat-out awful, and one that made me put down my work for a while. And jumping off of that…

    –it is more than OK to be picky with your betas. I usually pick folks who have work that I admired, or who provided useful critique, even if it was a little harsh. And, of course, folks who would get back to me in a timely manner. Admittedly, I wasn’t the best at setting deadlines, and I’m trying to work on that.

    Good luck!

  60. May I ask one thing of the beta readers/critiquers out there, though? *Please* don’t deliberately lie about your real intentions. Having life get in your way or not liking the book or whatever is one thing, but I once had a friend reply to a LiveJournal post of mine looking for beta readers with an enthusiastic yes. As it happened, she was the only person who did reply to the post at all. But when I got back to her about the book, she told me flat out, “Oh, I never had any intention of actually doing it. I only said yes to get the ball rolling for you.” Thinking about this still hurts me, and she is no longer my friend because of it. If she’d *told* me that up front (by email or pm or something), or, better yet, asked if I wanted her to do something like this, I’d have told her don’t do it. But it’s the fact that she *lied* to me intentionally that still makes me upset when I think about it, and this was years ago.

  61. LW, and other writers looking for feedback, I so agree with what’s been said here. I do some of this on a volunteer basis (judge for some book awards, receive advance copies from some publishers, and occasionally review on Netgalley, although I will never ever EVER hit the recommended 80% there) because I enjoy reading, writing, and publishing… but it’s work. It’s hard work. I’d much rather get a first page, sample chapter, whatever and give feedback on it than go into full editor mode and look at changing around scenes, paring down extraneous bits, and generally killing babies. I can do a lot more with a first page than I can a whole book, and I’m usually a lot more willing to.

    That said, the community for both writers and readers is huge, and generous, and wonderful. I know several sites that do first-page anonymous critiques and the information these folks are given is tremendous and helpful (and occasionally contradictory because a dozen people usually weigh in). Look at your genre, drill down hard to the people who live and breathe it, and ask them for feedback. Use the K boards, or Amazon’s forums, or mailing lists, as there are so many resources out there for folks who want to self-pub, or trad pub. Take everything with a giant block of salt lick.

    When friends ask me for feedback, I usually decline. It’s a mix of not enjoying the genre they’re writing in (and that means I won’t even pick the book up), having a to-read pile that threatens to crush me on good days, and not knowing them well enough to know if they want critique, editorial feedback, or just my impressions (or just praise, which I will also happily give). That or I don’t know them well enough to read their erotica (this comes up far more often than I want it to, and I enjoy erotica, but am very gun-shy right now after Netgalley sent me an advertisement for something triggery as fuck and sent it in such a way it bypassed all of my filters to ensure I wouldn’t receive something like that).

    It’s not that I am not happy for them or think they have not accomplished something amazing! I know just how much work and heart goes into writing books. But I also don’t want to edit/critique/review books for friends — I do something similar professionally, and there is a reason it’s kept professional. The ability to have that distance is critical when you’re picking apart their beloved dreams and masterpieces.

    If you’re seriously stuck finding help or are worried about responses, try the Friends of Captain Awkward boards, we have a section for writing and reading and I’m sure you can find people there who will be willing to provide feedback, editing, and further words of advice from folks who’ve been there.

  62. As a published author, I’m often asked if I will read and critique someone’s work. I have to say no, because that is unpaid work and I have a busy schedule of paid work to do, with one exception. There are a few trusted writers with whom I regularly trade critiques. We have a longstanding arrangement that I will read and critique all their work, and they will read and critique all of mine. We found each other through various writing groups. It helps if you enjoy reading work and they enjoy reading yours, if you have a similar writing speed/output, and are at similar levels of writing proficiency. It takes time to find the right people, but it’s well worth it. Good luck!

  63. People have basically already said most of the useful things I could say about the care and feeding of your readers, but I do have one thing to add:

    Reading a draft means reading on a screen, and reading on a screen is tiring.

    When I get a manuscript, usually I have to reformat it immediately to make it reader-friendly. Friends who don’t do this a lot won’t know to do this, and won’t necessarily know why they’re not enjoying the experience of reading the book.

    If you send out your stuff:

    In Courier, which isn’t the prettiest font but is amazingly comfortable to read,
    Set to 14- or 16-point instead of ten or twelve,
    With a blank line between paragraphs
    Justified left,

    Your readers are much less likely to give up due to the actual process being uncomfortable.

    1. My reading preferences are different – I prefer screen reading to paper, I love Palatino and read in 14pt justified with 1.5 line spacing – but my one formatting plea is this:

      Do not send me anything in Times New Roman. Ever. It’s an ABYSMAL font to read on screen; the letters are small, squashed, and not easily distinguishable. Anything I get in TNR I have to reformat. (Luckily that’s not difficult, but it’s an extra step.) Also, keep Arial away from me.

  64. I’m a writer and I’m *constantly* starved for feedback, but I realized long ago that giving real, helpful feedback is a damn difficult job and it’s not one that just anyone can do. If nothing else, take a world’s worth of joy and exultation in the fact that you’ve managed to *finish* three novels. GO YOU!!! Yes, it’s natural to be uncertain about whether it’s any good or whether you’re failing in this aspect or that one and yes, feedback is important. There’s a lot of people giving real good advice on that front. I just wanted to help combat the Jerkbrain a bit with some encouragement, in part because I know how important encouragement can be.

    I realized that I actually had some ability in this whole writing thing during the Dark Ages of the Internet, when I found out, on a listserv discussion group, that I’d gotten a self-described 13 year old boy addicted to a soap opera style fanfic… That was twenty years ago and I’m *still* insecure as hell over whether any given chapter is “any good”. So there’s no shame in being uncertain and insecure. As one writer (whose name I never can remember) once said, writing is a bit like cutting yourself open and pouring your heart and soul onto the page for all the world to see. Kudos for having the courage to do that.

    You are so awesome for the accomplishment of all you’ve managed! Don’t give up! You are amazing!

  65. Hi, I am a weird person who really LIKES reading people’s drafts and making comments. I enjoy it so much that it is pleasure for me, not work. I wish I could get paid for it and I’m working on that. Actually I am an experienced professional editor but the documents I edit are not literary, more’s the pity. Anyway I am volunteering to do this for you, free of charge. If you want to take me up on this we can talk time frame. I am extremely busy (seriously, single parent, just moved house, two jobs …) but I LOVE doing this kind of thing so I can totally see myself finding the time because it’s not a chore, it would be relaxation and a treat to myself and I do find time for those despite everything.
    I’d correct grammar and usage if necessary, flag up glaring inconsistencies and the like and probably eliminate redundancy. I might simply point out redundancy, wordiness or purple prose in connection with the fact that on principle, I’d hang back from suggesting specific changes. It is your work and it is better if you come up with solutions, if indeed you even agree with me about the problems – at the end of the day this stuff can’t but be subjective.
    Alternatively, my friends have a website where writers can post their work as it evolves and others critique it. I’ll dig out the address and post to this thread again.

    tl;dr: I’d like to volunteer to help you with this! Please get in touch with me via the forums if you wish to take me up on my offer.

    1. You are AMAZING. I’m going to send you a note to discuss a bit and see if style, genre, etc. lines up for you. Thank you!


  66. I would like to suggest rather than spending your money on workshops, you take advantage of the literally thousands of threads of free writing advice (plus bonus ability to hook up with beta readers and have your work critted!) at Absolute Write. Many people in the industry (self-published, commercially published and aspiring authors, editors, agents, etc.) hang out there and you can find topics covering just about every question in writing and publishing under the sun. That’s not just about novels, but also screenplays, writing for video games, and even greeting cards.

    Check out the forums here:



    A Published Author Who Found That Site Invaluable

  67. So I’m not an editor but somehow in my life I became embedded amongst several professional editors. Probably because I worked IT for a publishing company for a while. Anyway, there is a reason they’re paid for what they do. It’s work! Like lots of people have said in this thread it’s also a trained skill, something people learn and practice. One of the editors I know is very new and untrained and does this work because of his strong experience in the subject matter of what he’s editing and he finds it very difficult indeed.

    There are several things here with your friend question. First off, some of them probably said yes because they didn’t know how to say no to your request, and don’t really have time to do it or perhaps even want to do it. Some of them probably did intend to do it, but have overestimated their time and interest level. Take me back in time a decade and I would have been one of those people – unable to say no and unable to realistically estimate my available time and energy. I still struggle with it – I was asked to participate in a game writing project recently and I got caught up in the excitement enough to initially say yes and then several weeks later change that to a no when I realised that actually I didn’t have sufficient time and interest. Some of your friends don’t know how to tell you they can’t do it, especially as more and more time passes. So they just let it sit in the guilt pile and keep meaning to get around to it.

    On top of that, some of your friends may well have read it and don’t know how to give you feedback. They don’t know how critical you *really* want them to be and are afraid of offending or upsetting you. When I was a teenager a friend gave me something he’d written to read over and I was really harsh and he was really hurt – it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat! And this is a raw unedited book you’ve given them so it will have messy bits and flaws that they will notice and not be sure how to point out. Even if they do eventually reply they’re quite likely to just say it was cool and great and fine, which is fairly useless in terms of critique.

    And of course maybe one or more of them have read a few chapters in and really really hate it – and now don’t know what to say. That sounds like the worst thing in the world, but it isn’t. There are plenty of published, successful books in genres I like that I hate and can’t read more than a few chapters of without giving up. People have different tastes. Just because a friend hates your book doesn’t mean it objectively sucks and lots of other people won’t like it. I can’t actually finish the Song of Ice and Fire series (rage-quit in book 4) and George RR Martin is objectively a wildly successful author.

    LW, you have handed your friends an albatross. 9 out of 10 of them have failed to come through for you and I’m going to guess all 9 feel guilty and wish they could find a way out of this, are perhaps penning their own CA letters now “a friend asked me to read and comment on their novel and I don’t know how to tell them I can’t/won’t how can I get out of this without upsetting them?” It’s a *huge* ask to critique the full length novel of a friend, and people really struggle with saying no to stuff they feel like they should be able to do.

    As others have said, the solution is strangers. You have exactly one friend who is willing and able to come through on this (they deserve huge gratitude!), and you need to supplement them with strangers. Strangers who are more knowledgeable in this area, who are writers themselves, and who aren’t afraid of offending you because: stranger. And look once you’ve had a little amateur feedback and have fixed the obviously broken stuff, send it off to a publisher and risk professional feedback. 🙂

    Good luck LW! You finished actual whole novels! That shit is hard and you’ve done it and are in the editing phase OMG \o/

    1. “are perhaps penning their own CA letters now “a friend asked me to read and comment on their novel and I don’t know how to tell them I can’t/won’t how can I get out of this without upsetting them?”

      I have gotten this letter more than once. 🙂 My answer, if you’re wondering, is: “Just tell them you know you won’t get to it. ‘I am so proud of you for writing this, but reading it and giving feedback is more than I can handle, and I know that I won’t get to it in any kind of timely way. I’m so sorry, I wanted to let you know so that this isn’t hanging out awkwardly between us.'”

  68. This reminds me that I may have the only paper copy of my friend’s novel & should get it back to her in case she doesn’t have a spare. (I also have the only electronic copy, because I was trying to retrieve it from her old hard drive for her, but that was unsuccessful. So technically an electronic copy does not exist. I feel weirdly guilty about this even though I did my best and it’s not MY fault she didn’t backup her hard drive. Man, friendships do weird things to your head sometimes.)

      1. Man, I love my friend, but I am done wrangling technology on her behalf, you know? Back up your hard drive, fellow humans! Or budget for hard drive rescue services! 🙂

  69. Holy shit, LW, you wrote THREE NOVELS. That is so so so amazing and awesome. I am envious and glad for you all at once.

    Also: Oh my god giving feedback is hard. Giving feedback on short stories is like splitting teeth, and you have someone who is giving you feedback on a novel. (I feel this is a good sign.)

    Also I second the Absolute Write suggestion.

  70. Hello Captain Awkward and the Awkward Army!

    I’ve been reading this fantastic site for a while now, and this is the first time I’ve plucked up the courage to comment.

    I was a beta reader for a friend/colleague’s first novel a couple of years ago. He’d written a number of non-fiction books, so this was a new experience for him – and for me. He said “Tell me what you think”, which, quite honestly, is a bit vague. This sort of comment can be a problem if your reader, like I was, isn’t sure what to do or what you want from them.

    Perhaps this is part of the problem here, LW? It’s all very well for your friend to say “Yes, I’ll give you feedback on your novel”, but when the file arrives, they may be thinking “Damn, it’s a WHOLE NOVEL. What on earth do I say? How do I approach this feedback?”

    What I ended up doing is keeping a notebook at my side as I read, and jotting down things that struck me about the story, whether positive, negative or neutral, and then writing those notes up in an email to him. For example, I noted that the story was pacy and a page turner, that I was impressed with one of the plot twists in particular and that I liked the main female character, but I found her a little two dimensional and I hoped she’d be developed more fully in the sequel he was planning. I actually suspect, like you, LW, not many people had got back to him because I got a delighted response to my email!

    Good luck with your writing in the future!

    (Also, thanks CA – your advice is great and you’ve helped me out with my own dilemma over an online relationship that went wrong. The Cap’n and all of you here have made me realise that a) I did the right thing in blocking this person on social media, and b) I probably dodged a bullet there! Thanks again! xx)

  71. I’ve been using critique.org lately. It’s free, and there seems to be a pretty good sized community. I haven’t sent any of my own work in, but I’ve been enjoying critiquing other stories. Also, the guys who runs it seems to run a tight ship, so anyone who doesn’t pull their weight get axed from the site.

    Sorry if this isn’t allowed — I found the site through Google and there were several others that came up that I haven’t even checked out yet.

  72. The only people who have actually read my manuscript – many have promised, few have done – are my book club friends. And I asked them for very specific feedback:

    1. Does the flow of the story work?
    2. Do you like/hate the characters?

    That still might be too general, now that I think about it, but three of my friends have given me very thoughtful, very helpful feedback over lunch that I have bought, which of course is still not enough compensation!

    1. This is a an excellent script for the initial read that I mentioned recruiting for upthread, may I use it? (Lunch and all, what a lovely idea!)

      This post-and-comments in general is enormously interesting, helpful, and resource-packed, and I’ve bookmarked it and expect to come back to it quite a lot. I’m also feeling pretty much better than I did when the post first went up about the choices I made for readers* and my expectations of the process**. I think it’s pretty clear that the next step is a proper writers group, and although I don’t have a local one in the small town where I live, I’ve joined a very prestigious and respected regional (http://www.pikespeakwriters.com/) and I think I’m going to start trying to find a way to get to some of their events.

      *three people with whom I have a personal history of trust under pressure, and who all have a long, broad history of reading in my genre, talking extensively and analytically about what they read, and participating in fandom; one is an established beta reader for a published author, one is another aspiring author who is interested in crit partnering, and the third is the second’s partner. I’m thinking of adding a fourth, who is a published author herself.

      **overview commentary with some cheerleading, not a deep critique at this stage.

  73. I’ve tried to reply as many of these posts as I can, but I want to offer up a few very general thoughts:

    Thank you, Cap’n, and thank you everyone!

    1. I try to remember that my life motto should always be “It’s not about me.” It’s just generally useful — others’ behavior is rarely actually about me (or you, or you, or even you over there) — but it can be so hard to remember, especially as someone with a certain amount of social anxiety.
    2. Thanks for the many good reminders to be clear with people that I know it’s a big ask, and to set specific timelines and follow up.
    3. Thanks also for the many good suggestions of online groups, ways to find partners, etc.
    4. Thanks *also* for the reminder that I need to make sure people know that direct critique is actually less stressful for me than radio silence. (Hello, social anxiety! Hearing something blunt, even if it’s negative, is so much easier to take than wondering what people are really thinking!)

    In short, thanks to everyone. You are all amazing, and I really appreciate everything you’ve said.

    Also, so much cheerleading is going out to all of you who find yourself in the same place. We got this, folks! Someday we shall all partake in the Cake of Finished Books, or maybe even the Cake of Published Books.

Comments are closed.