So. You've written a thing, and now you want to know if that thing is any good. First of all, congratulations! Writing is impossible, and the fact that you've finished/half finished/started a draft of something is an utter miracle. And now that you're weeping with joy over jumping that first hurdle, it's time to give your precious baby manuscript to a cold-hearted critic who's going to tear it apart. Here are a few vital tips for getting feedback on your writing.
You see, unless you're writing in a diary which you then plan to burn, a writer needs readers. The idea of someone else touching your writing with their disgusting human fingers might make you feel like barfing, but you're just going to have to barf and move on. You must share your writing if you want your writing to get better. When you finished that chapter at 3:00 A.M., in your caffeine-fueled fugue state, it probably seemed brilliant. But reading it now, in the cold gray light of mid-afternoon, it seems like hot garbage. Which is it? What's the truth? That's where feedback comes in handy.
So swallow your pride, stifle your uncontrollable anxiety sobs, and enjoy these tips on getting feedback that will actually help your writing:
1 Accept that you need feedback
You need feedback. I need feedback. J.K. Rowling needs feedback. Getting constructive criticism is part of the writing process — it doesn't mean that you've failed. It means that you're serious about writing something good (or, at least, intelligible). It's really hard to judge your own writing when you've been stewing in your own writing for months. So take a deep breath and say it with me now: "I need feedback."
2 Make sure your work is feedback ready
There's no wrong stage to ask for feedback: an outside opinion is helpful on draft one and on draft one hundred and one. But that doesn't mean you should finish writing in the dead of the night, print it, and mail it off to your high school English teacher without even proof-reading. Look over what you've written and try to catch typos, confusing phrasing, and grammar mistakes before you share. Also, double-space that mess for the love of god, no one's trying to read your single-spaced memoir.
3 Find someone who knows what they’re talking about
I'm sure your mom and your third roommate and your yoga instructor are all lovely people, but will they give you helpful feedback? Choose people who write, or at least who read widely, to ask for feedback. And if you're not used to being critiqued, avoid asking family, lovers, or exes. If you don't know many other writers, seek out a writer's workshop group or class in your area, or find an online community where you can exchange feedback with another desperate writer for free.
4 Ask two or three specific questions
What is your goal in asking for feedback? Are you trying to find out if your jokes are actually funny, or are you wondering where you should go next with the plot? If you have specific questions, ask them before you get feedback from your friendly volunteer. If you just want a general critique, ask them questions like, "What's working right now?" and "What do you find confusing?" and "What changes would you suggest for the next draft of this piece?"
5 Be polite
If someone has agreed to give you feedback, they're doing you a favor (yes, even if you're in a class with them). Be polite. Offer to give feedback in exchange. Buy them a fancy coffee. Most importantly, respect what they say, even if you don't like it. Most people will genuinely try to give you helpful feedback. You don't have to agree with their opinions, but you also shouldn't assume that any comment on your writing is also a judgment on your immortal soul.
6 Shut up
Shut. Up. I mean, you can answer questions if you're asked, but please resist the urge to explain or defend your writing. Yes, I know that everyone totally misunderstood the way the the elves of Hornhill use magic in your short story, or they missed the point of the mansplaining boyfriend character in your screenplay, and you really want to tell everyone what you actually meant. But you have to sit quietly and listen to your feedback first. As much as it hurts to say, you won't be there to defend your writing to everyone who ever reads it. Your writing is going to have to stand up for itself. Instead of getting defensive, make a note of what people misunderstood so you can fix that in your rewrites.
7 Get a second (and third) opinion
Actually, get a fifth and sixth opinion if you can. Different people are going to give you different feedback, and some of it is going to be not so helpful. You don't want to overwhelm yourself with a sea of criticism, but a wide range of opinions will give you more options when you're writing that next draft.
8 Give a deadline
I know, deadlines are the writer's natural enemy. Giving your friend a deadline to send feedback feels like it's in direction violation of the "Be Polite" tip. But if you don't give a writer a deadline they will waste all their time staring out the window and taking pictures of their latte, and then you will never get your feedback. So give a gentle deadline and, if necessary, a gentle reminder when your writer friend misses said deadline.
9 Recognize “bad” feedback
This is a little tricky, because "bad" feedback doesn't necessarily mean "negative" feedback (unless someone has written "lol this sucks" all over your manuscript in red marker—that's not very helpful). "Bad" feedback can also be someone telling you, "Yeah, this is great!" with no other details. That feedback might make you feel warm and fuzzy, but it's not helpful. It's also not helpful when another writer tells you how they would have written your story, or that you should just write about something else entirely. Recognize when someone is giving you feedback that isn't constructive, and politely ignore it.
10 Recognize “painful but helpful” feedback
...and sometimes feedback can hurt and still be helpful. You might scream uncontrollably at the thought of cutting the funny henchman sidekick from your novel, but you might also realize that doing so will get rid of all the lag around chapter five. "Good" feedback doesn't always make you feel good right away, but sometimes you need to kill your darlings (and your ego) to make your piece better in the end.
11 Notice patterns
If you give your story to five people, and all five say that you should cut the descriptive paragraph about the fountain, then maybe consider cutting that paragraph. But if you give your story to five people and one person says that you should change every character's name to Bruce, then you should feel less pressure to follow that advice. Notice patterns in the feedback you're getting, and take them into consideration.
12 Remember that you’re the writer
Feedback is helpful, but it's not legally binding. At the end of the day, only you can decide which changes to make. Don't let one negative comment kill your enthusiasm, and don't let one positive comment lull you into a false sense of security. Most importantly, don't let someone else's vision take over your writing. Constructive criticism is there to help you write, not to dictate what you write. So take several more deep breaths, and let's get started on draft two.