When people find out that I am an editor, they sometimes ask me to look at their writing. They want to find out what I think of their work. Often, though, I feel like people don’t want to know my opinion – they just want me to reassure them that their writing is good.
I’m not one to just give praise lightly. I think every piece of writing could use improvement, often to the point where I start editing in my head the published books I’m reading. (It’s a sickness from which many editors suffer.)
Writing isn’t just about crafting the perfect story or the perfect sentence. It’s also about the process of development and revision leading up to creating those elements. Good writing depends on good revision. But how do you get and use it in the most effective way? Let’s look at how to get feedback on your work and what to do when you get it.
When do you start revising?
It’s hard to answer that question, and I think the response can vary by individual piece and writer. I do believe that, universally, starting each writing session by going over what you’ve previously written is a recipe for disaster. Doing so enables procrastination by preventing you from moving forward with the project because you’re endlessly trying to perfect what you’ve already written.
It’s much easier to write, and once you complete the chapter, article, or essay, take the time to go back over it and see what can be improved. If you’re writing a longer piece, like a book, it might help to do revisions on a chapter-by-chapter basis and then again when the book is complete.
Do I need a second set of eyes?
The revision process always is more productive when someone who isn’t the writer provides thoughts on the work at hand. I prefer that a writer do their own round of editing on their work before they send it to me, as there are often issues that can easily be spotted and fixed before an editor takes a look at the manuscript. After that, though, definitely seek out someone else to give you some feedback.
There are a number of ways you can get feedback on your writing. If you’re lucky enough to have an editor you work with often, you can approach them to help with a project, especially if you know you’ll be sending it their way soon. This is part of their job, and they will often be open to helping you or letting you know the process by which they could provide feedback.
A lot of people I know join writing circles where they meet regularly with a group to share their progress and get ongoing feedback as they write. If you can find a writing group like this, I highly recommend it as it’s a great way to find supportive, useful, and ongoing feedback as you write.
A lot of people are tempted to ask a close friend, relative, or romantic partner to read and offer feedback on their writing. Proceed with caution here. In your mind, you might have the perfect person in your life to help you improve your writing, but it’s rare that they are as objective and helpful as someone you’ve engaged purely and specifically to serve as a sounding board for your writing.
A close friend or loved one might be worried about being direct because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Conversely, they might not be concerned about hurting your feelings but might have feedback that cuts a little too deep because it comes from the mouth of your husband, best friend, or mother.
I’m of the opinion that writerly feedback loop should stay firmly separated from your close intimate circle so it can be as productive and professional as possible for all involved. There’s plenty of other ways your loved ones can support your writing or vice versa!
Do I have to do everything they say?
Edits are not executive orders. You don’t necessarily have to carry them out. Sometimes, you know what works best for your piece because you know it so well. For example, adding a whole chapter in the middle might be something you know in your gut will slow down the pace; you may feel sure that making the piece less autobiographical will take away from what you know is the heart of the narrative.
Another person’s opinion on your work is just that: their opinion. Not everyone is going to be a fan of your writing; your best bet is to be sure that, above all, you are happy with it.
But, beware of thinking that all feedback that doesn’t say you and your piece are amazing is lousy feedback that you can ignore. No one is above criticism, and there is always room for improvement.
Criticism is there to help you become a better writer. If you’re soliciting it professionally, it should be a constructive, productive experience. Even if you don’t want to address a point or change the piece precisely in the way your critics suggest, perhaps you can find a way to alter your writing to acknowledge the point that’s being raised, such as with a disclaimer, further explanation, a footnote, or so on.
Can I stop revising yet?
Yes, for the love of all things holy, stop revising. It’s easy to get in a trap of continually revising and revising, hoping for extreme perfection.
Let me tell you, perfection will never come. Get the piece into a state that you’re happy with, and send it out into the world. If you don’t get a 100% great reception for the work, that’s okay. You can take those lessons learned and apply them going forward in your next piece of writing.
How do you feel about getting feedback on your work? Tell me in a comment below.
About the Author
C.K. Bush is a nonfiction editor and writer. She lives in New York City.