Free Critical Reader Feedback
You’ve written your novel. You’ve revised it multiple times. Now you know it so well that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Your mind can fill gaps, plot and character arc holes big enough to park cars (or at least bicycles) in. When you re-read your novel, your subconscious is re-wording convoluted sentences that could tie poor reader up in knots and your authorial bias is skipping over sentences/ paragraphs/ entire scenes which may put readers to sleep.
Now you need critical reader feedback! Ideally from writers with different strengths and experience to yours, to help develop your knowledge and hone your writing craft. If you can’t afford an editor, critical reader feedback is also your best chance of avoiding premature querying (nearly 40/100 writers in my Premature Querying Poll found with hindsight that their ‘ready to query manuscript’ needed another structural edit). So where do you find effective critical readers?
Five Free Feedback Options
My search for critical readers began with Scribophile, an online community where writer’s earn karma points for critiquing each others chapters and gaining enough points lets you post your own chapter for feedback. I choose novels in my genre, critiquing chapter 1’s, but often by the time I was ready for chapter 2 (a week or more later), a later chapter was up. I ended up critiquing single chapters from mostly different novels, instead of enjoying someone else’s entire novel. I got great feedback from some writers, but only for single chapters.
Critique partners from Twitter, who later read consecutive chapters, identified previously overlooked structural issues in my novel. So my experience of Scribophile was that you can get great feedback at chapter/ scene level, but feedback from free Scribophile membership may be unable to address character arc, subplot and external plot arc or world building holes or issues across chapters. Critique Circle is similar, (but I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know how it compares).
Next, I tried my local writers group. They were lovely, but all retirees writing as a hobby for themselves and sometimes for family or a few friends, whereas I wanted to write as a career and to hone my craft to ideally write best sellers. Having a round table where anyone who wanted to share a chapter spent ten minutes having their chapter read and feedback given wasn’t ideal for me. Different groups may have different systems, and I’ve heard great things from members of other groups, so its worth checking out what your local group is like, and if the way they operate is a good fit for you and what you want to get out of the group.
The third place I looked for feedback was on Twitter, by tweeting a brief blurb of my novel, genre and audience age and asking who would like to trade chapters or was looking for critique partner. Two of my critique partners edited much faster than I did, so we only traded the first six and nine chapters respectively, but the feedback they gave me was useful in addressing issues with story plausibility and pacing beyond the chapters they read. One beta reader read up to halfway through Act 2, while the third critique partner (a twitter friend) and I critiqued each other’s whole novel. Depending on all sorts of circumstances, a critique partner or beta reader may not make it to the end of your novel, but they’re definitely my favourite way to get feedback which informs my editing from scenes through to plot lines.
Another place you may find writers happy to trade feedback on chapters or critique partners is on Discord. My server has a channel for beta readers and critique partners (as well as ones for pitch, query letter and synopsis feedback). Discord links are only shared privately, but you may see writers tweeting to see who’s interested in joining, and if you’d like to visit mine, you’re welcome to DM me on Twitter and I’ll DM you the link.
Three Mentoring Programs To Apply For
If you’ve had feedback from critical readers, but would like more free editorial feedback, there are two mentoring programs which involve matching writers with mentors, who provide manuscript editing notes to help prepare a novel for querying. For #AuthorMentorMatch and #Pitchwars, the mentors are authors, for #Revpit they are editors. #Pitchwars mentors also give editorial feedback on your query package.
Paid Editing Feedback
If you can afford a ($45 US) fee for your opening chapters to be marked on a rubric covering characters, setting, pace, plot, stakes -the works, by editors or writers with writing degrees, I highly recommend entering Ink & Insights (open March to June). I entered 2 different manuscripts on 3 occasions, and received 4 pages of helpful comments (one from each judge) each time, with a detailed rubric to help me pin-point areas my revision needed to focus on.
If you enter, I suggest doing so before sending your manuscript to beta readers. Then competition feedback can guide your next edit and what you’d like your critical readers to comment on. If either set of feedback leads you to make more than minor revisions, I suggest getting at least one critical reader to check if you’ve missed anything or lost sight of anything while editing.
If your wip features characters from marginalized groups to which you do not belong and touches on issues affecting those groups, it may be appropriate for you to hire a sensitivity reader. Ideally, you have done your homework on the marginalized group(s) in question, but a sensitivity reader may pick up on issues which neither your lived experience nor Google can tell you. If you’d like to know more about sensitivity readers and whether or not you may need one to read your wip, this article may help.
How Do You Know You’ve Finished Editing and Do You Need an Editor?
Identifying when you have finished editing can be a huge challenge, especially with a first novel. Despite how helpful my Ink & Insights comments and feedback from four critical readers were -my revisions only targeted the symptoms of a some underlying problems. After my first round of beta informed edits, instinct told me some aspects still weren’t up to scratch, but I wasn’t aware of all the issues or how to ‘fix’ the ones I knew. I sent my novel to another beta reader and edited again, but the final solutions to pacing issues and fully developing my point of view characters (the forth of whom I wrote into the novel at her suggestion) came from my editor @AmeliaWiens. After two developmental edit passes with her, I am finally confident I’m ready to query.
It’s normal to have doubts, especially in the uncharted waters of editing a first novel, but I suggest trusting your instincts and your toughest constructive critics when judging if you’ve finished editing. As there’s only so much time and energy unpaid beta readers can put into their feedback, and as its hard to identify gaps in your knowledge of writing craft knowledge and application of it to your own novel, I suggest budgeting for an editor if you’re planning to traditionally publish your first novel or to self publish.
Tips to Tell if Your Editing is Finished
Have you rectified issues which could get your MS rejected by a literary agent? Even if you intend to self publish, looking at resources where literary agents state reasons they tend to pass on submissions. In this video 7 agents give 3 reasons for rejecting an MS, while in this one Meg Latore talks about why literary agents may reject the first five pages. Both videos can act as partial “have I finished editing yet?” checklists.
A Final Test of Editing Being Finished
Can you pitch your novel? Can you, in Query Sharks ‘sweet spot’ of 250-350 words;
–Introduce your Main Character (+ their want/ goal if you like)
–Introduce their inciting event, the central conflict & stakes
–Mention a major complication to MC ability to resolve conflict, including increased stakes (if applicable)
–Mention character growth that must occur for the MC to resolve the conflict and avoid the stakes/ the impossible choice the MC must make?
For my first few Pitmad’s, I had trouble defining my MC’s goal and character growth they needed to undertake to reconcile the external conflict. There were still gaps and ambiguity in my main characters arc (the one’s my editor helped with). Everyone finds querying (exceptionally) difficult. It takes ages. You need to read great advice (see the article below for excellent links to that!) and to GET FEEDBACK FROM AS MANY WRITERS ON YOUR PITCH AS YOU CAN! But if, after that, you still struggle to nail down any pitch ingredients above, its probably because there’s a hole in your character/ external plot arc. I suggest using resources on plot & character development (for example this one by Susan Dennard) to identify gaps in your character/ plot arc and plan another structural edit.