How feedback helps writers (and on never giving up)

Constructive feedback helps any writer, irrespective of talent or prestige. Any writer hoping to be published needs to take on criticism, and any writer, even the very best, benefits from a fresh pair of eyes.

You needn’t shy away from feedback if you are serious about being a writer, nor let criticism stop you chasing creativity.

If you’ve finished a novel and are considering whether you need to pursue editorial feedback, read on.

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I’m about to submit to agents. I just want it good enough already.

We all wish for this. Whether you feel writing talent is innate and needn’t be taught, or is something that shouldn’t be taught – the truth is that all conscientious writers learn to self-edit from sound feedback.

Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and The Professor were all written at the same time by the Brontë sisters, and Charlotte, Emily and Anne gave feedback to one another as they wrote. We’re encouraged to consider renowned artists as inherent geniuses. Yet who’s to say where and how the Brontë siblings influenced each other?

Bear in mind the quality of editorial feedback that helps your novel beat the slush pile won’t often come from immediate family members, unless your sister is Emily and your name is Charlotte or Anne (Brontë). Feedback can also come from literary family members, or friends who write, but be sure they care enough to be honest, as well as kind.

Find dependable ‘beta’ readers, if nothing else. Being practised at taking criticism can help you face agents and editors later, and if someone in the book business reads your manuscript thoroughly, and comments constructively, it’s a gift. And it’s as well to consider all feedback a gift – it’s a chance for you to improve.

People in the industry do know what they’re talking about – and sometimes it’s better to hunt for a critical eye than to rely on family and friends who will be proud of your efforts, but may not be the most critical.

For any writer, it’s important you learn to self-edit. Surround yourself with people who can give you insightful critique.

I’ve been sending to agents with no luck. Should I give up?

No. Not if you’re deeply in love with writing.

To be clear, literary agents are still the ones who help writers reach publishing deals, if you’re set on traditional publishing. It’s just that now editorial consultancies like ours are helping writers reach the notice of literary agents, because agents are inundated with hundreds of submissions every day.

Imagine you’re an agent, scanning hundreds of manuscript openings waiting in your morning inbox. (There’ll be hundreds more tomorrow.) For each, you’ll make a snap call on whether it’ll sell, if it’s worth reading on. Just as a buyer does when they flip through a book on a shelf.

Writers not taken on by agents are left with little clue with where their pitch may have needed work. Any story opening that doesn’t grip can result in a deleted email or be sent to the bottom of a slush pile. And literary agents receive so many emails that they just don’t have time to reply personally to writers, explaining step-by-step how to improve a submission.

Irrespective of whether writers choose to refine work or continue undeterred with an agent hunt, this is where a literary consultancy’s professional feedback, often called a manuscript assessment, may come in to help.

(Learn more about targeting literary agents.)

I’m self-publishing. I’m not sure I need this sort of feedback.

If you’re self-publishing, you’re your own editor. However, it’s not always possible to view your work with the sharp eye of an outside editor who can accurately, constructively pinpoint where your novel could be made better.

Even if you don’t quite agree with the feedback you receive, it’s still possible to take feedback and comments on board. You mightn’t agree with a suggested change, but you might understand why a niggle’s arisen; then you can find another solution that feels organic to the story you’re telling, and more heartfelt to you as a writer.

If ever you’re frustrated and disheartened by feedback, bear in mind that any publishing house’s aim is to publish books that will sell successfully. Even if you’re rejecting traditional publishing, you’d still want that for your books yourself – you’d want them to sell. No contemporary manuscript goes through traditional publishing without editorial care. Why not the same for your self-published book?

What can a manuscript assessment really give me?

A manuscript assessment from an editorial or literary consultancy gives you developmental or structural editorial feedback, which isn’t the same as line- or copy-editing. A copy-edit is done only to correct grammar, etc., once a manuscript is in its final state, and that’s a separate service but isn’t the same as a manuscript assessment (sometimes called editorial feedback).

Structural editorial feedback offers writers food for thought on their characters, plot, style, etc., from experienced editors. Many of our editors also work as published authors, book doctors, agents, or are in-house editors for traditional publishers.

Whether you need it is relative to your circumstances, and feedback like this is an emotional and financial investment – one to consider carefully. Writing groups and any contacts you have in publishing may help, but literary consultancies like ours exist to fix anything that could be stopping your manuscript getting commercial attention.

That said, you’ll decide whether to take feedback on as advice, and you’ll do all the fixing yourself. A manuscript assessment from an editorial or literary consultancy like ours isn’t designed to be a school report, nor meant to do work for you. It’s meant to be your personal, practical guide to correcting elements like structure and narrative, character and character relationships, sentence style and flow, once you’re ready to begin your self-editing.

A strong, considered manuscript assessment should give guidelines to getting your first draft as good as it can be, before you start your final proofread.

Whatever you choose, don’t give up.

It will be tough receiving criticism. It’s a sore point for any writer – because all we want is to be good enough. If you can take (constructive) criticism with an open spirit, you can hone your novel until it’s as good as it’ll be. Until it’s jacketed and on a shelf, after all, your book is always an art in progress.

In sum, creative writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Keep this thought in mind, and let this ease some pressure for you. Remember, too, that perseverance with practice and patience is key to writing success.

It’s hard to hear that your work might not quite be ready for publication, and that you need to keep working on it, but remember that many authors received criticism on their first works. For example, Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, The Professor, was rejected by all the publishers she wrote to. After this, Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, which paved the way to her future successes – but what if she’d stopped writing, and given up after her first setback?

Our founder Harry Bingham has written:

My first draft manuscripts still have baggy plot, unfocused characters, patches of weak prose and so on. If I presented that first draft to a book doctor, I’d expect the same calm, unflurried analysis. … The real difference between the pro and the newbie isn’t the mistake-making, it’s the mistake-correcting.

So often, we may compare ourselves to great writers, feeling inherently that we don’t measure up or that we ought already to ‘be all there’. Sometimes, perhaps, the difference is simply never giving up on yourself.

Do get in touch, or at least peek at more about our feedback or free advice on finding literary agents.

We’re here to help and rooting for you.

The secret to getting an agent

Free submission pack template