Critique Groups vs. Developmental Editors: How to Get Feedback on Your Fiction

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Publishing houses and literary agents almost never give any editorial feedback on the work they reject. Many authors think they’re cruel and snobbish to behave in such a fashion. But they don’t have the time. They’re businesses, not charitable institutions. The more time they spend critiquing sub-par work, the less time they have to look after the interests of the clients they already represent.

If you get a sentence or two of advie, critique, or encouragement from a literary agent or publisher who rejects your manuscript, rejoice and be glad. No agent or publisher, especially if they work for the larger agencies with high-level, worldwide reputations to keep, would waste their time giving you feedback if they didn’t believe your writing has merit.

That said, a few lines of feedback from an agent aren’t enough to help you understand what needs to be worked on and improved. And it’s not an invitation to send a barrage of questions demanding clarification or to enter a long, detailed correspondence. Be grateful and move on.

Now, the good news

Well, the good news is that many ways to get high-quality editorial feedback on your short and long-form fiction exist. Many are free, and several are professional services for which you’ll need to pay. Which you choose, and whether you make a financial investment, is a decision to which only you can come and will depend on the work you want critiqued, your disposable income, and what outcomes you want to achieve.

Keep it in the family?

The first, easiest, and free port of call for feedback on your work is to ask your friends and family. But it’s also the least reliable. It’s much better to get feedback from people who don’t love you and won’t mind hurting your feelings. Because, while praise is good and encourages you, negative criticism, pointing out the faults, and being ‘told straight’ is much more useful to you if you want to sell your work.

If you write only for pleasure and your Aunt Nancy always loves every word you commit to paper, fine. But if you want to make a career out of writing, then you need to toughen up and seek the hard truth. If you have a relationship with a family member that you know you can trust to tell you the truth, or a friend who is a writer or works in the industry, well-and-good.

Family and friends are an option. The award-winning children’s writer Katherine Rundell runs all her first drafts past her elder brother. But in most cases, you’ll want either a critique from other writers or professional developmental editing services.

Writers’ critique groups

Writers’ critique groups can be an excellent way to get useful feedback on your fiction. Most are free, although they may charge a subscription fee to cover overheads, a newsletter, and other peripheral services. They come in all shapes and sizes, from local groups with no official status, to those associated with world-class publishers, educational institutions, and libraries. They may meet in person or online via a Facebook group or private forum.

I won’t list any specific groups here, as I don’t know where in the world you are, and there’s no space here for a global directory. But writer friends, industry contacts, reference books such as The Writers’ Handbook or The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, libraries, and of course, your favorite search engine, are all good places to begin your quest for a writer’s circle, workshop, or critique group to join.

Just remember that with these organizations — many are voluntary non-profits — while you may not need to dig deep into your pockets to become a member, there’s a lot of give-and-take involved. Most work on the understanding that to get your worked critiqued by other serious writers, you’re willing to critique their work, too. And remember that, unless your Aunt Nancy signed up to the same workshop, you must be ready to receive and respond to what may occasionally be very acute critiquing. You must be ready to ‘take it on the chin’ and edit and rework your writing.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Professional writers’ organizations and unions

The best professional writers’ associations offer manuscript critique services along with the other benefits of membership such as contract appraisal, legal support, and grants or funding. The two most important writer’s unions are The Society of Authors and The Writers’ Guild in the UK and the US, respectively. But wherever in the world you live and work, your country may have a similar organisation.

Other membership organizations worth looking into are Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association of America, Romance Writers of America, The Romantic Novelists’ Association, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Crime Writers Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Horror Writing Association. Many others exist, but these are among the most well-known if you’re writing for the British and North American markets.

It’s worth noting that these are all professional organizations. That means you can’t just pay a subscription and — hey, presto! — you’re a member. While requirements vary, each has specific criteria — such as a certain number of sales to an ‘approved’ market — which you must fulfill before they’ll let you in.

Private Editorial Services

Finally, you might consider organizations such as The Literary Consultancy or Jericho Writers (once known as The Writers Workshop). These are both reputable services, but they come at a price. So, if you wanted a full developmental critique of your 100,000-word novel, you’d be looking at paying around $1,500 for about 10 to 15 pages of feedback. Now, that feedback might be invaluable — or it might not. And working on my long-held professional principle that money should flow to the writer, not the other way round, I would recommend caution unless you have money to burn.

There are many other editorial services and independent editors. I’m one of them. But I’m no cheaper than the services already mentioned. I charge $15 per 1000 words. That’s the baseline professional rate in the industry. You may find someone good who charges less and another not so good who charges more.

My advice to you if you want to pay for an editorial critique is to do your due diligence. Research, research, research before you part with your hard-earned dollars. Since the so-called ‘self-publishing revolution’, this pool is full of sharks, keen to devour the unwitting small-fry.

An editor or service with no industry links may be more interested in turning over as many critiques as possible as they are in providing a first-class, industry standard service. So, be careful, follow up on testimonials, email the editor with questions you may have, and check them out on social media before you open your wallet. But also, don’t be discouraged. Several now famous writers took this route, found a reputable editor, and the decision paid off. Just use your best judgement is all I’m saying.

In a nutshell

To develop as a professional writer, you need a high-quality critique of your work. You can get it free — or in exchange for reciprocal services — in a writers’ club, circle, or critique group. If you qualify, you can join one of the professional associations and avail yourself of the services they offer to members, or you can pay for an independent manuscript assessment. And if all else fails, Aunt Nancy will always be there to support and encourage you.

None of these options is the best or the worst. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Much depends on your circumstances, where you are on your career path, and what aims you have for your writing. But now, at least, you know where to look to get the best critique for you and your work.

If you’ve been banging your head against the publishing door for a while now and it still hasn’t opened to you, and you’re feeling a little sore, or if you’re only just starting out and exploring your options, you may consider self-publishing your book. For a small percentage of authors, it works. But it’s not a magic fix. To save you a lot of money and heartache, I urge you to read this next:

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