Beware of Chapter-by-Chapter Book Critiques

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Today’s guest post is by writer, coach and editor Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).

As an editor and coach, I’m frequently asked by writers when they should level up from free and low-cost feedback (critique groups, webinars, and classes) to more expensive forms of feedback (workshops, private editors, even MFA programs). Some are newbies who don’t understand the feedback landscape. Other writers have been burned by overly critical MFA programs, bad editing experiences, or critique group dramas—and they’ve learned that while some mistakes hit your pocketbook, the costliest ones can damage your manuscript.

Often these problems have one common cause: You’ve asked the right question of the wrong person.

My biggest feedback blunder happened in the fall of 2006. I’d recently finished a novel draft. Not knowing the next steps, I contacted a former mentor for assistance. He referred me to a group of talented and motivated MFA hopefuls. They largely focused on shorter portfolio-related pieces but agreed to add my novel to the workshop schedule—one chapter every six weeks.

I left the first workshop eager to tackle their suggestions for the setup and character development. But during workshop two, they contradicted their original suggestions and asked tangential questions. Not wanting to appear defensive, I bit my tongue every time I wanted to say, “I’d love to know if you still felt that way after reading the entire book.” Despite my reservations, I continued to revise based on their advice.

Four months later, workshop three finally arrived. All I wanted was a big-picture assessment of my narrative arc. Instead, I received more well-intended chapter-level advice, tangential queries, and questions about things addressed later in the book. Workshop four included more of the same. By this point, all that revising toward their tastes and curiosities had caused me to lose sight of my original vision for this book. I also realized it would take two more years before they finished reading my novel.

Right before workshop five, I abandoned the manuscript.

I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, writer whose work has been shelved by unhelpful workshop feedback. Over the years, I’ve watched authors who submitted book chapters to classes and conference-level workshops stoically nod and clench their jaws when the majority of the questions asked were irrelevant or answered in other parts of their books. Many gently cradle their three-inch piles of feedback to a spot on their desk. Some never look at it again. Others spend months fretting over what to do with it.

There are a few reasons workshops and critique groups fail to adequately serve book-length projects. Leaders might not know how to serve long-form pieces in classes or groups designed for the short form. Many writers don’t understand concepts like the three- or five-act structure, the hero’s journey, or how to critique something based on where it falls in a manuscript. If the author doesn’t have these skills, they might not be able to ask for what they need or know how to weed out well-intentioned but unhelpful feedback from items that actually need to be addressed.

So how do you solve this problem?

You can still get something out of a chapter critique if you submit a well-crafted synopsis along with your excerpt. But don’t be fooled by a person’s pedigree. Someone can be an expert in one form of writing and not have the skills required to help you achieve your goals. Know your group and ask for what you want.

Critique groups can provide invaluable support along the way by normalizing your experience, cheering you on, and keeping you accountable by requiring you to submit something for review. But beware of chapter-by-chapter critiques that happen over months or years. They’re unlikely to help you understand or revise your narrative arc—especially if you’re still writing the first draft of your manuscript.

If you need big-picture advice on a book-length manuscript or a high-profile piece, hiring a professional is likely your best option. But you don’t necessarily need to pay for a full review—especially for an early draft.

If I could do it all again, I would:

  • Read Allison K Williams’ soon-to-be-released book Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, and then revise my novel to the story draft.
  • After the book was ready, I’d hire a developmental editor or coach to read the synopsis and the first twenty-five pages of my manuscript so they could assess my setup and any skills I needed to work on.
  • If I needed to learn new skills, I might take a few classes then submit the revised beginning to my critique group. While working on my skills, I would also ask the editor or coach for a chapter summary review of the entire manuscript so we could assess and strengthen the project’s narrative arc.

Sometimes hiring a professional isn’t in your best interest.

Coaches and editors can teach you many things, but their services can be costly. Plus, there are certain skills you can only learn from working with a group.

Reading and critiquing workshop submissions can help you see what does and doesn’t work in a manuscript. As you train your brain to think like an editor, you’ll begin to implement these lessons in your own writing. This is something Jeremiah Chamberlin talks about in his Glimmer Train essay Workshop is not for you.

Plus, a group of talented peers who cheer you on and support you through this process might inspire you to up your game. If you’re working with skilled writers you enjoy working with, you might find some potential critique group partners or beta readers. While suggestions from the wrong source can stymie your progress, they don’t have to destroy your manuscript.

Parting advice

While you’re working on your draft:

  • Spend time learning about the feedback landscape.
  • Learn the skills that will turn you into a great writer.

Before you seek feedback:

  • Assess your budget.
  • Identify what you need.
  • Ask the right person or group.
  • Use the skills you’ve learned to assess your feedback.
  • Revise with an eye toward your original vision.
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