Peer Critique Versus Professional Editing: When, Why and How to Use Both

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Today’s guest post is by author Barbara Linn Probst, whose debut novel, Queen of the Owls is out now.

At some point in the process of writing a book—or, more likely, at several points—we ask others to let us know what they think. Developmental editors, critique partners, beta readers, workshop leaders, sensitivity readers, friends—we ask different people, for different reasons, and at different times. When they respond, there can be disappointment, painful surprise, and resentment, as well as welcome validation and useful advice.

There are many articles about how to handle our emotional reactions to feedback, especially feedback we weren’t expecting. This article addresses some different questions, however:

  • How and when should I rely on peer feedback versus paid feedback?
  • When is it time to seek a second opinion?
  • How do I know when to act on the feedback I get?

Feedback from peers

This is where most writers begin, because it’s free. Peer feedback usually, although not always, takes place within the framework of a critique group or with a writing partner. Typically, feedback is given in chunks, rather than on the book as a whole. The only cost is your own time, since reciprocity is usually expected.

This type of feedback can be useful when:

  • You’re in the early stage of a writing project (or writing career) and trying to find your way. You want to test out ideas before investing too much time and energy.
  • You find that you learn by critiquing others.
  • You work best when you have ongoing support.

The utility of this kind of arrangement depends on the skill, candor, and sensitivity of those with whom you’re exchanging pages. Responses can be “too kind” for fear of discouraging you or injuring the relationship. In contrast, a critique group member might be inappropriately harsh or respond based on how he would have written the scene. You might receive valuable advice—or something more akin to personal opinion. Among inexperienced writing groups, this can easily feel like the blind leading the blind.

You don’t have to adopt every single suggestion your critique partners offer, of course; being discriminating and being defensive aren’t the same thing. At the same time, if several people point out a similar problem, it may be something you need to address. Even if your readers aren’t getting paid, their response may have real value. It’s important not to assume that being a novice writer (as is often the case in critique groups) means that the person’s feedback isn’t worth much. Someone can be a sensitive and skillful reader—really good at pinpointing the gaps and weaknesses in what she reads—even if she herself isn’t (yet) a terribly skillful writer.

When is it time for professional (paid) feedback?

At some point, you may decide that you need (or want) to turn to a paid professional. When should you do that? While there’s no ironclad rule, some indications are:

  • If you have concerns about your work that peers simply haven’t helped with
  • If the response of peers is so “consistently inconsistent” that the resultant confusion is starting to overwhelm or paralyze you
  • If external factors (such as a deadline for a requested revision) require a more rapid or thorough evaluation than peers can provide
  • If you can’t help feeling that the response of a paid professional is more legitimate and that, without it, your book won’t be sufficiently scrutinized and perfected

Feedback from professionals

Editors—and the fees they charge—can vary tremendously. Their services can include a detailed narrative report, line edits on every page, a follow-up phone conversation, or simply a general assessment of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses; fees can be hourly or task-specific.

Since this is a business relationship, it’s important to have mutual clarity about what you’re purchasing. There are too many stories of unhappy writers who felt “ripped off” by an editor whose feedback was vague, late, or consisted of a roster of “problems” that the editor would be happy to address—at an additional cost, of course. Similarly, there are editors who’ve been unfairly maligned by writers who didn’t get the praise they expected. If you’re not sure what type of editing you would benefit from—or if it’s worth the investment— Jane offers advice here on appraising your needs.

If you do choose to hire a professional editor, make sure she is knowledgeable about your genre and can provide recent, trustworthy references. Ideally, ask for a trial period or an opportunity to submit sample pages so you can assess the fit between her approach and your expectations. You should also examine your own willingness to listen to what she has to say! Good editors often deliver a big wallop of tough love. That’s what makes them good—and what will make your book better—once you recover from the shock and get to work.

When to get a second editor’s opinion

Sometimes a writer will decide to get a second opinion—a fresh look from someone whose mind is free from memories of prior versions of the manuscript and can respond to what’s actually on the page. Of course, a second professional may give advice that’s in direct opposition to what the first person told you! It doesn’t necessarily mean that one is right and the other wrong, or that it’s all arbitrary. You may have gone too far in correcting one issue, only to create another; cleaning up certain flaws may reveal subtler problems, possibly because the first editor didn’t want to overwhelm you.

How can you know if a second set of eyes is really worth the investment? We’ve all heard stories about the second doctor whose advice saved the patient from the unnecessary or potentially harmful treatment recommended by the first doctor, or the second contractor who had to repair the shoddy work of the first one. It’s not so straightforward with writing, so it’s important to make sure you’re not just looking for someone whose perception of your manuscript will make you feel better. To do that—and guard against the tendency to seek a third and a fourth reviewer—ask yourself:

  • Is there a specific aspect of the story that the first editor didn’t, or couldn’t, evaluate? Is the second editor more able to fill that gap?
  • Are there sound reasons to believe that the first editor was a poor choice—or a poor choice for you, specifically?
  • Is there a practical reason you can’t return to the first editor—e.g., she isn’t available when you need her, or she herself doesn’t think she can give your manuscript an impartial reading?

In my experience, each editor has something important to offer, and multiple perspectives can often provide a useful balance.

About paid beta readers

Paid beta reading services typically have a much lower price tag than developmental editors. The main difference between paid beta readers and paid editors (in general) is that beta readers will tell you what’s not working but not necessarily how to fix it. They’re skilled readers, not writing instructors.

There are individual beta readers you can hire directly, and there are services that act as a middleman to match you with beta readers they know. The beta reader or beta reading service may have its own list of items and/or allow you to specify what you’d like to focus on. Here too, there’s a wide variety in the depth and scope of feedback.

In my experience, a beta reader tends to be most useful after a major revision. The professional mentor will help you to shape the story; the beta reader will let you know if you’ve succeeded and where more work may be needed.

Obtaining special feedback

Sometimes, we ask someone to read our work with an eye to a particular issue.

  • “Sensitivity readers” read to let you know if you’ve represented a group authentically; they aren’t paying attention to stakes, tension, pacing, or matters of craft. If you’re writing about a group you know little about, this can be a crucial step.
  • Copy editors will attend to grammatical errors and other surface-level concerns, such as overused words and “gaps and goofs” (for example, someone taking off a coat he wasn’t wearing, or taking off his coat twice in the same scene).
  • Proofreaders will look for and correct obvious errors (typos, misspellings, style inconsistencies).

Managing and applying the feedback you’re received

Here are some principles that I’ve found helpful:

  • Pace yourself. Don’t ask for too much at once; focus on one major aspect at a time if you can. Digest what you’ve gotten before asking for more.
  • Try it on. Ask yourself “what if” and play with changing your story the way the reviewer suggested. You may decide that you don’t want to do that, but try it first.
  • Organize your feedback. Summarize the feedback and put it into categories, like pacing or character relationships. It can also be helpful to date the feedback so you can see how you’ve addressed this element over various drafts.
  • Prioritize. Pay more attention to the identification of problems than to suggested solutions. Reviewers may come up with different solutions, but if they all point to something like stakes or motivation as an issue, then it probably is. You may end up with your own solution, in fact—a surprising insight, rather than “camel” you’ve cobbled together by trying to do what every single person says.
  • Consider the source. Are there any potential biases at work, either in the reader’s perception—e.g., her preferences—or in yours? Beware of thoughts like: “She doesn’t appreciate my kind of writing” and “I paid so much for this, so she must be right.” When feedback seems conflicting, it’s important to step back and consider why each person may have a different idea of what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Come back later. Sometimes you’ll see things in a different light after you’ve been away for a while.
  • Keep all of it. You may be tempted to throw out some of the comments that you’re certain are wrong, but don’t. Set them aside and look at them again later.

I like to think of it this way: we learn something from every bit of feedback we receive, although sometimes the lesson isn’t clear for a long time. It might even crystalize in your next book, not this one!

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