I’ve noticed that quite a few of the questions here revolve around feedback (or demonstrate a lack of knowledge about feedback), so I figured I’d try to give a summary of how feedback on writing should work. For the most part, this applies whether you’re hiring an editor, sending your manuscript to beta readers, or just posting in the weekly critique thread. It mostly applies to novels, but the broad strokes are applicable to just about anything that’s not poetry or a dissertation.
When to Ask for Feedback:
This is perhaps the most common mistake that people make when it comes to feedback. While it’s tempting to ask for feedback as soon as you can, it can easily be fatal to your manuscript or at least make the feedback useless.
Never ask for feedback on anything you’ve not already polished as best you can, unless you have a single, specific question you absolutely cannot continue without an answer to.
Note that before you can polish something, you have to finish it.
When You Have an Idea?
You may have an idea that you’re not sure if you should start writing. The secret is, no one can tell you the answer. Jim Butcher wrote a series combining Pokemon and the Roman Legions, and it’s one of my favorite things ever. But he wrote it because he was told it was a stupid idea and couldn’t be done! If you’re going to ask someone what they think about an idea, you’re not going to get any good feedback beyond “write it and find out.”
If you have structural questions about storytelling, they may be an exception here. For example, if you aren’t sure whether writing your entire book backward is a good idea, someone will be able to tell you not to.
When You've Written the First Chapter?
The next level where people will ask for feedback is they’ll finish the first chapter and want to know if they should keep writing. The trick? No one can really answer that either. The first chapter you ever write will probably suck. So will the next several dozen. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve them as you continue to work on your book. If you don’t have a complete story written out, it’s hard for anyone to give you decent feedback on your story or progress.
The most common thing that I tell authors to cut is the first chapter or prologue. Quite often, they need to be rewritten or simply removed. But you really can’t know that until you’ve written out the entire book. I’ve seen plenty of books where the names, genders, or even species of the main characters have changed over the course of writing. If you’ve not finished the book, your first chapter shouldn’t be considered more than a rough outline of the final version, no matter how long you’ve spent on it. Which leads me to the next point…
Surely, When You've Finished the Book?
When you type “The End,” you’re still not ready to ask for feedback. This is the first time in the process that it actually makes sense to ask people for help. After all, you have a complete product, you’ve put a lot of time into it, and you’ve accomplished something! If you ask someone else to come in at this point, you won’t be ready for people to actually help you. There will be issues that you’re capable of fixing that jump out at them, which means they’ll spend time on things you could have done yourself, rather than working on things you aren’t capable of doing. This means that they’ll be wasting their time and yours. On top of that, no one will be able to fix your story better than you can. You’re the one who knows how your story is supposed to go, how it fits together, and what the final product should look like.
I have a series I wrote a while back on what to do after you finish your National Novel Writing Month piece that covers the self-editing process if you’d like an outline for what you should do here. The short version is that you need to take a break for a while, then begin the process of rewriting and editing yourself.
When You've Done All of the Editing You Can?
Finally, you’ve edited the manuscript as best you can, including multiple passes yourself. You’re not sure what else needs to be done, you’re sick of looking at it, and you’re mostly making changes like moving commas around.
Now you’re ready to ask for feedback. This may be a family member or close friend, a developmental editor, or an online post (like writing’s weekly critique thread), but now that your manuscript is as polished as possible, you’re ready to share it with someone else.
And that’s the hard part.
As a final note, you can ask for feedback too late as well. When you've already sent your manuscript to a professional editor, an agent, a publisher, or your beta readers, be careful about asking for feedback. I've had clients who sent me their book for proofreading, then told me after I sent it back that they'd sent it to a beta reader the week before and were waiting to hear back. That means they either wasted the time and money on proofreading or they've wasted their beta reader's time, because any changes will mean it needs to be proofread again.