A Model for Feedback on Your Creative Work

“Writing is a solitary pursuit,” said award-winning author Robin Hemley, explaining why he has “no patience” for belonging to a writer’s group. You might argue that Robin has reached a level in his career where he doesn’t need feedback from other writers. He is an accomplished writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He directs the Nonfiction Writing Program in the University of Iowa’s esteemed workshop program, and also teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. It was at last winter’s VCFA residency that I heard him explain that while writer’s groups may be right for others, they were not right for him.

Robin Hemley, a master of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry (and direct assessments of his reality as a creative).
Robin Hemley, a master of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry (and direct assessments of his reality as a creative).

But Hemley recognizes that a critical eye remains essential to him prior to publication. For years, he said, he and a fellow writer for whom he has tremendous respect have shared their work with each other. He didn’t articulate at what stage they share work–rough draft, near-final, just before submission to editors–but he made clear that it was substantial in terms of the number of pages. He also made clear that the quid-pro-quo arrangement was a critical part of his creative process.

I have recently heard this arrangement referred to with a very 21st Century name–beta readers. It even has its own Wikipedia page. As I approach the completion, after 2-1/2 years, of my travel memoir, I find the concept intriguing. I belong to a writer’s group, formed just before I began my MFA program in the summer of 2011. But I have not shared any excerpts of my memoir-in-progress in months.

I have found that with that group, and with workshops at VCFA residencies, the feedback I receive on a particular excerpt provides me little value. That is no slight on my creative peers. It is because of what I seek. What I need now is a more holistic look at the manuscript. I am focused on consistency in voice, steady pacing, a logical progression of narrative lines. You can’t judge the health of a forest through close examination of one tree.

Longtime readers of The Artist’s Road know I am on a journey of discovery, seeking to unearth the many secrets that underlay a successful pursuit of an art-committed life. The practice of beta reading–a one-on-one exchange of manuscripts–is my latest curiosity. I would welcome your thoughts and experiences on this approach to creative peer review.

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28 thoughts on “A Model for Feedback on Your Creative Work

  1. Hello! Yep. Still following faithfully.

    Your topic must resonate with all writers. At some point, either for reassurance, neutrality, a double-check, or for continuity [in a larger piece], I think most writers require another set of eyes. The input from that pair of eyes can be whatever the writer needs.

    I understand what Hemley thinks about writers’ groups for that kind of thing. I suspect, it’s rarely useful, unless, going into it parameters have been set and what is needed by each writer thrashed out. Even then it’s difficult to get truth. People like to be nice. And, not many people know how to critique, or listen to critique, without emotion entering the picture.

    The one person thing has great possibilities, if one is lucky enough to find that one person who can, and will, do what she needs.

    I had to convince the people who follow me actively that I don’t want nice. I want truth. I am very lucky in that they are not afraid to say what their thoughts were as they read a poem. I’ve had many a breakthrough thanks to this group. If I need a one person, top-notch set of eyes, I have that, too, but I keep him in reserve :-). He is the the set of eyes I will send my first chapbook manuscript, when I finally put it together.

    My God. All this before my second cup of coffee. Patrick, thank you for bringing us on your journey. You have enriched us in many ways, not the least of which is bacon.



    1. You had me at bacon…

      Margo, you have been along for this ride, and I am most grateful to you for that. And I really like this: “The one person thing has great possibilities, if one is lucky enough to find that one person who can, and will, do what she needs.” Robin has been lucky to find that person, although in life we often make our own luck.

      You make a good point with emotion entering the picture. I hadn’t thought about that angle in this context, but yes, that has also colored some of the reaction to my work when workshopped in my local group or at VCFA. Of course if you’re trying to gauge reader reaction, well, they are readers, and those are honest reactions. But if you’re looking for more focus on craft, then yes, it can be a challenge to find that person who can disengage.

      I wish I could be so articulate after only one cup of coffee, Margo! I fear to tell you how many I had before I wrote that post.


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  4. I think sometimes a critique group can be a case of “too many cooks.” If you find a reader who represents your intended audience, that one honest voice can be much more useful.


    1. Ah, too many cooks, the bane of my day job! Yes, you make a good point. Now I think you can also learn in a group which voices to disregard (for your work anyhow) and which to listen to closely, but from an efficiency standpoint it’s really great if you are in a one-on-one situation with a peer who gets your work and provides value.


  5. Patrick, I agree with your “forest and one tree” assessment regarding the dynamics of a writing group. It’s not a negative reflection on the members of a group. It’s difficult to grasp the whole from its parts.

    I’m lucky to have two readers I trust implicitly. One is my husband; he’s a terrific reader, and he’s honest with me (to the point that sometimes I have to sulk a bit). He must have read the novel I finished recently at least four times. The other is a friend I met in a workshop three years ago. She and I read for each other “in parts,” as the work progresses, and then we read the full manuscript. That is indeed a labor of love and respect for this writing thing we do.

    I also recently engaged a professional editor to critique a book manuscript. He came highly recommended, and I knew personally someone who had worked with him, so it wasn’t a shot in the dark. If you go that route, you need solid recs and a conversation or two with the prospective reader/editor to gauge whether the person is the right fit for you and your work. It’s an expensive route to take, but I think for me, it was worth it. I learned a lot and came away with a more solid book.

    So find those good readers who will swap work with you. It’s a big commitment and it takes a chunk of time, but it’s worth it.


    1. Gerry, fantastic comment, full of so much value!

      On the spouse front, I’m fortunate to have a wife who is a professional editor. That said, I use her sparingly, for the sake of marital harmony! Interestingly enough, as I have progressed in CNF and find myself doing memoir and personal essay, it’s hard for her to be a dispassionate editor because emotion comes in to play (see margo above) and her own bias to the story.

      Your former workshop mate sounds perfect. That is something I’d welcome, but yes, you need good feedback from that person and you better like their work because it’s a significant commitment you’re taking on as a critique peer.

      And on the professional editor, it’s something to consider, but I like that you knew somebody who had worked with the editor and you took some time to make sure it’s a right fit.

      You’ve inspired me to explore this further, Gerry. Thank you!


  6. Anonymous

    Patrick… I’ve always pushed our writing group to critique with the big picture in mind. Otherwise, as Hemingway says, one is just examining the “décor”, not the “architecture”. But many writers haven’t sufficiently studied structure or probed the mystery of “voice”. I think it takes a few long-form pieces under the belt to begin to get the hang of it. So, one seasoned writer-buddy is worth a lot.


    1. I see a couple of points here, PJ. One is what the members can bring to the table in terms of craft experience and their own experience with your work. But there is also what is needed to see the big picture. I do feel my MFA instructors each semester are seeing enough to get it (despite only seeing groups of trees) but it’s still a challenge for them. I’ve decided for my final residency this summer I’m submitting a stand-alone essay.


  7. Corey Barenbrugge

    I love this: “You can’t judge the health of a forest through close examination of one tree.”

    I’ve been in a few writing groups, all through classes I’ve taken, and while the differing perspectives on the challenges of writing were helpful, the perspectives on the actual writing weren’t very helpful. With a group, it’s unlikely everyone is on the same wavelength, and there are varying levels of experience in the room. Additionally, it’s rare that a group will look at an entire long-form work, which begs the problem you mentioned. Finally, if you’re reading writing from everyone in the group, it detracts from your creative energy and the time you have to do what matters most: write. I found in groups that there were always one or two other writers I’d want to go to coffee with for a longer conversation.

    Your model resonates with me, Patrick. I love the one-on-one interaction of a deep conversation, one that bounces from examining the forest to exploring the various trees. Shawn Coyle has an insightful post on this from Steven Pressfield’s blog: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2013/02/the-ron-popeil-promise/

    Also, there’s a short segment on this in a great documentary on John Irving produced by the BBC. It’s at the 24:01 mark: http://vimeo.com/31300484.


    1. Hi Corey! I’m writing these before I take the kids to school, but I will circle back and read Coyle’s post and watch the video segment.

      You mention there are only a couple of folks that, typically, you would want to go to coffee with for a longer conversation. That is how my writer’s group formed, a couple of people I connected with through writing classes, etc., and we joined up to form the group. I suspect that is a good way to find that beta reader as well. (And as someone resistant to the term “beta reader,” I’m glad to see so little use of it in the comments!)


  8. You hit it right on the head – the reason I don’t belong to a writers’ groups now.

    Most critique groups focus on the words: style, grammar, etc. I leave that review for last after the whole story is on the page.

    What helps me the most is feedback on the IDEAS in the story: at the very beginning, when the story is forming and has yet to be put on the page, and again during the revision process to encourage the development of the draft into something that is true to the original vision (in essence if not in form).


    1. Ah yes, Danielle. I agree on IDEAS. Of course, it is helpful to the group members to have some context when analyzing that, especially in a heavily plotted book where events will unfold over time and pages. So it comes back to what are reasonable expectations of someone viewing a tree vs. the forest.


  9. I respectfully disagree with Robin Hemley. My writers group has kept me going when I was discouraged and given me the spark to look with new eyes at a passage that isn’t working. In my group, we critique from time to time, but our focus each week is writing from prompts. Often I put my characters into the prompt, and I stumble on an aspect of my character I didn’t see before. Or I might tackle the same scene I’ve been working on all day from a different point of view. Just listening to how other writers approach the same prompt shows me how I might vary the tempo, vocabulary, or voice of a piece of writing.


    1. I should note that Robin was on a panel when he said this, and he was following an MFA alum who swore by his writing group for support and bonding. Robin found what worked for him, and that alum found what worked for him. So there isn’t really a right or wrong here, and I know you’d agree with that, Anne.

      What a fascinating way to do your group, writing from prompts. That is, of course, bringing you a value a bit different from a formal critique group, but it sounds like it is very valuable to you from a creative free-association perspective. I’ve heard of that type of thing being done in a creative writing class, but not in a regular self-formed group. Very interesting.


  10. Reading everyone’s comments is incredibly useful for me. I just started writing full-time this year and have done a few courses so far. I feel like that is enough for now. I’ve read a lot of writing books as well.

    Now, I feel like I need time to just write freely, outside of the constraints of courses and assignments. I need time to develop my many, many ideas and get some good solid drafts down of all the things I have begun.

    In the back of my mind is always this concern with the beta reader though. So many great writers have them. I’ve read more and more articles that also emphasize how editors now a days have less and less time to be that beta reader for their authors.

    There is no formula to find your beta reader, I guess. I just keep typing away and hoping that one will turn up amidst my various projects.


    1. Mariana, congrats on your big leap! It sounds like you’re doing the right thing; courses, books, exploring blogs. And of course carving out time to right.

      You’re right about there not being a formula for finding a beta reader. I suspect it’s like finding a mate; everyone has their own story, one that is unique to them.


  11. Yay, I love that question. Thanks for asking, Patrick. I’m afraid I have to out myself and say I fall on the side of Robyn Hemley in this equation. I prefer to work on my stories myself till they’re finished. And I agree with you, when you say how can you judge a forest by one tree? My gosh, you’ve put it into words perfectly. That’s the very thing that’s always irked me about my critique group. I did belong and I did dutifully troop up those rickety stairs once a month for a few years. I submitted plenty of stories in that time, but never my actual WIP. How could they judge it based on a few pages? However, as fate would have it, a series of things happened, starting with the online group I began over on WANAtribe, ‘Writing for Children’. I made a great connection with another member, herself a long-time member and convenor of critique groups. We became fast friends and for the last year we’ve been writing partners, or beta readers. I haven’t been back to critique group since. Coincidentally, I was just talking about this very subject with one of the long-standing members of my critique group. I was saying that I far prefer a writing partner to the group experience. It has been the steepest, most exciting and productive learning curve with regards writing fiction that I’ve ever experienced. And, if you find the right person, it’s FUN.


    1. Yay Yvette! I’m so glad you found your writing partner, a term I prefer over beta reader. I like the idea of a productive learning curve combined with fun, which is how I would describe working with VCFA instructors. Of course, I don’t critique their work, so my learning is only one way.

      There is an entire angle here to pursue, in terms of finding that writing partner; identifying the person through an online connection appears to be one way to do it. I’ll be teaching a blogging-as-creative-writing class online this summer through The Loft; I wonder if any of my students will form a connection through the class (some of the students I’ve had in classrooms have done so).


      1. Yvette Carol

        Yes, that would be the ideal outcome if some of your students end up making those connections. I hope so! Some of the friends I’ve made through taking online courses have turned out to be wonderful. You’ll find that out of each forum, maybe just one, or if you’re lucky, two, good friends will be sifted out of each group. Funny how that happens.


  12. I have not be so thrilled with groups but I have worked with one other writer a few times, mostly to worthwhile gain. The close attention given to each other’s work is invaluable and provides much to consider. The usual schedule was once a week if possible, twice a month more likely, but we would spend about 3-4 hours sharing our critiques and engage in much discussion. The longest period of time I have stayed with one writer is three years. Working on different genres can be a challenge but also makes it more lively to share work and ideas. I currently am wiring alone every day and miss that critical interaction. Good post.


    1. Interesting, Cynthia, that yours was an ongoing read. That is not unlike the way one finds a spouse reading, although again I haven’t really had my wife in that loop. It would seem there are benefits to reading someone’s work in progress with a sense of their goal, but also the separate notion that I think Robin does, where the work is read when “complete.”

      I hope you find your next writing partner, assuming you are looking for one!


  13. Hi, Patrick. Interesting post, as usual. I’ve been on blogging/blog-reading hiatus for awhile (may or may not continue, tbd). I was, for quite awhile, in one of Anne’s groups — one that focused on critique rather than prompts. I think she and I both found value in that particular group because it began via an excellent instructor … and we followed her format after she moved away. It was built on a sense of deep respect for one another’s work and has been the only critique group I’ve benefited from (we’re all still friends). If I lived closer to Anne, I’d love to attend her prompt group but, alas, I don’t. In the classes I teach, we write from prompts. If a class participant is working on a novel or short story, I individualize their prompts … asking them to place one of their characters into various situations … and see how they (the characters) react. Participants have found this helpful in the “fleshing out” process. All of that said, most of the critique groups I’ve attended over the years were not helpful. There was a fair share of ego involvement and uninformed critique. Increasingly, regarding critique, I’m leaning toward your idea — one trusted, knowledgeable “beta reader.” Stephen King’s words are, increasingly, ringing true — something along the lines of writing once with the door closed and once with the door open. There’s a time when my prose is fresh and raw and vulnerable … a time when the door needs to remain closed because its not yet sure on its feet. When I open the door now for critique, I am more discerning. (Whew, long comment … to compensate for my hiatus.) I’m glad you’re finding something that works well for you.


    1. Hey Terri! Apologies for not visiting your blog recently. It sounds like you were on hiatus, however, so I feel less guilty, although I do hope everything is okay with you and it wasn’t unfortunate life stresses that pulled you away.

      I like your Stephen King line; that’s a nice metaphor to hold on to.

      And The Artist’s Road is designed for long comments! I rely on smart, insightful folks like you to help put the meat on my blogging bones!


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