After a challenge like StoryADay (or a lifetime of writing) you may be asking, “How can I revise my writing so I can get published, without becoming distracted, discouraged or overwhelmed?”
I have a system for figuring out that very thing, that will help you identify and work on the stories that will keep you making consistent progress towards your writing goals.
Part 1 of this process is to assess the material you have, to see what you should work on, first. That’s what this article is about. Part 2 is about identifying what’s working and what needs to be improved in your writing. Part 3 is about strategies and techniques for making those improvements as you revise your writing.
Listen to the accompanying podcast episode
Part 2 – Identify What’s Working
It can be hard to see what’s working and what’s not in your own writing when you’ve stared at it for so long…and that’s when you need to get it in front of fresh eyeballs.
Do you freeze at the thought of revision or feedback, because you think it’s all about seeing how badly you screwed up your story?
It’s as important to identify what’s working in your story as what isn’t, to ensure you don’t revise away what made it special.
How To Ask for Feedback
The best way to get good feedback on your story is 1, have a trusted group of readers (more on that later) and 2, know what kind of feedback you need.
If you’re new to this process that second part seems impossible. “How am I supposed to know what kind of feedback I need, Julie?” I hear you ask. Don’t worry, I have a system.
First, read through your story one more time and see how your feel about it. You’ll probably have one of these reactions
- This is not right at all
- I think this is pretty close to ‘done’
- I have no idea if this is working. Halp!
Great. Write that down.
Now, think about what stage your work is in.
- It’s a first draft and I need to know if it’s worth working on
- I’ve taken a couple of passes at it and need to know where the big holes are
- It’s as good as I know how to make it. I’m thinking of submitting it to publications. I need to know where the plot holes and typos are.
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, think a little harder. Maybe go for a walk to distract your brain, and then surprise it by asking these questions again.
What bubbled up? That’s your answer.
Now that you have some idea how you feel about the story and what stage it is in, you can tell people what kind of feedback you’re looking for.
Figuring Out Which Questions To Ask
If you know it’s in the first draft phase, or you have no clue if it’s working, say that. Ask for any and all feedback, but qualify it with information about your stage.
This story is a first draft and this is the first time I’m getting feedback on my writing. I’m interested in knowing if it works at all.
Will get different feedback from:
This story is a first draft and I want to know if it’s worth reworking at all. Are the characters interesting? Is the story question compelling?
Which will get different feedback from:
I think this is almost ready to go out to publications. I’m looking for a final polish, anything that confuses you and anywhere you found yourself skimming.
If you have no idea whether a story is working, focus on your stage of development.
- I’m a newbie to critique and just need to know what’s working in this story.
- I’m usually pretty confident in my ability to tell a story, but I can’t see if this one working. I’ve been critiqued before, and don’t mind some constructive criticism.
- I have no clue if this is working. I’m a critique veteran and appreciate your brual honesty. What works for you?
Specific Questions to Ask
If you’re not sure if your story is working here are some specific questions you can ask that might help your readers identify what is and isn’t working
Are the characters compelling?
Ask your readers which characters they liked, didn’t like, which ones they wanted to see more of or less of on the page (this will not necessarily line up with your ideas about who is ‘likeable’ or who your protagonist is.
Remember, you’re not asking how to fix things, just for their reactions. Did they care?
How did you react?
Ask readers to share their emotions as events unfold in your story. They can write “Wow!” or “Hahah!” or “Eek!” in the margin as they read, so you can tell how invested they are.
Where did you start to skim the text?
If someone’s eyes glaze over while they’re reading it usually means you have too much action or not enough action, or you’re over explaining something; saying the same thing in different ways; getting repetitive (see what I did, there?)
What lines/sections worked well for you?
And what did you like about them? (The language? The tension?)
Again, we’re focused on identifying what works and what didn’t, not on how to fix it. Ask things like:
- Was the opening compelling?
- Did you know what story the question was going to answer? When?
- How did you feel at the end?
Notice, we’re focused on gathering information, identifying what’s working and what isn’t quite working yet.
Don’t Make Any Changes Yet
The Identify Phase can get a bit emotional. Sit with the feedback for a little bit before you decide to act.
If you want to make progress and not get discouraged, it’s important to work on the right things at the right time. So here’s the Identify Phase again:
- Read your story one more time and figure out how you feel about it
- Identify which stage you’re in, when it comes to feedback
- Figure out what questions you want to solve, with this feedback
- Add a note at the top of your story, telling reviewers what you’ve discovered and what you’re looking for. The more specific you are, the better feedback you’ll get.
There’s one issue about feedback I haven’t talked about in this article, and that is: how to give good feedback without looking foolish or hurting the other writer (don’t worry: it’s simpler than you think).
Any time you receive feedback from others, it’s common courtesy to offer to return the favor. The thought of it might terrify you and stop you from getting involved in any kind of feedback/critique circle. Don’t let it. I’ll be back next time with a guide to how to give great feedback.
Next time: How to give great feedback without harming yourself, other writers, or their work.
Leave a comment: what holds you up when you think of revising and publishing your stories?