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How to Ask for Feedback on Your SFF Novel

Early readers are essential for improving your novel and making it the best story it can be. Here's how you can ask for feedback ... and what you should do once you get it.

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  • Photo Credit: Kiwihug / Unsplash

Whether you’ve written a short story, an essay, or an entire novel, the next step in finding a home for your piece is making sure it’s ready for a wide audience. To do that, you need feedback. But who should you go to for constructive advice before you start submitting to editors or agents?

It’s natural to only give your writing to people you trust: parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. But if you want to pursue a career in writing, it’s important to find people who can give you not only praise, but criticism as well. While they may try to be critical, they still know you, and may have the same biases towards your writing that you have. 

Or maybe you fall into the opposite camp. You’d rather not give your writing to people who know you, especially if it tends to the more personal side. The idea of finding strangers who can give you honest feedback in a constructive manner can be just as terrifying, so here are some tips and resources for finding good people to shape your writing.

Ways to Ask for Literary Feedback

Beta readers

Beta readers are people you'll ask to read your manuscript one time, and their feedback is likely going to be broad. They’re not going to give you line edits or grammar suggestions. A beta reader should approach your manuscript the same way they would a book they might buy and review on Goodreads. This level of feedback can give you a good bird’s eye view of your project and help you spot any problems in plot, pacing, and character development from a reader’s perspective.

Even if you have a decent writing group, beta readers are a good idea because they give you a snapshot reaction of your project from a stranger. They can help you identify areas of your writing that you and your regular writing friends may have overlooked. And bonus points, they can give you a diverse point of view. You can ask anyone to be a reader, including friends and family. However, if you’re looking for consistent results, there are a few websites dedicated to ensuring you get the feedback you want and need. If you're looking to build up the number of beta readers for your work, these resources can be a great place to start.

1. SFF Online Writing Workshop. Created exclusively with science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers in mind, the SFF Online Writing Workshop is an online reviewer library of sorts. You post in their library shelves and readers can then read, rate, and review your work. They have Resident Editors who select various stories each month to feature in the newsletter and are visible in the Editors’ Choice page for up to four months. It does require that you review before you can post, and there is a $6 monthly fee to join.

2. Absolute Write. Absolute Write is an immersive forum designed to cover everything from screenwriting to graphic novels for new writers and professionals alike. It can be a little tricky to navigate, but once you create your free account, you can browse their various forums for beta readers. They have a minimum post requirement, but once you meet it, you can post your story and wait for feedback. In addition to readers, you can seek mentorship, critique groups, or general writing advice from thousands of members.

3. Critique Circle. One of the more well-known websites, Critique Circle, is an Iceland-based community committed to help you with your writing. Rather than posting and finding readers, you have to do a bit of work first. The website requires that you critique three stories before you can post your own. While this may seem cumbersome, it does ensure that you get committed readers who will actually give you constructive feedback. This can be reassuring, particularly for new writers, and their forums offer myriad resources to help improve your skills and craft along the way.

4. Social media. Of course, you can always popping into your favorite social media site and asking for readers. If you’re active in the writing community online, you should be able to find people who are willing to give your project a read. While you can find some incredible resources this way, it does come with a catch. There’s nothing to stop someone from accepting your story and then you never hear from them again. Their criticisms may be overly harsh, which can be difficult to process, or they might give you nothing but gushing praise. That might be nice to hear but isn’t helping you improve your craft.

The good news is that no matter where you live, thanks to the internet, readers and critique partners are easier than ever to find. Many programs have accountability to ensure that no one gives you overly harsh criticism and won’t disappear without a trace. While many of the requirements that you offer feedback first might seem like an obstacle, the truth is, reading and reviewing for others is just as helpful to your writing as getting notes on your work. And once you form relationships with other writers, you’ll be just as excited to help and support them as they are for you.

Critique partners

A critique partner is a more long-lasting and symbiotic creative relationship than a beta reader. While the beta reader sees a snapshot of your work, a critique partner will often see your writing at earlier stages and help you fine-tune the piece as you write. You also read and critique their writing, creating a writing partnership.

A good critique partner is invaluable in helping you level up your writing. They can help you find plot holes, inconsistencies, character problems, and pacing concerns. Essentially, they read your work and give you specific feedback to help you improve the piece.

It’s extremely rare for a writer—even successfully published authors—not to have a critique partner. A critique partner gives you a different perspective and helps you improve with every story you write. Anywhere writers congregate is a good place to start looking, but just like with finding beta readers, there are a lot of resources and websites to help you identify your ideal critique partner, too.

1. NaNoWriMo. November is National Writing Month and NaNoWriMo is an organization dedicated to helping writers reach their goals. The general idea is every November you commit to writing 50,000 words. As any writer knows, that’s no easy task, so they set up an entire community to help you reach that goal. There are online forums, virtual write-ins, and various in-person local events all over the world. In 2022, their website saw over 370,000 writers set a writing goal. This is a fantastic place to meet new writers and potentially find a critique partner. 

2. Critique Partner Matchup. Created and (somewhat) moderated by Maggie Stiefvater, Critique Partner Matchup is a message board hosted in a Google drive. You post a message with your genre, age range, a one-sentence blurb about your project, and your contact details. From there, you can reach out to other people with projects that sound interesting while you wait for someone to reach out to you. 

3. Critique Match. If you’d like to start with a program that has some accountability, Critique Match might be perfect for you. Their website requires you to create a free account, but from there you can browse reviewers and critique partners by genre. You can specify the type of feedback you’d like, and your project is only accessible for a set amount of time. Critique Match also has a review system in place, allowing you to see reviewers with skills in grammar, plot, pacing, and more. These services also include a professional side, where you can hire editors to help you fine-tune your book from big-picture problems down to line edits.

4. Anywhere writing communities gather. The ideal critique partner is a relationship that you build over time, and the best place to form those friendships is through a writing community. They pop up all over the internet and in real life. Check your local libraries and see if there are writing groups in your area. You can find writing groups on Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit fairly easily through hashtags. These can also help you find other writing related forums and programs. Twitter in particular has multiple events like #pitdark, #revpit, and author mentor match. Because writers are pitching their books, this can be a great place to meet people with projects that interest you and maybe get interest in your own.

  • Look for more than one critique partner. This might seem overwhelming, but having more than one person consistently reading your work helps you decipher feedback better. You get a wider range of opinions, but you also get a bit of a safety net. You never know when life circumstances will change for someone, and having more than one person to rely on means your writing won’t be delayed or put on pause in the event that your critique partner is unavailable.
  • Try to join a writing group. Writing groups can act as critique partners, but they can also offer a wider range of support. You’ll have a group of people with various strengths to help you develop your writing. Some groups act as a workshop, where you work through various prompts and technical aspects of craft, which can help elevate your skills in a low-risk environment. The best part is you can create a group virtually or in person. All you need is a few committed writers to join.
  • Don’t reject another writer on genre alone. I know, this sounds a bit counterintuitive, but sometimes writing in a different genre can be a strength, not a weakness. This is where having more than one critique partner can be extremely helpful. They can see tropes or cliches a lot easier and can point out where you might be relying too heavily on them rather than adding your own twist.
  • Be open and flexible. You never know when something is going to unlock an entirely new perspective in your writing. If you tell your critique partner to only comment on high-level problems, you might miss an offhand comment on one sentence that brings a character to life. There is a sweet spot between too much feedback and not enough, but that can also be something you filter on your own.
  • Ask to switch a few chapters or pages before committing. Look at finding a critique partner as an audition of sorts. You may not like their writing style, and they may not like yours. You want to find a person who enjoys what you write and vice versa—especially because you’ll both be reading each other’s stories and pieces a lot. Before you commit to an entire manuscript, or risk someone not giving you the best feedback on your own, make sure you’re a good fit first.
  • Be honest. If you know you’re not going to get along with this person for whatever reason, politely decline the partnership. In order to get better at storytelling, you have to be open to this person’s ideas and opinions. You have to trust that they’re being honest with you, which requires you to do the same.

When you finally have the piece in a good place, and your critique partner(s) feel you're getting close to submission, it's the perfect time to send to your beta readers for those more general reviews. 

How to Decipher Critiques on Your SFF Novel

Once you’ve started sending out your SFF to your critique partner, beta readers, and even agents, you’ll get varying levels of feedback. This was one of the hardest lessons I learned. When I started sending my first novel around, the level of feedback I got back varied greatly from person to person, both in quality and quantity. The problem only got worse when I started querying. It was a confusing nightmare that left me frustrated, distraught, and mostly overwhelmed.

Over time, I started to pick up tidbits here and there, but one of the most helpful places to start came from Neil Gaiman. In his Masterclass, he says, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Obviously, this is meant in a general sense as readers, editors, and agents will not always be wrong when they offer suggestions on how to fix a problem in your novel. But it is important to learn how to interpret what they say so you can learn from their advice and apply it to future work. Agents and editors are especially important to listen to, as it is their job to make your novel marketable and saleable. And given how rare feedback is from either, anything they offer may be incredibly valuable.

Sorting through your readers' and critique partners' feedback

Getting a wide variety of beta readers and critique partners can be a double-edged sword. The more readers you get, the wider the variety of feedback you get. Some of that feedback will be what you want to hear, and some will be what you don’t want to hear, but all of it is important to process as a writer. 

One of my favorite tools is creating a merged document in Microsoft Word. If you send your document in Google docs, you can download to a Word document and it saves the comments inline. From there click Review -> Compare -> Combine Documents. Start with combining two and then add a new document each time. This will take the comments from every reader and consolidate them into one concise document.

The beauty of this is you can clearly see which areas resonate with your readers. In one version of my manuscript, there were sections where every single reader had a completely different thought and reaction. That might seem frustrating, because what am I supposed to do with that? But by seeing the variety of reactions, you as the writer can decide if that’s what you wanted. If it isn’t, you now have the opportunity to fix it.

Combining comments into a single document also highlights the moments readers universally loved and the ones they struggled with. I found reader consensus the most helpful when I was revising—especially when readers all disliked something. Authors can get too close to their work to know when to kill their darlings. For me, realizing that those negative reactions weren’t one-off experiences of one reader, but for several people, helped me tap the delete button with more confidence.

I also found that seeing all the comments together helped me develop confidence in myself and trust in my readers. When you’re going through your pages individually, it can be easy to dismiss a comment here or suggestion there, but that’s impossible to do when you see them stacked in visual surround sound. And dismissing any comment is actually a huge disservice to your writing. That’s not to say that you have to listen to everyone. But you do have to consider what they’ve said, and here’s where confidence comes in.

Some readers will offer suggestions. Sometimes, their suggestion will spark an idea and help you see a new path forward. Other times, it won’t. In the cases when the suggestion feels wrong, whether it’s the wrong choice for the character, the tone, the plot, or all three, the suggestion isn’t the problem. It’s what made your reader stop reading that was the problem.

Here's what I mean: One of the pieces of feedback I got on an early draft of my manuscript was my character wasn’t isolated enough. Her journey was supposed to go from believing the internal lie that she was alone because everyone abandoned her to accepting that she was pushing people away and now believes she’s worthy of love. She was never meant to be alone at the start, it was only her perception that she was alone that was important. And I didn’t convey that. The suggestions about how to fix it didn’t matter. What mattered was that I looked for ways to highlight her internal beliefs and draw those out so that the reader understood her actual situation and what she believed about her situation.

Set low expectations for agent feedback

If you start querying, you’ll quickly find feedback is incredibly rare. When you do get it, it tends to be brief sentences like, “I didn’t connect with the character like I hoped.” Talk about vague. Is that a personal reaction to the character? Maybe. Sometimes, it simply means they used a form rejection. Other times, it might mean that something about your character’s inner life isn’t translating in their character arc or the plot. 

It’s very difficult to create emotional depth on the page, particularly when you’re making an action-packed SFF novel. But depth doesn’t mean sitting around brooding, or that you have to change your adventure novel into a literary, character drama. It means you have to give your character the same internal struggles we have as people. We have conflicting thoughts. We lie to ourselves. We say one thing and do another. But on the page that can come across as very sporadic and superficial. When someone doesn’t connect to the character, or they stop their reading to make a comment, it means either your character or the story—or both—is skimming the surface. That always means go deeper.

3 Books to Help You Address Edits

When I first started finding beta readers and then moved into querying, I was desperate for feedback. But I quickly learned how hard it was to understand exactly what people were telling me. These are three books that helped me understand various ways my readers and the agents I queried weren’t connecting with my manuscript.

Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland

Creating Character Arcs

By K.M. Weiland

This book is a treasure trove of information on how to ensure your reader gets the emotional journey they expect in any genre. Weiland uses numerous examples from multiple genres to help highlight the overall character arc and make it easy for you to identify which plot points your character arc should align with. 

When I first deconstructed my character arcs according to this structure, I found I had the right character beats in the wrong places. And almost every place they were wrong, I had comments from readers. No one said, this is the wrong beat, but instinctively as readers, they knew it didn’t feel right. Trust your reader when they tell you something is wrong.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

The Emotional Craft of Fiction

By Donald Maass

One of the hardest pieces of feedback I got from an agent was that my character’s emotions felt unearned. I had no idea what that meant. I gave the backstory, there was plenty of evidence supporting why she felt the way she did and reacted the way she did. Yet, it still felt unearned. It wasn’t until I read The Emotional Craft of Fiction that I understood what this meant. 

We all have incredibly rich inner lives, and I didn’t show my character’s. Instead of showing why she hurt, she jumped to anger and only showed the reaction to the reader. Which is fine, people do that, but I didn’t give any clues that she was hiding the hurt with her anger. See the difference? One is telling the reader how she feels, and the other is bringing them inside not just her head, but her heart as well.

The Power of the Actor by Ivana Chubbuck

The Power of the Actor

By Ivana Chubbuck

This one might be strange to include on a list for writing resources, but hear me out. One of the most confusing things I had to untangle about characters and writing was action. Agents talk about opening your book in action, but then also lament too many stories starting with fights, in the middle of a battle, or some other action-packed scene. So, what do they want? They want an active character. 

Chubbock’s book taught me what that meant. Active characters aren’t necessarily in motion. Instead, they're actively engaged in their own story. You can have an active character sitting at a bar. But, you have to show that engagement to the reader through their thoughts, actions, and what happens in the scene. Chubbock has helped some of the best actors of our time learn to see past the page and create inner depth in characters to bring them to life on the screen. By using that methodology and thought process, you can do the same in your book.

Learning how to interpret feedback is one of the hardest elements in writing. You have to know how to sort through the bad to find the good, when to listen and when not to, and what those conflicting comments actually mean. But once you start to understand it’s not exactly what the feedback says, but more what it’s showing you about your novel, you can unlock the layers that make your story and characters simply unputdownable.

Featured photo: Kiwihug / Unsplash