Feedback is essential to great writing. If you want to write and edit a novel that readers will love, at some point, you’re going to need feedback.
And there are a lot of ways to get that feedback. In fact, there are so many ways that it can be easy to get overwhelmed.
There are many ways that you can pay to get excellent feedback. After all, I’m an editor, so my whole career is built on giving writers expert feedback.
But there are also several ways to get feedback on your writing for free.
The Benefits of Free Writing Feedback
Some people choose to seek out free feedback because they don’t have a budget to invest in their writing at the point when they need feedback. And so free feedback is an accessible way for them to get outside perspectives on their writing.
But even if you do have a budget to invest in your writing, these free feedback opportunities are worth keeping in mind.
Many of them work well in tandem with seeking paid professional feedback.
Some can help you incorporate the feedback you receive from an editor into your book, or let you know how well changes you make based on an editor’s feedback are working.
Some of these free feedback opportunities can help you feel more prepared to work with an editor or other book professional.
And some of these free feedback opportunities will actually give you feedback that you can’t get from an editor, an agent, or another book professional. So they’re a fantastic step to add into your writing, editing, and publishing process alongside any professional feedback you seek out.
5 Opportunities for Free Writing Feedback
I’m going to walk you through five ways to get free feedback on your writing.
I’ll share the pros and cons of each one. And perhaps most importantly, I’ll share when in your writing and editing process you should seek out each one.
Because you do not want to get all of these kinds of feedback at once. In order to get the most out of each one, you’ll need to seek out different kinds of feedback at specific points in your process.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
1. Friends and family
The first people many writers turn to for free feedback on their writing are their friends and family.
I mean, it makes sense, right? These are the people who are immediately around you. They’re the easiest to reach out to. And they’re probably also your support system, the people who care about you and cheer you on when you’re doing something new. So of course, when you’re working on a book, it’s pretty natural to ask your friends and family what they think.
That’s the biggest pro of getting free feedback from friends and family: they’re right there. You don’t have to seek them out; you already know them.
Paradoxically, that’s also the biggest con of getting free feedback from friends and family. You already know them. They like you. They want you to be happy.
And that means they might not be completely honest with you when you share your writing.
Think of a kindergartener bringing home their scribbly little drawing and sharing it with their mom. And Mom says, I love it! This is amazing! And she sticks it on the fridge.
That is a fantastic way for Mom to show she cares and give her child a great confidence boost and encourage them in their artistic pursuits.
But you don’t need your mom to post the rough draft of your novel on her fridge. You need someone to tell you kindly and honestly what is not yet working in your novel so you can fix it.
Generally, friends and family aren’t great at that.
They care about you too much to be honest.
Or they don’t know enough about writing and storytelling to share any meaningful critique about your writing. Maybe they want to be helpful, but they’re not readers themselves and they don’t have anything insightful to share.
Or—and this one is unpleasant, but it’s true for a lot of writers—your friends and family are dubious about your pursuit of writing. They might believe you could be a writer after your traditionally published novel lands on the New York Times best-seller list. Until then, they’re not convinced you’re doing anything worthwhile.
None of that is helpful to you when you’re looking for feedback on your writing.
So I do not recommend that you ask most of your friends and family for feedback.
You might find that one or two of your friends or family members are actually really supportive, honest, thoughtful, well-read, and excited to tell you the good and the not-so-good that they see in your book. In that case, those specific individuals might fall into one of the next categories I’m going to share.
But as a general rule, when you’re looking for feedback on your writing, friends and family are not the people you want to turn to.
- They’re easy to find because you already know them.
- They might be too nice to be honest.
- They probably don’t know enough about books and story to offer meaningful insight.
- They may not believe in or be supportive of your writing (yet!).
2. Writing groups
Which brings me to your second opportunity for free feedback: writing groups.
Writing groups are—well, they are what they sound like. Groups of writers who gather regularly to read each other’s writing and share feedback.
You can find writing groups in person. I recommend going to your local library or local bookstore to ask whether they know of any writers or writing groups you could connect with. They might even run a writing group!
And you can also find writing groups online. There are a lot of paid communities online. But there are also a lot of free spaces to gather with writers.
You can look for writing groups on platforms like Facebook, Reddit, or Discord.
Now, let’s talk about some pros and cons here.
A con: you have to go seek these people out. Unlike your friends and family, these are probably not people that you know already who are just standing by waiting for you to ask for their help.
But this comes with a pro as well. You NEED community. You need to connect with other writers who are pursuing goals like yours. Whether you call it networking or just making friends, you need to surround yourself with other writers. So while it might be a little challenging to seek these people out in the beginning, this is exactly what you’ll need to do for your career as an author long-term.
Another pro: these are fellow writers who will get your experience as a writer. They will understand and commiserate with your struggles and celebrate your successes. They’ll be able to give you advice on what they’ve experienced in the writing, editing, and publishing process.
And another pro: unlike your friends and family, the writers you meet in a writing group are familiar with writing. They may have read craft books or worked with an editor or even published books of their own. When they give you feedback, they’re thinking about the writing process as writers themselves, and they’re thinking about how to craft a great story. That’s a kind of feedback you cannot get from people who are just occasional casual readers, or who don’t read books at all.
All right, back to the cons, because there are several more cons here that I want to highlight.
First, because we’re talking specifically about free writing groups here, the groups you find for free might not be well organized. They might meet erratically, or have no structure to the group when they do meet, or just dissolve and disband without warning. There are advantages to paid communities, and part of that is that they come with built-in structure to ensure the groups function well.
Second, keep in mind that the people in your writing group are fellow writers, not professional editors. And the quality of feedback that you get can vary widely depending on the group and the level of experience of its members.
It’s possible that well-meaning people in a writing group might focus on surface-level errors like punctuation when what you really need is structural advice on whether the right actions are happening in your story.
It’s also possible that writers will identify real problems, but then offer solutions that don’t fix them, or even make them worse.
So when you’re getting feedback from a writing group, be sure to identify exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for, and ask for that specifically.
And then watch for patterns in the problems that people bring up. This can be a really helpful sign that something isn’t working—if five people mention that they didn’t understand a point of view shift, that’s an indicator that there’s a real issue with your point of view.
Take the solutions they offer with a grain of salt, and feel free to do further research and study to find the solutions that are best for you.
But when writers in a writing group all identify a similar issue in your story, that’s a pretty solid sign that that’s something to revise.
- These writers can become a supportive community and network for you throughout your writing career.
- They will “get” your struggles and successes as a writer.
- They are more knowledgeable about writing and storytelling than your friends and family.
- Feedback from a group of writers can identify problems in your writing that multiple people are noticing.
- You have to seek these people out; you probably don’t know them already.
- Free groups may lack organization, structure, or longevity.
- Well-meaning amateur writers might offer surface-level feedback or suggest solutions that aren’t a good fit for your writing.
3. Alpha readers
All right, now for your third source of free feedback: alpha readers.
Of all the options on this list, this is probably the least well-known one.
Alpha readers are people who read a very early draft of your book, or even pages of your manuscript while you’re writing the first draft, and give you story-level feedback.
You will probably only want a small number of alpha readers, maybe one to five.
These people are super engaged in your story and they’re happy to get into the weeds with you and help you with the big creative problems you’re facing early on.
Got a plot hole? They’ll brainstorm with you.
Struggling with character development? They’ll talk it through with you.
Not sure what should happen in the climax? They’ll help you figure it out.
These are very early readers who are really engaged with your story, and they’re also really thoughtful and insightful and creative.
They might be fellow writers—you might find them in a writing group.
They might be specific friends or family members. Stephen King’s wife Tabitha King famously rescued the first pages of his novel Carrie from the trash and then coached him through writing the rest.
Of course, Tabitha King is now a successful author in her own right, so nowadays, her feedback is a bit beyond amateur reader level.
But you might also have a specific friend or family member who is creative and invested in your writing success and would be happy to help you imagine your story.
And once you start publishing your writing, you might even discover readers who become passionate fans and even collaborative creative partners. One of my clients has a superfan who now alpha reads her books and helps her troubleshoot her plots right from the beginning.
Now, let’s talk pros and cons of alpha readers.
Pros: along with everything I just mentioned, alpha readers can also help you feel more prepared to work with an editor. If you write a first draft, get feedback from an alpha reader, and then edit your second draft, then you’ll know when you reach out to an editor that you’ve put your best work on the page. You have already gotten the story-level feedback that you can get for free, and you’re ready to enhance that with feedback from a professional.
And cons: keep in mind as you work with alpha readers that they are not book professionals themselves. They are passionate, creative, and insightful, but they are not trained in story theory, and they are not experienced in the publishing industry. So while they can give you great feedback that will significantly improve your book, they’re not giving you professional feedback. There are still things they don’t know and won’t spot.
That said, if you can find one or two alpha readers for your writing, you’ll have a wonderful creative partnership that can be incredibly rewarding. These people are definitely worth seeking out.
- Enthusiastic writers or creative friends can spot and help you solve story-level issues early in your writing process.
- This high-level feedback can help you feel more prepared to send your manuscript to an independent editor.
- Alpha readers are not trained in story theory and will not give professional advice.
4. Beta readers
Now for your fourth opportunity for free feedback: beta readers.
Beta readers might sound similar to alpha readers. But these are two very distinct roles, and they’ll give you two different types of feedback.
The alpha reading phase of the book happens very early on, after the first draft or even while you’re writing the first draft.
The beta reading phase happens at the very end, after your book has been through several rounds of revision and you’re nearly ready for publication.
Your goal at this point isn’t to make major changes to the plot or structure of your story. Your goal is simply to find out what people who like stories like yours will think of your book.
Beta readers are regular readers. They probably have read other books in your genre. They’re not professional editors or accomplished writers or members of a critique group. They just like to read.
So you gather a group of beta readers—ideally around thirty people who enjoy reading books like yours. You send them your polished, almost-ready-to-publish manuscript.
And you give them a few guiding questions to see what they think. These are questions like:
Is there anywhere that you were bored?
Did you understand the magic system?
Were there any moments that were confusing?
These aren’t big, deep, intense questions. These are simply questions about your readers’ experience. These are questions that will help you figure out before you publish your book whether readers are enjoying it and what they like or don’t like about it.
And that’s the biggest pro of working with beta readers: they will tell you how real readers who enjoy books like yours are actually responding to your book.
That’s information that your editor, agent, or other book professionals can hopefully predict. But they cannot provide you with that kind of feedback themselves. Because they’re reading your book to give you professional critique, not to simply enjoy it as a reader!
And the con to keep in mind here is that your beta readers will not give you high-level story feedback like you’d get from an editor or alpha reader. And that’s perfectly fine; that’s not their job. This stage is the final pass on a finished manuscript. You simply want to know what readers will think of your book when you publish.
And as long as you go into the beta reading process clear on what kind of feedback you’re going to receive, this can be a really helpful step in any editing and publishing process.
- Beta readers will tell you how real readers are actually responding to your story, something no one else can do.
- They will not give high-level story feedback; they are reading the final manuscript before publication and giving general responses.
5. Agents and editors
All right, now for the fifth and final avenue for free feedback: literary agents and the editors at traditional publishing houses.
If you are aiming for traditional publication, you will work with both an agent and an editor at your publishing house. And you’ll get feedback from both of them.
Here’s how it works:
First, you’ll send a query letter and sample pages of your manuscript to agents. If they like your query, they’ll request the full manuscript. If they read your manuscript and decide they can sell it to publishers, they’ll offer you representation.
Then, you’ll work with your agent to prepare to submit your manuscript to publishers. Your agent will send you feedback and you’ll work with them to revise. Once you both decide the manuscript is ready, your agent will submit it to publishers.
At that point, acquisitions editors will read and consider your manuscript. If they like it and believe they can sell the book to readers, they’ll offer you a book deal, which your agent will help you negotiate.
Once you have a book deal, your editor within the publishing company will give you feedback and notes for revision. Then they’ll move your manuscript through the process of traditional publication.
This is a lot of feedback, first from agents and then from editors, and all at no cost to you.
But there are several things to keep in mind here. Why are your agent and editor giving you feedback?
First and foremost, they want to make sure that your book can sell. Their success is entirely dependent on identifying great books and ensuring they sell. So they will give you revision notes based on what they are seeing in the current market as well as their professional expertise from years of working with great stories.
Second, they also want to find out how well you take feedback. You’re building professional relationships that could last for your entire career, long beyond any single book. So they want to make sure that you have the writing chops for more books and that you’re receptive and collaborative and great to work with.
Pros here: you’re working with book professionals who know their stuff and can give you high-level, high-quality feedback on all aspects of your story. It’s all at no cost to you, and these are the essential steps towards traditional publication.
It’s important to be aware of the limitations, though. There’s one big con that you must understand in order to be successful here:
Agents and acquisitions editors are looking for publication-ready manuscripts. They are looking for books that they can sell as quickly as possible and with as little revision time as possible.
Agents and acquisitions editors are not writing teachers or book coaches. They are not in the business of teaching you to write or edit your book.
They are in the business of identifying great books that have the potential to sell well, and then bringing those books to market.
This means you need to have a well-edited, publication-ready manuscript before you query in order to have a chance at landing an agent.
You should not expect to get your first-ever feedback on your book from an agent.
In fact, if you start querying your manuscript before it’s ready, you’ll actually hurt your prospects. You generally get just one shot to query a manuscript to an agent. If they reject it, they probably don’t want to hear about that manuscript again.
So if you send out a bunch of query letters before you’ve produced a publication-ready manuscript, you’ll get a bunch of rejections before you’re even ready to query.
If you’re aiming for traditional publication, know that you will receive feedback from your agent and editor.
But before you ever get to that feedback, remember that it is your responsibility to learn how to write amazing books. And there are tons of other avenues to get the feedback you need to develop those skills before you ever query.
- You get expert, professional feedback for free!
- This feedback comes with representation and book deals to ensure you’re traditionally published.
- Agents and editors are looking for manuscripts that are already publication-ready; they will not coach you or teach you how to write.
- If you query before your manuscript is ready, you’ll get rejections and decrease the number of agents who will be interested in your manuscript when it is ready.
What Free Feedback Will You Seek Out?
In an upcoming episode, I’ll share opportunities to pay for great feedback on your writing.
But right now, I want you to think through all the free feedback opportunities I just shared:
- Friends and family
- Writing groups
- Alpha readers
- Beta readers
- Agents and editors at traditional publishing houses
Where have you already sought out free feedback? Which of these opportunities have you not tried yet?
Do you have a community of writers around you? If not, I encourage you to look around, either in person or online, and start making connections with other writers.
Do you know of anyone who’s creative and excited about your writing and who might be a great alpha reader?
Have you ever asked real readers what they think of your finished book during a beta read? If you don’t have a finished, polished manuscript yet, this is a great step to keep in mind for later in the process.
And if you’re planning to traditionally publish, what are you going to do to ensure you put your best foot forward when you query? What feedback will you get before you start querying agents?
Great books are written and edited with great feedback. I hope this helps you identify some ways to get helpful, insightful, supportive feedback for free. Free feedback can be invaluable all the way through your writing, editing, and publishing process as long as you know what to ask for and whom to ask.
So think through this list of opportunities, and then start asking!