Getting a 1st Draft Critiqued…Yes or No?

And of course, my answer is…it depends.

PJ Hoover, author of The Emerald Tablet, had this to say about her first drafts. It sounded very familiar, and it got me thinking.

I’m working on the first draft for my WIP and know, very firmly, that no eyes but mine shall see the actual words. I’ve finally realized that I have so much to figure out & understand about this story, that the draft is truly exploratory only. I chose this path, also, on my last book–the middle-grade mystery. That was the first draft I wrote via Book in a Week, the system I heard about from April Kihlstrom, and I was able to dive right into the second draft, with a lot more structure and a more active hero, and pass those chapters onto my critique group. At this point on my writing path, I’m just more aware of how rough these early stages truly are, and I have more confidence in my ability to do some of my own work with this mud clay I’m trying to shape.

For years, though, in my earlier writing and critiquing days, I did submit first-draft chapters to my critique group. There are days when I really miss doing things that way. And I think, depending on the writer, there are definite pluses to this kind of sharing.

  • You are not writing in a vacuum.
    When you are writing a first draft, it’s just you and the computer. While this can help you keep a flow going, it can also leave you with plenty of doubts and worries about the progress you’re making. Okay, the computer isn’t going to tell you that your plot line (what plot line?) is weak or that you’re wrong about how a circus tent smells. But neither is that computer going to reach out and give you a pat on the back, tell you that a character is getting interesting, or hand you some dark chocolate for getting all the way to Chapter 10. The support of a critique group can be just the encouragement a writer needs to…keep writing.
  • You have a “soft” deadline.
    A meeting every two weeks can be a great motivator. Sure, if a group’s critique schedule is too strongly enforced, that schedule can translate into nothing but pressure, which–if you’re like me–is about the greatest shut-down device ever invented. In a good group, though, a meeting on the calendar can be a reminder that you’re in this group because you want to write. Because you want to get some pages out. Two chapters a month for a year adds up to 24 chapters. Sounds like a first draft to me.
  • You may get some fodder for that learning curve.
    In a first draft, you think while you write. Well, there’s nothing to say that a few other people thinking about that writing has to be a bad thing. Yes, your critiquers must remember (and they will, because you’ll remind them!) that this is a FIRST draft. They need NOT to be marking commas or rewriting your description of the Cannes Film Festival that they just happened to visit last month. They can, however, talk to you about that hero you’re developing and make suggestions about his or her strengths and flaws. They can point out the places where you’ve written tension to make them crawl out of their skins and the places where…you haven’t. You can look at this comparison with pieces of your own work and start to grow a skill.

Obviously, when you’re writing and when you’re critiquing, you need to make the decision about what stage is right for you to share your work. You need to recognize whether a critique will frighten you off from your own story, stalling you out, or whether it will help you give weight and value to that story, providing a supportive audience that is not the black hole of your CPU. You need to be very careful about going back and revising too much from this early feedback, rather than using it to propel you forward.

However, I hear a lot of authors saying, however, never to show a first draft, never to get it critiqued.

And I say, well…never say “never.” Sometimes, it’s more than a little okay to say “yes.”

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14 thoughts on “Getting a 1st Draft Critiqued…Yes or No?

  1. For years, I was of the mindset that no one should see my work until I thought it was ready.

    But recently I found a writerly person living in my area, and we’ve begun meeting bi-weekly.

    The first work I shared was one that was totally polished. Polished so well that I was submitting it to agents before she’d even finished reading it.

    But since then, I started a new work, and once she finished the polished work, I didn’t want to stop meeting until I finished my next work and polished it. So I gave her first draft chapters.

    I loved it. I found it very nice to share first work–and it kept me on track with writing, and helped me focus my writing on directions she wanted to see in the plot. A minor character played more of a role later on because she liked him; I was able to alter scenes early on.

    I changed the way I let my work be critiqued after this, and I think it works much better now. I consider Robyn my “alpha reader,” the one who primarily checks for plot holes, keeps my pacing going strong, and pulls me back from doing things out of character or overwriting. It’s more of a big-picture critique. After her, I polish it more on my own, then send out to my “beta readers.” I ask them not to look at grammar or spelling, but to keep an eye out on those big picture things. I sometimes have a list of things I know I am struggling with, or notes in a scene asking if such-and-such is clear. After polishing again, I send to “gamma readers.” These are the girls I’m sending my work to under the assumption that it’s pretty much perfect, and I’m looking for any nails that are sticking out so I can hammer them back down.

    This process worked EXTREMELY well with me last time, for several reasons. First, if something wasn’t working for my writing (in my case, the early chapters made my protagonist look weak, not niave like I wanted), first my alpha reader caught it, and I changed it. Then, when my beta readers still commented on it, I knew it still wasn’t right. When my gamma readers still commented on it, I new it STILL wasn’t right, rewrote the whole scene, and submitted it to everyone again, and they all agreed I’d finally fixed it. Being able to try different things with different readers and check if I’d fixed a problem really helped. If I had changed and submitted to the same people who had read it the first time, they probably would have told me it was OK–it was, after all BETTER. But it wasn’t perfect–and getting different readers at each stage of that problem certainly helped with that.

    But second, it helped me to focus re-writing on different things. Not only did I specifically select people as readers who I knew from experience were strong in certain areas, but I also edited in layers. With my first draft, I focused on getting a complex story on the paper in a way that made sense. After my alpha reader, I focused on making the pace and characters good for my beta readers. Then I worked on tightening the whole thing and making it perfect for my gamma readers.

    Having three layers of editing in critique partners really made me capable of revising quickly in a focused manner. I highly suggest this method and really liked doing it this way.

    That said, I do think it was important that my alpha reader is someone who I met in person. It really helped to have that face time with a first draft critique, to be able to ask questions, and to focus those questions not on minutia but big-picture things.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Beth, Thank you. You said this so perfectly! I love the idea of revising in layers–I try to do that myself, but I can see how taking different drafts to people with different strengths could make that really interesting.

      One thought-don’t decide, as in “set in stone,” that Robyn can only be your alpha reader. She sounds like an incredibly strong critiquer (It can be really hard to just to concentrate on those big things!), and–while fresh eyes are always good–I’ve also found a lot of benefit from critiquers who go through multiple revisions with me. They come to know the work almost as well as the writer, but still with more of a “distance” than we can always bring to our own writing.

      Yay for you, for finding these people. HANG ON TO THEM! 🙂

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  2. I always have the urge to share my first chapters of first drafts. But when I have this urge, I have to ask myself what I’m really trying to get. Do I REALLY want feedback or am I looking for praise at this point. Honestly I think it’s the latter. I can’t seriously want someone to read the first chapter and say “this sucks” only for me to have the entire novel still in front of me to write.

    Great post, Becky!

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    • beckylevine says:

      I know what you mean. What I want is the brief kind of praise that keeps me going, keeps me writing. And I’m doing okay with that, so…On the other hand, we’ve been doing a first-draft crit for another writer in our group, and it’s really helping her think about organization and voice as she keeps writing–she’s happy! So it goes both ways.

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  3. I’ve long been a fan of the “crappy” first draft. That’s my chance to explore and get the ideas out on paper into a sort of skeleton version of my real story. Sure, there are some good parts here and there, but also lots of unneccesary text, changes-of-direction, and useless plotlines which I threw out somewhere along the way.

    I want my critique group to read the story that is intended to be read, not the first thing that jumps into my head and makes it onto the paper. I want them to be my first readers before I bother sending it to an editor or agent, because the criticism from them is easier than the rejection, since there is still time for improvement. But if I am sharing my worst version of my work instead of a revised version, what is the point? If I really want the group’s feedback on a very early project, I can sketch them a quick synopsis and see what they think.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Tiare–thanks for stopping by. Mostly, I think you’re right–this is certainly where I am right now. I still think, though, that for some writers–maybe earlier in their learning curve–that there is a point in sharing–support, guidance, reality checks. It’s really whatever feels right for each of us. 🙂

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  4. Good to have your perspective on this, Becky.

    I’m one of those writers who can’t share the first draft. Sometimes not even the second. For me, the critique is most useful when I’ve truly taken the work as far as I can.

    But that doesn’t mean I go it completely alone during the first draft. I would be lost if I couldn’t brainstorm about plotting problems with my husband, or if I didn’t have writing friends to cheer me along as I go.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I find myself in the middle ground these days. I know that this first draft is too loose, too full of problems I’m already aware of, to bother asking for suggestions (I’ve got plenty of my own!) Pretty sure, though, that as I structure and write the next one, I’ll be passing it along. Part of my thing is that it’s easier for me to share what I’ve done in writing, than try to verbalize what I’m thinking about. I like that you get brainstorming and cheers from your husband and friends!

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  5. I like your answer “it depends” because that’s how it feels for me. Some stories I really do need those scraps of praise that tell me “good job” and “keep going” but other times I want to just power through on my own. What I can’t do without is having a couple of people I can bounce some ideas off of to see if they are even remotely interesting or doable or worth spending time on.

    I like the idea too of different readers for different stages of a project. Each reader brings a different strength to the project.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Yes, you know me, I’m not so big on actual always-and-forever ruled. I much prefer guidelines and picking & choosing what you need at any given moment.

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  6. No way would I share a first draft–too many inconsistencies. I’d rather share my work when it’s more polished so I don’t waste my critique group’s time. Good post, Becky!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks, Vivian. Although I doubt reading any of your work would be a waste of time! But I know what you mean–if there’s work we can do on our own, we can make that next step of progress without the crits. 🙂

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  7. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I don’t think anyone but me could even make sense of my first drafts. They’re incomplete, out of order. I have all this stuff in my head that I’m already planning to change for draft 2. I also don’t like to have people tell me about the obvious flaws that I can already see for myself. I’m going to need critiquers later, to tell me about the flaws I don’t see.

    But we don’t all work the same way, so I do serve as a critiquer of a few other people’s first drafts. If it’s what they need, that’s fine!

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