After completing the first draft of my novel I posted the opening chapter on a peer review website to find out if I was on the right track or not. I last used YouWriteOn a few years ago and a marked decrease in activity since then meant waiting longer for critiques, but it remains a good place to get a range of objective opinions on your work, especially since the recent closure of the HarperCollins peer review site Authonomy.
I prefer YouWriteOn’s approach over Authonomy’s because instead of writers having to actively support others in the hope of getting reviews, assignments are allocated at random: you submit a critique of one writer’s work and subsequently receive a critique of your own from a different writer. There is also a rating system to determine a book’s place in the charts, the ultimate prize being a professional critique from an editor at Bloomsbury, Orion, or Random House. Although we’d all love to not only get one of these critiques but a contract too, the number of people having found success this way is small, and the real benefit is in the observations of fellow aspiring authors who also want to improve their writing. Some people do dash off bland, unhelpful reviews with the simple aim of earning one for their book as quickly as possible, so you may get a few duds along the way, but after receiving around ten a picture of your strengths and weaknesses should begin to emerge.
Reviews tend to come in the form of the good, the bad and the ugly, and you’ll need to develop a thick skin and the ability to separate advice worth taking from that best disregarded. For my excerpt the good concerned the characters: real, three dimensional, dialogue that sounded authentic. The bad was the lack of a gripping hook, the drama unfolding at too slow a pace for some readers. And the ugly? The harsh way a few of these negative criticisms were delivered. (And don’t negative reviews always hit like a wrecking ball, whereas positive ones touch like a feather, leaving barely a mark?)
But to improve as a writer you need to know where you’re going wrong, and finding out will inevitably involve a little pain. The best reviews contain something revealing, a truth you can’t see yourself because you’re too close to the words. If you can build on the good, rectify the bad and take the ugly on the chin, then you should end up with a better book.