I tend to get excited about my stories while I’m writing them. I fall in love with the idea and the characters and I want to share that excitement with other people even as I’m working on the story. But when should you share your manuscript with loved ones, friends, or your writing group?
There are two ends of this spectrum. I’ve seen writers share what they’re working on as soon as they have words on a page, and I’ve seen writers guard their manuscript and not share it with anyone except literary agents or publishers when they begin to submit their work.
I think the answer will be different for each writer, but today I have some things to consider regarding when to share your manuscript.
Let’s start with the hazards of sharing a manuscript too soon. Although as writers we’re excited about our work in progress, the truth is, we’re working on the first draft, so there will be errors. As a result, when we share our work, those listening to or reading the manuscript will want to provide feedback.
Let me run you through how my mind tends to work at this stage. I’m ecstatic about the story, so my initial assumption is that whoever I share it with will be just as enamored with the story, and they’ll tell me how great and wonderful the story is so far. There’s only one problem with this. I’m basing my excitement off the entire story that’s unfolding in my head, not on what’s made it onto paper at this point, which I’ll be honest, is probably riddled with errors.
The resulting feedback can be harmful in a couple of ways. One, the feedback can unintentionally manipulate the direction of the story. For example, if in introducing your characters, there’s a bit of flirting that goes on between the characters and that plays a big role in the section you’ve shared, the impression is that this love interest is a huge part of the story. The feedback you receive revolves around how integral this relationship will be to the plot of the story. And now you’re directing the story to make that relationship more significant than it was intended.
Perhaps that same scene shared as part of a 350-page manuscript would not have been as significant, or perhaps there was a minor error in adding too much weight to that scene, and it would have eventually been cut down. The problem is, if you’re influenced by feedback too soon, you may end up writing a different story than you wanted.
The second danger is hearing about major issues with the story, whether you have plot holes or an issue with a character, or any number of other things. These are things that may have worked themselves out as the manuscript developed. They may be things that are not even an issue in the context of an entire novel where pieces of the story are later revealed. There are lots of points in a story that my brain is working on and that are revealed later in the story. Things I’m not even aware of when I write a particular scene. But regardless of how your piece may have naturally developed, you now know that your first readers have a problem with something, and you may not have any idea how to resolve it. It can be such a huge problem that it squashes all the excitement you had and causes you to stop writing the story.
Let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. Not sharing the story with anyone except the places where you’re submitting the manuscript. I understand the fear writers have of receiving criticism. As my friends, family, and writing group can all attest, I am a sensitive person. Therefore, criticism on my writing is hard for me to hear. But I also tell them, I want to hear about everything that is wrong. There’s no use holding back, because I want my story to be as strong as it can be before I send it out. And when I review the comments afterward, I can see the problems too, and it’s a lot easier to fix a problem when you know it’s there.
The thing is, you don’t want to have the first words of criticism you hear about your story to come from some stranger you’ve never met. You don’t have a chance to improve your work before you send it to an agent or publisher, if you’ve never let anyone else read it. I’d much rather hear about a problem in my story from someone I trust than have it pointed out to me by someone I’m trying to get to publish my story. And that’s only if you’re lucky. Most places will reject a story without providing reasons. That’s not to say they won’t have a lot of changes they want you to make to your manuscript, but catching as many errors as possible before submitting a piece could be the difference between a rejection and an acceptance. One of the most important observations you may have already noticed, is that writers are blind to certain errors in their own stories. They can find the same errors with ease in someone else’s story, but they can’t spot it in their own. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re a perfectionist, if you’re the only one reading your story, you’ll be missing errors.
I’m acutely aware of this in my own writing. I’m a perfectionist, spotting grammar errors is something I enjoy, and I am blind to all sorts of problems in my own writing. Sometimes I have to see the same error in several stories by other authors before it dawns on me that I have the same problem in my own work.
So when is the right time to share? Again, I think the answer will be different for everyone, but a good starting point is to wait until you’re done with the first draft of a story. A round of proofreading to clean up obvious errors, and making the manuscript coherent is also helpful.
There’s probably a difference for people who outline their stories versus those writers like myself who have an idea of the structure and direction a story is going, but who let the story unfold as they write it. In fact, I’d be most interested to hear from those who outline on whether that makes a difference on when they are comfortable with sharing their work.
In the end, it’s not a rule to follow. It’s about not impeding on your progress, not creating roadblocks, and allowing yourself the benefit of feedback from people you trust.
When do you find is the best time to share your manuscript? Do you outline, and does that make a difference to when you share your work? Tell me a story about when you shared a piece you were working on at the wrong time?