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I recently had this somewhat disconcerting exchange with a writer I met in a chat room:

Me: Do you belong to a writing group of any kind?

She: I am a published writer.

The writer in question then inundated me with copies of her (self-) published poems and stories. I didn’t have to read very far to conclude that, while I admired her self-confidence, she would have greatly benefited from feedback of some kind.

But this raises a question: How far should we go in seeking feedback and assessment before pursuing publication?  Agents and publishers are inundated with submissions and can rarely take the time to provide individualized comments along with their rejections. Writing groups such as our own ninevoices provide a wonderful forum for reaction, constructive criticism, advice and, at times, brainstorming. But after twelve years together we know each other well and have become as familiar with and protective of one another’s work as we are of our own. This is when we consider using paid manuscript assessment services for an ‘objective’ outside view.

There is a wide array of such services available. You can pay as little  as £100 for a detailed critique of your first 3000 words and a 1000 word synopsis to as much as £2,650 for twelve months/60,000 words mentoring with extra fees for each additional 1000 words. The critics/mentors are generally published authors or industry professionals and most of these claim working connections with agents and publishers.  In other words, pick the right assessment service and you could have a one-stop shop for unbiased, professional advice and, if your work is good enough, a foot in the oh-so-heavy-door to publication.

The problem, of course, is finding the right service for you. Will the person reading your manuscript understand what you’re trying to achieve? Will they appreciate your quirky style? Are they experienced in your genre? Members of ninevoices have had mixed experiences. Two found the assessments of their work truly constructive and professional. A third felt the reader had completely missed the point and, in the event, reclaimed some of what she had paid. And, of course, while ostensibly objective, some of these businesses can play on our eagerness for publication by soft-peddling criticism and encouraging us to use more of their services to whip our manuscripts into shape. I’ve yet to hear of any manuscript assessment service advising an aspiring writer to take up watercolours.

There are other (not always cheaper) ways of obtaining feedback outside the group setting: many competitions will provide a brief critique should you make the shortlist, or, for a small additional fee, for any entrant. Genre-specific associations such as the Crime Writer’s Association and the Romantic Novelists Association also offer services for aspirants.

And then, of course, there is the growing number of courses linked to literary agents or publishing houses. Curtis-Brown Creative, for example, offer a range of courses led by published authors both online and in their offices. According to their website 27 of their students have achieved major publishing deals. At £2990 for a six-month novel writing course, the cost is not dissimilar to a University course with the added benefit of exposure to agents.

For many of us, creative writing courses are where we began our writing journey.  But we continue to find genre-specific workshops, retreats and even longer courses useful. And we can return to our writing groups energized and inspired from having garnered a different perspective.

However we get it, most of us, including published writers, need and benefit from feedback. We’d love to hear how our readers go about getting it and whether they’ve found paid-for services useful and value for money

Some of the services researched (this list is not comprehensive and readers are encouraged to check carefully the details of each company’s services as they vary widely):