Writing is a long, drawn out process; a journey from the vaguest of ideas to something so real and concrete that it can almost feel like memory. Through countless drafts the author refines their work, carefully evaluating the pacing, the characters, word choices, and sentence structure. Until at long last, it’s done. Time to show it to someone, but who? Writing is a long, drawn out process; a journey from the vaguest of ideas to something so real and concrete that it can almost feel like memory. Through countless drafts the author refines their work, carefully evaluating the pacing, the characters, word choices, and sentence structure. Until at long last, it’s done. Time to show it to someone, but who?
Different Types of Readers
Showing a new story to someone else can be very difficult. On the one hand there’s an eagerness to share it, a hunger for feedback. But what kind of feedback?
The Kind Reader
When I first finish a story, I’m very nervous. “What if it was all for naught? What if I wasted my time with nothing to show for my effort? Deep down I know it’s not perfect, but is it good enough to warrant the extra effort to polish it up?” So I start off with a kind reader; someone who isn’t aspiring to write themselves, they just like to read for fun.
They may offer some constructive criticism, particularly if something doesn’t make sense, but most of their remarks will be praise. They’ll focus on what I did right, and in the beginning that is exactly what I need.
Safely reassured that I haven’t completely blundered, I’ll move on to my next reader, the constructive critic.
The Constructive Critic
With my doubts resolved, I take another look at the story. I know what I’ve done right, it’s time to figure out where I need to shore things up. I turn to serious writers and ambitious readers; people who want to be challenged, who can love a story but still find fault with it. I try to use a wide sample, emailing between 4 and 6 at a time, saving a few for the second round of constructive criticism.
This is perhaps one of the most difficult types of feedback to receive. Positive remarks are often brief and vague: “yes”, “wow”, or “well done”. Constructive criticism, by its very nature, is much more extensive and specific. It’s not enough to simply say “this doesn’t work”. Writers need to know how and why it’s not working. This means constructive criticism will dominate the feedback. And that’s exactly how it should be, but it’s not always easy to recognize those remarks for what they are, an honest and earnest effort to help the writer become stronger.
This is one reason why I try to submit simultaneously to multiple individuals. If I disagree with someone’s feedback, I compare it to the others, or contact someone else who has already submitted their feedback. But avoid leading questions. Instead of “Do you think it’s clear that Paul’s motive is X?” ask “What do you think Paul’s motives are?” What, how, and why are great questions to ask.
Don’t defend your story, don’t tell readers the answers to their questions. The fact that they asked shows that the story doesn’t have the answers. Ask follow up questions, but don’t respond to theirs. When a reader tells you something isn’t working, they’re right. Of course sometimes the reader may not represent your target audience, but if there’s a way to address their concerns without compromising the story, that can only strengthen the story.
This is my last reader, the one who will find every weak point, whether it’s the content and meaning of the story, or the word usage, sentence structure, and grammar. This is the one who will tear a story apart, but afterwards it will be much stronger. Professional editors would also fall under this category.
The reason I save this reader for last is because they are so sharp, so good at what they do, and they know it. They have little patience for mistakes, and if they find too many, they will stop and tell you to go back and try again. The exception, of course, is an editor you hire, though you still want to save them for last, to keep the cost down.
Finding & Choosing Your Readers
Finding readers is usually not too difficult. You can ask family and friends, join a writer’s group (online or in person), or look for online forums and blogs where others are asking for readers (and then you might ask them to return the favor). But that’s only the beginning.
The immediate goal may be to get feedback for your latest writing piece, but the real goal in all of this is to establish an ongoing relationship with your readers. Understand that not everyone may be open to reading your work regularly, and that’s okay. Gradually you’ll realize who is open to it, and how much time they are willing to offer.
As an author, it’s important to let the reader govern much of the relationship. Learn who is a kind reader, a constructive critic, or a shredder. Learn who wants to provide their feedback and be done with it, as well as who is willing to continue the dialogue after their initial response. Once you understand what kind of reader someone is, you can choose when to send them a story.
As a writer you can’t ask if you’re not willing to give, and often people will ask you to give first. The problem is that in any relationship, there’s room for misunderstanding. You don’t know what the writer is hoping to get out of this. Fortunately there’s a simple solution, ask. Ask them what they’re looking for.
- Is this a story they wrote for fun, something they’re sharing with friends, or a professional piece they hope to submit somewhere?
- Do they want you to read the whole story through and then offer a general response, or would they prefer notes throughout the story?
- Should you simply note places that feel strong or weak, or cite specifics?
- Are there specific aspects of the story (setting, plot, pacing, sentence structure) that they want you to pay attention to?
- Are there specific questions they want you to answer after reading the story?
When in doubt, be gentle. Ask them if they have any questions for you, but let them ask for more, and remember, just because someone asked you for feedback in the past, doesn’t mean they want feedback every time they show you something they’ve written. Sometimes we need a critic, other times we just need a friend.
What do you think?
What do you look for in a first reader?