Eliciting the specifics

For the past few days, I have been talking about how to get the most from non-professional feedback, from those readers who, not to put too fine a point on it, are neither employed in the publishing industry, being paid to read your work, nor are other writers. For most writers, their first readers do fall outside these categories — which means that most writers are dealing with first readers who have no previous experience in manuscript critique. When the writer does not set out ground rules to guide these inexperienced first readers, trouble often ensues.

The single best thing you can do to head off problems before they start is to follow Tip #8: Give written directions for feedback.

“Wait a cotton-picking minute,” I know some of you will say. “I won’t get to set up restrictions for who buys and reads my book after it is published. What’s wrong with just letting my first readers have a completely spontaneous reaction?”

Well, in the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally. Their reactions, unless they happen to contact you or write reader reviews on Amazon or someplace similar, will remain a mystery to you. Your first readers, on the other hand, do know you, and presumably will be interacting with you in future social situations. They will probably want to be considerate of your feelings — which automatically makes giving honest critique even of excellent writing much harder. That’s going to kill most of the spontaneity of their reactions.

Second, when your first readers are non-professionals — that is, unless they are either being paid to read your work or are receiving critique from you in exchange, as in a class or writers’ group — they are doing the writer a great big favor. They are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the response of readers who buy your book will come after it is too late for you to revise it. By contrast, your first readers are giving you feedback early enough in the process to influence the book before it goes to press, and generally before it is seen by agents or editors. The better their feedback is, the easier it is for you to incorporate into the group.

If you are expecting your first readers to provide you feedback that you can use to revise your book, it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see. Providing a brief list of written questions may seem a bit pushy at first, but believe me, if your reader finds herself floundering for something to say, she will be immensely grateful that you gave her some advance guidance. And you, in turn, are far more likely to receive the kind of feedback most helpful to you than if you remain politely mum.

Coming up with specific questions will also force you to figure out what you in fact do want from your first readers. You may discover that you actually do not want feedback; maybe you want support instead. Maybe you want recognition from your kith and kin that you have completed a project as major as a book. If so, it is important to recognize your desires before you hear any critique from your first readers — if you were seeking praise, and your reader thought you were looking for constructive criticism, both you and your reader will end up unhappy. Bringing your expectations into sync will substantially raise the probability of the exchange being positive for everyone concerned.

Even if you discover that you actually do not want dead-honest critique, do tell your first readers that in advance. If you feel that the whole point of showing your work to your kith and kin is to gain feedback in a supportive environment, and you want to share this important part of your life with your loved ones, that is perfectly legitimate, as long as neither you nor your first readers EXPECT you to derive informative feedback from the experience. If this is what you want, it will be FAR easier on your first readers if you tell them so explicitly: “Don’t worry about proofreading, Mom,” you can say. “I have other readers who can give me technical feedback. Just enjoy.”

If you want to be a professional writer, however, you will need to harden yourself to feedback, and good critique can be invaluable to clarifying fuzzy places in the book. If this is what you want (and you are asking non-professionals to give it), then it is only courteous to take the time to set out exactly the questions you want your first readers to have in mind while they read.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this subject. In the meantime, why not take a few minutes to polish your entry for the Holiday Table contest? (Details in my November 24 posting; the deadline is December 15.) It easy to enter, and the winner will receive two bona fide publication credits! Enter today!

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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