Getting the feedback you need, Part III: getting your snails from the right chef

As part of my ongoing holiday gift to you this year, dear readers, I devoted yesterday’s post to a few helpful hints on how to get good feedback from non-professional readers. Ideally, of course, you would solicit critique from professional readers, such as agents, editors — freelance and otherwise — and teachers. But agents and editors seldom have time to give significant feedback to people to whose books they haven’t already committed, and both classes and freelance editing can cost serious money.

Yesterday’s hints, as you may have noticed, concentrated on asking the right people to read your manuscript, and for good reason: the wrong first readers can bring tremendous chagrin into a writer’s life, in the form of everything from hyper-harping on insignificant punctuation issues to keeping it for a year without reading it to handing it back to you with no feedback at all. All of these standard first reader problems can be avoided by simply not asking people who are not qualified to critique your book to read your manuscript.

There is, after all, a good deal more to providing useful feedback on a manuscript than simply saying what one did and did not like. That comes as a surprise to many people — including many writers, many of whom automatically assume that being able to write well means being able to edit well. Far from it. The best feedback is both practical, suggesting how and why to make necessary changes, and market-savvy, taking into account both the reader’s personal opinion and the tastes of the target audience.

Do I hear some of you out there harumphing? “Yeah, right,” go the almost-audible grumbles, “she’s a professional writer and editor with a Ph.D. and masses of writer friends. She probably doesn’t think ANYONE is qualified to read a book.”

Actually, depending on your genre or field, a highly-educated person can be the WORST first reader imaginable: attorneys, for instance, are trained specifically to regard anything but brevity as undesirable, and academics to insist that every assertion be backed up with footnotes full of evidence, neither of which would be particularly desirable for, say, a mystery. Nor would a scientist necessarily be the best first reader for a science fiction piece; she might raise all kinds of practical objections to how things work on your imaginary world. You know, the one where both time and gravity run backwards.

And, after all, the best qualification for knowing whether a book will appeal to an audience is being either a member of that particular audience or very familiar with what that audience likes to read. If you were writing for fifth graders, your ideal first readers would be a classroom full of kids, not a symposium full of philosophy professors. Or even, necessarily, a conference room full of child psychologists.

However, astoundingly few aspiring writers actively seek members of their target audiences as first readers for their manuscripts. I throw this question open to you, my friends: if you’re not, why not?

In my informal polling on the subject, the most common answer has been that it’s just easier to ask people the writer already knows — and it turns out that writers aren’t necessarily very aware of what their friends do or do not read. The second most frequent answer — brace yourselves, as it’s a lulu — has been the sheepish (and often astonished, because the responder hadn’t realized it before himself) admission that the writer has simply been handing the book to anyone who said, “Gee, I’d love to read it.”

In other words, most of the writers I ask seem not to be using any selection criteria at all. You’ll pardon me if I collapse briefly on the nearest chaise longue: the very idea makes me a bit faint.

No wonder so many writers have negative experiences with feedback: they’re essentially leaving selection of those vital first readers as much up to chance as if they cut up their local telephone directories, tossed the shards into a hat (a big one, like Abraham Lincoln wore), pulled out a slip of paper randomly, and shouted: “You! You’re my first reader!”

But if most of these same people wanted to find the best escargot in town as an anniversary surprise for their spouses, they wouldn’t simply open the Yellow Pages randomly at the Restaurants section and allow the fickle finger of fate to decide, hoping that the restaurant blindly chosen won’t turn out to serve Icelandic or Korean food instead of French. Sacre bleu, non! They would ask someone they are sure knows a thing or two about garlicky snails before investing in a potentially expensive evening at a restaurant.

There’s no reason to treat your manuscript with less respect. So how do you find a qualified reader? Continuing from yesterday:

Tip #4: ascertain a potential first reader’s reading habits BEFORE you ask her to read your manuscript.

You may feel as though you are conducting a job interview, but honestly, you will be trusting your first readers to hold a significant part of your ego in their hands. You wouldn’t trust your teeth to a dentist without credentials or previous mouth-related experience, would you? Are the nerve endings in your mouth really more sensitive than your feelings about your work?

You need not give potential readers the third degree; take ’em out for coffee and spend half an hour chatting about books. This is also a pretty good strategy to adopt with members of any writing group you are thinking about joining. How a person speaks about her literary likes and dislikes will tell you a lot about whether she is a good reader for your work.

Having this little chat will make it significantly easier for you to implement Tip #5: Get feedback from people in your book’s target audience.

For example, I know an excellent children’s book illustrator who, every time she finishes a rough draft, routinely hangs out with her sketchpad in the picture book sections of bookstores, stopping every kid she sees to ask if the pictures she has just completed match the captions well enough. She gets TERRIFIC feedback, from precisely the right people, not one of whom has any formal affiliation with the publishing industry — and she gets it for free.

Yes, yes, I know: you’re a writer, not a marketer; it’s the publishing house’s job to figure out how to reach your target audience. However, if you are writing for ultimate publication, rather than for your own pleasure, it can only help your chances of success to learn to look critically at your own work, see it as a reader would, and implement that view. Learning who your target reader is — and what your target reader would say about your story — is a necessary but often overlooked part of that process.

On a practical level, too, your chances of pitching and querying your work well will rise astronomically if you give some thought to who your ideal reader might be BEFORE you start submitting your work. And it will definitely win Brownie points with anyone in the industry to be able to say, “I’ve solicited extensive feedback from women aged 35 to 50 (or whatever demographic fits your ideal reader), and they find my protagonist’s dilemma both unique and true-to-life.”

A word to the wise, though: be as specific as possible in describing your demographic; “women everywhere,” “every American citizen,” and “everybody” do not come across to agents and editors as reasonable target audiences. No book appeals to everybody, as they well know, so hyperbole will not serve you well here.

Next time, I shall go through a few more tips on selecting productive first readers, and begin to discuss how to frame your request for feedback in ways that will encourage useful commentary. In the meantime, ponder this: note how I have turned the issue of who makes a good first reader from a question of who your friends are to a question of what does the BOOK need. The single biggest mistake I see good aspiring writers make in seeking feedback is to forget that the feedback process is not about helping the writer, but about helping the manuscript.

To be blunt about it, if you intend to become a professional in this field, your primary goal in soliciting feedback should not be bolstering your ego. That’s what your support system is for, and there is absolutely no shame in saying to those who love you best, or even your best writing friends, “Look, I can get critique from other people, but you are uniquely qualified to give me support. May I give you the job of cheerleader, rather than gym coach?”

Have a lovely holiday weekend, everybody. And keep up the good work!

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