Getting the feedback you need, Part V: it was a dark and stormy…day

My, it is dark and rainy in Seattle these days. I know, this sounds redundant to those of you who don’t live in the Pacific Northwest, but think about it: we’re farther north than Maine, so our winter days are awfully short to begin with, and now we’re in the midst of the rainiest winter in, well, ever.

Seriously, the Weather Service says so. That’s a whole lot of soggy, misty, shaded days in a row. We’re well past the ark-building stage at this point; I think I just saw the ghost of Jacques Cousteau swim by my second-story office window.

Down with the wet, and back to business. For the last few posts, I’ve been writing about how to improve the feedback you’re getting from non-professional readers — i.e., first readers of your work who are neither freelance editors, agents, editors at publishing houses, or paid writing teachers — as well as how to skirt that most common of first reading pitfalls, the enthusiastic friend who begs to read your manuscript — and then never mentions it again.

Or the second most common, the person who takes 6 months to read it, then just says, “Oh, I liked it.” Or the third, the reader who concentrates so hard on the minutiae (rending his garments and exclaiming, “The way you use commas is INFURIATING!” for instance) that he has nothing to report on the big picture. (“Forest?” he says, looking at you as though you were insane. “All I saw was a single tree.”)

You don’t need the chagrin of any of these outcomes, frankly — even when such first readers do produce useable feedback, the manner of delivery often renders it either too soft-pedaled, too vague, or too harsh, or simply too late to be of any practical value to the writer. But really, this isn’t precisely the first-time critiquer’s fault: much of the time, these outcomes are the result of the writer’s not having selected readers carefully and/or not having set firm desiderata for feedback.

You owe it to yourself to invest the time in doing both, because anytime you hand an unpublished manuscript to another being, you’re taking an emotional risk. Heck, even gearing up to submit your work to another human being is stressful for most writers. It’s nigh-impossible to explain to non-writers, but the period gearing up to send your work out to agents and editors (or revise and resend it) can leave a writer as raw and sensitive as the time while she is waiting for a reply on a submission.

Which is another good reason to select your first readers with care, rather than just handing your baby to the first person that asks. Even when a spate of rejections may well have left you simply dying for someone, anyone, to show an interest in reading your work, it’s usually not a good idea to give in to that impulse without first giving the matter some extended thought. My next tip is even more practical than background consideration, yet even less commonly done:

Tip #8: Make sure your potential reader has time already available in his schedule to read your manuscript. If the reader cannot estimate a reasonable return date, move on to another choice.

This is not a rude question; actually, it’s rather considerate to ask. I know, I know, every writer on earth wants to believe that every human being is going to be overjoyed to read her work, but the fact is, a critique-providing first read is not the same experience as reading a book for pleasure. It’s considerably more time-consuming, not to mention more stressful for the reader — and that will be the case even if the reader does not also have to worry about couching his feedback in ways that will preserve the intimate relationship between you.

Remember, your first readers are doing you a favor, donating their time to the good cause of furthering your writing career. Treat their time with respect.

Obtain timing information even if — and perhaps even especially if — someone has expressed an interest in reading your manuscript simply out of friendship or family feeling. In my experience, such people, while kind and encouraging, frequently do not realize just how much time it takes to read a manuscript carefully — or even that the task is going to be any different from reading any book at the library. Often, these folks end up not finishing it at all or giving inadequate feedback, just because they did not budget sufficient time to read well.

Also, if you ask for this information courteously up front, you will have given yourself permission for a polite e-mail or comment a week or so before the stated return date. Why before? Because creative civilians (or, to put it less colorfully, people who don’t write) almost never understand that writers are serious about deadlines. How could we be, they think, when we spend years at a time on a single book?

Forgive them, readers, they know not what they think.

Given the pervasive belief that writers don’t own calendars, a pre-deadline reminder is often a good idea, to make sure the reading gets done. Just a quick heads-up, perhaps inviting the reader to coffee or lunch just after the deadline to discuss it, will help keep you from seething three weeks after the stated deadline passed, wondering if you should call to hurry the reader up.

Since you will be asking for a time commitment before you hand over the manuscript, it’s a good idea to tell your first reader WHY you want her, of all people, to give you feedback. Butter ’em up:

Tip #9: couch your request in a compliment. Ideally, you would like these potential first readers to be flattered that you asked, and thus hyper-motivated to sit down and read.

There’s no need to make up extravagant praise — just be very clear about why you are asking that particular person for feedback. Honesty really is the best policy here: why is this person THE person to read your book? And, based upon these reasons, what type of feedback would you like from this person? Try phrasing it like this:

“I trust your eye implicitly, so I am relying upon you primarily for proofreading.”

“Your comic timing is so good — would you mind flagging the jokes that you think don’t work?”

“You always know what’s about to happen in a slasher flick — may I ask you to take a quick run through my manuscript, flagging anytime you feel the suspense starts to droop?”

This strategy kills the proverbial two birds with one stone: you will be preemptively thanking your first reader for the effort, and you will be setting some limits on the kind of feedback you would like. By setting these goals in advance, you will be better able to avoid the super-common pitfalls of either your first reader or you mistakenly believing that the manuscript-sharing process is about making you feel good. Or bringing you and the reader closer together as friends or lovers. Or even to reveal yourself more fully to another human being you happen to love.

No, that’s what your kith and kin’s buying your published books are for: that’s support.

If you’re going to be professional about your writing, the sole purpose of ANY pre-publication manuscript-sharing should be to help prepare the book for submission and eventual publication. As the author, you are the book’s best friend, and thus have an obligation to do what is best for it, but writers new to the game often forget that. (Heck, even writers who have been published for years forget that.)

Keep that foremost in your mind, and I promise you, you are far less likely to hand your beloved baby over to the first careless coworker who says, “Gee, I’d love to read some of your work sometime.” The writer may be flattered by such attention, but the manuscript deserves not to be sent on blind dates.

More on these crucial issues tomorrow. In the meantime, try to stay dry and undepressed, Pacific Northwesterners, and keep up the good work!

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