Getting the feedback you need, Part VIII: eliciting the specifics

As my ongoing holiday gift to you, my readers, I have been running a series about how to get the most from non-professional feedback – which, let’s face it, is the vast majority of the substantive feedback aspiring writers get. As those of you who have queried or submitted are already aware, the agent or editor who gives concrete feedback to a rejected manuscript is rapidly growing as extinct as a bespectacled dodo speaking Latin and writing in cuneiform on the walls of a pyramid.

Sad, but true, alas, and thus it’s not the most efficient use of your energies to resent an obviously form rejection when it is sent to you. But how on earth is a writer to know what needs to be changed (other than the current super-tightness of the fiction market, which is making agents all over Manhattan yank wee hairs out of their already-troubled scalps) before a book looks yummy to the folks in the industry?

You could, of course, always pay a freelance editor to run through your work with a fine-toothed hacksaw, but most aspiring writers are reluctant to shell out the dosh for this service. After all, pretty much everyone who has had the self-discipline to write an entire book did so while living on the hope of other people paying to read it; to most writers, the prospect of paying a reader to struggle through their prose is pretty distasteful.

And even though I make a hefty chunk of my living being paid to do precisely that, I’m going to be honest with you here: most editors at major publishing houses, when asked at conferences if getting professional help is necessary, will get downright huffy at the notion. Good writers, they will tell you, need no such help.

This sounds very noble, doesn’t it? Until the 50th time you hear this exchange, when it dawns upon you that perhaps these editors hear the question as a critique of their ilk’s propensity to perform line editing, rather than as evidence of a writer trying to figure out how to navigate the publishing world. (Editors get cranky at the mention of the fact that they do a whole lot of things other than edit these days.) Oh, and their definition of a good writer is someone who never makes grammatical or spelling mistakes, is intimately familiar with the strictures of standard format, has a metronome implanted in her brain so that pacing is always absolutely even, has never written a bad sentence, and plots like a horror film director.

In short, the writer they have in mind when they give the advice has an internal editor powerful enough to run Random House. For those of us who have not yet had Toni Morrison surgically implanted in our brains, blue pencil in microscopic hand, an extra pair of eyes can be very helpful.

However, if you are not getting feedback from someone who is being paid to do it (i.e., an agent, editor, writing teacher, or freelance editor), or members of a writing group with experience working on your type of book, or a writer in your chosen genre – which is to say, if you are like 99% of feedback-seekers in North America – then you are almost certainly going to be seeking feedback from first readers who have no previous experience in manuscript critique. When the writer does not set out ground rules to guide inexperienced first readers, trouble often ensues.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing the single best thing you can do to head off problems before they start — Tip #11: Give your first readers written directions for feedback.

Ideally, these directions will include a list of specific questions you would like answered about the reading experience. 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 – as long as you are honest with yourself about what you really want and set realistic goals. Hint: “I want for Daddy to say for the first time in my life that he’s proud of me” might not be the best reason to hand dear old Dad your manuscript. But “I want the experience of my work being read closely by someone I know is not going to say anything harsh afterward” is every bit as praiseworthy a goal as “I want someone to tell me how to make this book marketable.”

The trick lies in figuring out precisely what you want, finding a person who can deliver it, and asking directly to receive it. And if that sounds like sex-column advice to you, well, there’s a reason for that: everyone is looking for something slightly different, so the more straightforwardly you can describe your desired outcome, the more likely you are to get what you really want.

I cannot emphasize too much that it is PERFECTLY legitimate to decide that you actually do not want dead-honest critique, IF your first readers that in advance. If upon mature reflection you realize that you want to show your work to your kith and kin in order to gain gentle feedback in a supportive environment (rather than in a cut-throat professional forum, where your feelings will not be spared at all), that’s a laudable goal — as long as neither you nor your first readers EXPECT you to derive specific, informative revision feedback from the experience. “Don’t worry about proofreading, Sis,” 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 eventually need to harden yourself to feedback; the rather commonly-held notion that really GOOD writing never gets criticized is a myth. Not only does professional writing routinely get ripped apart and sewn back together (ask anyone who has ever written a newspaper article), but even amongst excellent editors and publishing higher-ups, there will always be honest differences of opinion about how a book should run.

So the sooner you can get accustomed to taking critique in a constructive spirit, the better. And the happier you will be on that dark day when an editor who has already purchased your manuscript says, “You know, I don’t like your villain. Take him out, and have the revision to me by the end of next week,” or “You know, I think your characters’ ethnicity is a distraction. Instead of Chinese-Americans from San Francisco, could they be Irish-Americans from Boston?” or “Oh, your protagonist’s lesbian sister? Change her to a Republican brother.”

You think these examples are jokes? Would you like me to introduce you to the writers who heard them first-hand? Would you care to know which one I saw on a major publishing house’s letterhead within the last three months?

Yes, good critique can be invaluable to clarifying fuzzy places in the book, but in terms of your entire career, it’s helpful to think of non-professional feedback as spring training for when you’re playing in the big leagues. While you are testing your throwing arm with the non-professional catchers, you will get better practice take the time to set out exactly the questions you want your first readers to have in mind while they read.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the best analogy. If you were trying to completely rewrite a book at an editor’s behest by the end of next week, your analogy-construction skills might be a trifle warped from overuse, too. The fact remains, you will get better feedback with a written list of questions than without it.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “Whoa, there, baby,” I know some of you will say. (And just whom do you think you are calling baby?) “I won’t get to set up guidelines for readers who buy my book after it is published. What’s wrong with just letting my first readers pretend to be those book-buyers, so I can work with their completely spontaneous reactions?”

Pretty smart question, cupcake, and one that richly deserves an answer – in fact, one with many parts. In the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally. Their reactions, unless they happen to meet you at a book signing or write reader reviews on Amazon or someplace similar, will forever 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 renders giving honest critique even of excellent writing much harder for them. That’s going to kill pretty much all of the spontaneity of their reactions right off the bat.

Second, when a non-professional reader is, as I have been pointing out, doing the writer a great big favor. Good first readers are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them; it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see.

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 – and the more specific your questions can be at the outset of the reading process, the more likely you are to receive great, useable feedback.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this series. In the meantime, it’s a brand-new year: why not celebrate by backing up your documents onto a Greatest Hits of 2006 disk? Or at least back it up to your iPod?

Oh, and keep up the good work!

4 Replies to “Getting the feedback you need, Part VIII: eliciting the specifics”

  1. In December I completed a book proposal and did some thinking on these issues.

    My hubby happens to be a dynamite copy editor and always does my first run through. But I also came up with 3 other readers, including 1 college English teacher.

    I started by warning them all that I am thick-skinned, and I WANT to know if something doesn’t work. (It’s not entirely true that I am thick-skinned, but I know how important feedback is, so I fake calluses I don’t actually have. )

    Anyway, I had these readers flag three things:

    1–typos– esp missing words since they are so hard to spot

    2– clarity problems–sentences that have to be read twice or passages that don’t flow

    3– the boredom factor– passages that seem slow or where the reader’s attention drifts off.

    I don’t know if this covered everything important, but it did give me some valuable, useable feedback. We’ll see what the agents think…..


    1. Mary, this is perfect — and thanks for showing other writers how to set out desiderata clearly and simply!

      Fingers crossed for the agents…

      1. Just this morning got another request for the proposal from an agent who is pretty high on my list. So far my query has gotten 3 yeses and 14 no’s. I’m feeling really encouraged…now if they just like the proposal!



        1. Three yeses out of 17 queries is TREMENDOUS — I’ve known writers who would give their toes for such a high positive response rate. You must have a great query letter. Well done!

          Go, fight, win!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *