Getting the feedback you need, Part IX: on beyond “I hope you like it.”

Welcome to the final installment of my ongoing series on steps you can take to improve the feedback you get from non-professional first readers – for those of you just tuning in, that’s any pre-publication reader for your book who is not paid (by you or anyone else) to give you feedback.

In other words, the vast majority of first readers.

Yesterday, Tip #11 advised you to give your first readers a list of questions, preferably in writing, at the same time as giving them the manuscript. That way, the readers will know what to be reading for; you will get your most important questions answered, and less experienced first readers will have the guidance they need to keep from floundering about in the text, desperately searching for something helpful to say. That’s a whole lot of birds with one relatively small stone, isn’t it?

So far, I have presented Tip #11 as requiring merely effort, honesty, and advance planning to pull off, but in practice, it also requires a fair amount of chutzpah. Far more, in fact, than simply shoving a manuscript at a willing friend and murmuring some gentle platitudes about hoping he enjoys reading it. It requires not only taking one’s own writing seriously enough to demand useful feedback, but putting one’s wee foot down and insisting that other people do so as well.

Personally, I find this empowering, but over the years, several of my loyal, intelligent, talented advisees have informed me that they find Tip #11 far and away the most distasteful of the lot. They consider it pushy, if not downright presumptuous: empathetic souls, they feel that creating and handing over such a list implies doubt about the first readers’ reading ability, if not actual intelligence.

If anything beyond “Just tell me what you think” feels overly dictatorial to you, consider this: there is not a literary contest in the world that does not provide written instructions to its judges on how to evaluate contest entries. Screeners at agencies are almost invariably handed lists of desirable traits to seek as they read through submissions, as well as lists of criteria for instantaneous rejection, as are editorial assistants at publishing houses.

Which begs the question: if experienced professional readers work along pre-set guidelines, why should amateur readers be expected to perform the same task without guidance?

To turn the question around, haven’t you ever noticed how first readers new to the task almost always have difficulty giving specific feedback, even if they loved the book? Haven’t you noticed how they tend to freak out a little if they are asked pointed questions? Heck, haven’t you noticed how often this is the case with readers of published books, too? Ask for a detailed analysis of any written material, and most readers will suddenly find it difficult to breathe.

As a former professor, I can tell you exactly what that panicked flash in their eyes means: it’s the fight-or-flight response of a student suddenly tested on material he thought would not be on the test. From the unguided reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun. Nip this anxiety in the bud: give your first readers a study guide, so they’ll know what’s going to be on the test.

Writers are far less likely to have this response, of course, for obvious reasons: we were the folks who got As in English. Hand us an essay question about a book, and we’ll go on for hours, won’t we?

But just for a moment, try to identify with the huge majority of the population that does not have this instinctive response to being asked to product a book report.

Do you remember that professor in college or that teacher in high school who used to madden you at exam time with vague questions, ones so broad that they essentially invited you to spill out every minor fact you had managed to memorize? “Compare and contrast the Renaissance with the Middle Ages,” for instance, or “Was the League of Nations a good idea?” or “The Emancipation Proclamation: what were the arguments on both sides?” Or the ever-popular ploy of giving you a quote, and asking you to relate it to the reading? Perhaps something along the lines of this little gem:

“There is no ‘objective’ or universal tone in literature, for however long we have been told here is. There is only the white, middle-class male tone.” — Carolyn Heilbrun, WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE
Relate this quote to the works of Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dave Barry, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Marvel Comics. Make your answer text-based, and use specific examples.

Students look at this sort of question and wish that they would be struck by bolts of lightning on the spot – which, in essence, they have. “What the heck does “relate” mean in this context?” they wonder, surreptitiously sharpening their pencils into weapons of mayhem.

My dissertation advisor used to favor rambling quarter-page ruminations on the nature of life, without out ever articulating a question she desired students to answer. I like to call this the “what color am I thinking?” school of test-giving, because it requires the students to guess, with virtually no guidance, what the teacher wants to see in the essay.

My high school biology teacher, more vague than most, simply walked into class on the day of our big plant life exam, handed each of us a three-foot-long stretch of butcher paper, and told us, “Show me everything you know about plants.” Was it an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

It drove you nuts in school, right? Well, first readers given no guidance by the authors who have handed them manuscripts often feel as annoyed and helpless as you felt when faced with those kind of vague exam questions, especially if they’ve never read a manuscript (as opposed to a book) before. The format is substantially different, for one thing (if that’s news to you, please see the FORMATING MANUSCRIPTS category at right), and let’s face it, it’s an intimidating thing to be faced with the task of evaluating the creative output of someone’s soul.

Unless, of course, you are being paid to do it. If it’s any consolation for those of you who were told that your English degrees had no use in the real world, virtually every editorial memo I have ever seen has been a “What color am I thinking?” document: the manuscript is not quite right for these reasons; now go away and show me what the plot would be like with most of the major elements removed. Junior editors at publishing houses took those essay tests, too, and aced ‘em. And now, bless their hearts, they have transformed those bsing compare-and-contrast skills into a life’s work.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the implied obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. Following Tip #11 will decrease everyone’s stress levels – and providing written parameters for criticism at the same time that you hand over your manuscript is an easy way to minimize the potential for future misunderstandings. Even just one or two questions will be helpful to your reader.

There’s no need to turn it into a major research project, or to inundate your readers with ten-page lists of questions. Stick to a simple 1-2 pp. questionnaire about the book, highlighting the areas you feel could use some work. For the sake of your ego, it’s also a dandy idea to include questions about parts that you know you have pulled off well. (For an excellent example of a simple list, check out Mary’s comment on yesterday’s post.)

Be as specific as you can – questions along the lines of “What did you think of my protagonist?” tend to elicit less helpful responses than “Was there any point in the book where you felt the tension lapsed? At what point did you feel most interested in the plot?” I always like to add some offbeat questions, to make the process more amusing for the reader: “Did anything in the book make you laugh out loud?” and “What in the plot surprised you most?” can provoke some revealing responses.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a questionnaire, make a few specific requests, either verbally or in writing. Verbally, I have found that coupling very pointed suggestions with compliments works best:

“You’re always so good at foreseeing plot twists in movies – what do you think I could do to make my book’s plot more astonishing?”
“You’re the best cook I know – I would really appreciate it if you would keep an eye out for sensual details that did or did not work. Did I bring in the senses of smell and taste enough?”
“Look, I’ve never done time, and you have, so I would love your feedback on what is and isn’t realistic in my portrayal of prison life.”

Remember, this is an exercise in getting you the feedback YOU need, so the more honest you can be with yourself and your first readers, the better. If you are feeling insecure, it is completely legitimate to say:

“Look, this is my baby, and I’m nervous about it. Yes, I would love it if you flagged all of the typos you saw, but what I think would help me most is if you told me what is GOOD about my book.”

And finally, all throughout the process, observe Tip #12: Be HUGELY grateful for your first readers’ help.

Yes, I know, I sound like your mother (are you sitting up straight?), but honestly, this is a situation where politeness really pays off in both the long and short terms. Here is a wonderful person who has – for reasons of friendship, bribery, or idle curiosity – agreed to devote many, many hours of her time to giving your manuscript a good, hard reading. She has let you blandish her into that most difficult and dangerous of tasks, telling the truth to a friend.

And if that’s not an occasion for sending some flowers, I should like to know what is. Not only to be polite, but to be instrumental: if this first reader turns out to be a good one, won’t you want to use her for your next book, too?

Keep up the good work!

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