A few words on feedback, part II: just when you thought that ex might come in handy

Last time, I waxed long, if not precisely poetic, on the desirability of getting some trustworthy soul to read your work IN ITS ENTIRETY before you send it out to an agent, editor, or contest. Trustworthy, in this case, means objective as well as truthful, well-read in your book’s genre yet not inflexibly wedded to its conventions.

Not, in other words, the kind of reader that you’re likely to find through the simple expedient of asking everyone at work who happens to think your impression of Groucho Marx is funny. It can be tough to find a good first reader, but from a professional perspective, necessary.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s essential from an emotional perspective as well. Think about it: what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a total stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? Basically, it’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency.

Maybe not the best FIRST choice, in terms of bolstering your self-esteem.

As I have pointed out several times this fall, amongst professional writers, agents, and editors, feedback tends to be honest to the point of brutality; professionals have no reason to pull their punches. If a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work — a compliment that has become rarer and rarer for submissions — the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

Far too few aspiring writers get honestly objective feedback on their work before they send it out. Instead, as I deplored last time, they give it to relatives or friends, whether or not they have any experience whatsoever giving the kind of feedback good writers need.

Even when these would-be helpful souls do have relevant reading or writing experience, the prospect of having to walk the thin line between being truthful enough to provide useful critique and crushing a loved one’s fragile ego can be awfully darned intimidating. (A recent post on Buzz, Balls & Hype gives an insightful peek into how and why — and many thanks to sharp-eyed reader Linda for calling my attention to it.)

Save your supporters for support. What you need from a first reader is well-informed, practical advice based upon a thorough understanding of your target market.

Translation: it shouldn’t come from people who already love you.

Or hate you, for that matter. One of the miracles of both love and hate is the emotion’s ability to jaundice the eye of the beholder.

So no matter how supportive, kind, literate, critical, eagle-eyed, or brutally honest your parents may be – and I’m sure that they’re sterling souls – their history with you renders them not the best sources of feedback. The same principle applies to your siblings, your children, your best friend since you were three, and anyone who has ever occupied your bed while you were in it for any length of time since you hit puberty.

ESPECIALLY anyone who has ever occupied your bed. Even on a very casual basis.

And yes, in answer to the question hanging on the tips of so many tongues out there, that includes other writers. Being horizontal with a first reader can have the same effect on truthfulness as tears on mascara: things get murky, and lines previously well-drawn begin to blur.

Which is not to say that pursuing rich, full emotional relationships with fellow writers is a bad idea. It undoubtedly is — as long as everyone concerned has a clear understanding of when support is called for, and when no-holds-barred critique. (It’s also not a bad idea to talk about who has first dibs on milking shared experiences for material. Believe me, there are easier things than waking up one morning to find a baby picture of yourself on the cover of a friend’s book: ask first.)

But I digress. Yes, it can be hard to find a good first reader, but it truly is worth your while. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback.

I know, I know: it seems as though I’m harping on this point. However, I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.

If you belong to a writers’ group, you already have a built-in problem-catching system in place — or you do if you belong to a GOOD writers’ group. If you have been hanging with other writers too kind to tell you about logical holes in your text, grammatical problems, or the fact that your protagonist’s sister was names Myrna for the first hundred pages and Myra thereafter, it really would behoove you to have a few more critical eyes look over your work before you send it out.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy individualists would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right. I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a well-trained eye, is not prone to coddling herself, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it.

That last condition is the rub, isn’t it? Ray Bradbury, I’m told, used to lock each of his manuscripts up in a desk drawer for one full year before taking them out for revision. After that long, and after working on so many projects in between (our Mr. B. has always been rather prolific), he could come back to it with a relatively unbiased eye.

I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings — hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

Take that, Dorothy Parker.

However — and this is a lulu of a however – until you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is. Isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN YOUR GENRE. No matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.

However (and this is not an insignificant however, either), not all of us have the kind of connections or resources to command that kind of readership. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field.

And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first. (If you’re in any doubt whatsoever about where the lines are drawn, please see the INDUSTRY ETTIQUETE category at right BEFORE you approach your first industry insider.)

Do I hear some of you out there gnashing your teeth? “I HAVE been giving my work to first readers,” I hear you grumbling, “and they NEVER give me feedback. Or they hold onto the manuscript for so long that I’ve already made revisions, so I can’t really use their critique. I’ve gotten SAT scores back faster. Or they so flood me with minute nit-picking that I have no idea whether they even LIKED the manuscript or not. I really feel burned.”

If you do, you are not alone: trust me, every freelance editor has heard these complaints hundreds of times from new clients. In fact, freelance editors ought to be downright grateful for those poor feedback-givers, as they tend to drive writers either to despair or into the office of a pro.

At the risk of thinning the ranks of potential editing clients, I have a few suggestions about how to minimize frustrations in the first reader process.

First, never, but NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader (i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher) without specifying what KIND of feedback you want.

Why not? Remember that intimidation factor I mentioned above? Well, the first-time manuscript reader often becomes so intimidated at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript.

Sound familiar?

Other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

Second, in case anyone has missed the subtle hints I’ve been dropping over the last couple of days, RELATIVES, LOVERS, AND CLOSE FRIENDS ARE POOR CHOICES FOR FEEDBACK. Think very, very carefully before you place them in that particularly hard spot.

If you DO have them read it, make a positive statement when you give them the manuscript, limiting what you expect in response. By telling them up front that you do not expect them to do the work of a professional editor (which at heart, many first-time manuscript readers fear), you will make the process more pleasant for them and heighten the probability that you will get some useful feedback.

Couching the request in terms of feeling reactions rather than textual analysis is a great way to make both writer and reader comfortable: “I have other readers who will deal with issues of grammar and style,” you can tell your kin, for example. “Don’t worry about sentence structure. I want to know if the story moved you.”

Better still, you can couch it in a compliment. “You know the world of the pool hall so well, my darling,” you can suggest to your lover, “that I want you to concentrate on whether the characters feel real to you. Don’t give even 38 seconds’ consecutive thought to the writing itself; I’ve got someone else reading for that.”

Notice how I keep bringing up other readers? If you do (sigh…) decide to use your kith and kin as first readers, it can been VERY helpful to cite other readers, even if they’re imaginary. Why? Knowing that others are available to give the hard-to-say feedback can lighten the intimidated reader’s sense of responsibility considerably, rendering it much, much more likely that s/he will enjoy reading your book, rather than coming to regard it as a burdensome obligation.

“Burdensome?” I hear some tremulous souls cry. “My delightful literary romp?”

For an ordinary reader, by no means — but did you seriously believe that handing your baby to your cousin at Thanksgiving, knowing full well that you were scheduled to meet again at Christmas, wasn’t imposing an obligation to read it, and pronto? Or that giving in to your coworker’s repeated requests to read something you’ve written, even though that meant her having to meet your reproachful, why-haven’t-you-read-it-yet eyes every week at the staff meeting, didn’t involve setting up a tacit deadline?

To appreciate the literature-dulling potential of deadline-imposition fully, you need only cast your mind back to high school for a moment: which did you enjoy more, the book you were assigned to read, the one that was going to be on the final exam, or the one you read in your own good time?

Still unsympathetic to first readers who hang onto manuscripts forever and a day? Would it help to consider that most people don’t understand that writers want to submit their work to agents, editors, and contests almost immediately upon completion?

I know, I know: that ex-lover with the three-book contract at St. Martin’s is starting to look pretty good as a first reader. NO, I tell you. It’s a bad idea.

So where should you turn? Ideally, your best first reader choice (other than a professional reader, such as an editor, agent, or teacher) is a fellow writer in your own genre, preferably a published one. Second best would be a good writer in another genre. Third is an excellent reader, one who has read widely and deeply and is familiar with the conventions of your genre.

In a pinch, if you all you feel you need is proofreading, you could always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and uses “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” – its time-honored meaning – AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne…unless you have a serious death wish.)

Which brings me to my third suggestion: stick to readers familiar with your genre. Someone who primarily reads nonfiction is not the best first reader for a novel; an inveterate reader of mysteries is not the best first reader of literary fiction or a how-to book. Readers tend to impose the standards of the books they like best onto anything they read, with results that can sometimes puzzle writers and readers of other genres.

For instance, my fiancé, an SF/fantasy reader since his elementary school days, shocked me on one of our first dates by confessing, in the middle of my rhapsody in praise of John Irving, that he had not been able to make it all the way through THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. “I found it boring,” he admitted. “Not much happened.”

“A character gets castrated in mid-car crash,” I pointed out, stunned. “How much more action do you want?”

From his reading background, though, he was right: it’s rare that more than a page goes by in a good SF novel without overt action, and mainstream novels tend to be lamentably devoid of, say, time travel. John Irving would be wise, then, to avoid my sweetie as a first reader.

As would I — oh, here’s a great opportunity for a pop quiz. Why SHOULDN’T I use my SF-loving boyfriend as a first reader?

If your first impulse was to cry out, “He’s double-disqualified! He’s more or less kith and kin, AND he doesn’t read either adult fiction or memoirs on a regular basis! What’s that he’s reading on the couch right now, yet another SHARPE novel?” you get an A.

More on the care and feeding of first readers follows in the days to come, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

17 Replies to “A few words on feedback, part II: just when you thought that ex might come in handy”

  1. Happy holidays, Anne, and thanks for another great post on this subject. I certainly agree with you that this is the logic that applies to almost every situation. However, most people tend to believe that there are exceptions to every rule, and of course they tend to believe that they fall into that minority that is the exception. Especially when it comes to issues like this.

    Interestingly, I’ve read several published authors who noted that their spouses were their first reader/editor. Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, and Bill Watterson (who wrote/drew the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and thus wasn’t truly in this industry) all come to mind. I’m sure your readers could come up with many other examples.

    There are two points that I’d like to make on this score. First, readers would do well to remember that what a person says when publicly thanking his/her beloved is not necessarily the full truth. Secondly, most of these writers noted looking for general reaction from their spouse, usually on a chapter-by-chapter or realism basis, rather than on a line-by-line basis. But I’m sure that varies. At any rate, aspiring writers would do well to not just blandly take such comments of published writers at face value.

    That said, I do believe that my wife is an incredibly valuable first reader/editor to me, even on a line-by-line basis (and I believe I have a good litmus test for objectively determining that she is — more on that below). First of all, she has a degree in comparative literature, and is a voracious reader of the same genres I write in — she’s much wider read than me in general, actually. Secondly, she’s done enough writing to know what she’s doing. She hasn’t written as much fiction as I have, but it’s not a race.

    All of that just gets her into the ball field of being a potential first reader, except for that pesky issue that she’s my spouse — and that’s where my litmus test comes in. Ask yourself this: would you or your spouse be offended/upset/surprised/displeased by trading constructive critiques post-coitus? As in, “that wasn’t very good for me?” If you’re uncomfortable answering that to yourself (don’t tell me — I really don’t want or need to know) then that means that your spouse probably can’t be your editor regardless of his/her other qualifications.

    But if you’re so uninhibited around each other that giving direct, un-couched feedback on your most intimate acts is a normal and accepted practice between the two of you (after all, the comments are only designed to help), then you can probably be reasonably certain that they aren’t couching things when discussing your novel. Although, even then, be on guard at first — it’s far too easy for your beloved to want to be supportive at the expense of being constructively critical at first. Here’s a good law of editing (in the mathematical sense) I’d like to propose: if all your feedback from your first reader is unequivocally positive, it wasn’t helpful. Even if the person loves your book to death, he or she should find about ten thousand things wrong with it, and tell you just why each one is wrong (or say that it just doesn’t rub them right if they can’t tell).

    So that’s why I think my wife and I are one of the very few exceptions to this particular rule — yet even then, she is my first reader, but certainly not my last before querying. I think my litmus test holds water, but I’m not aware of many people who seem likely to pass it (of course, it isn’t exactly a topic I ever discuss with anyone), so for most aspiring writers this is probably a moot point in the first place. When in doubt, follow the advice that Anne has already laid out in her last few posts.

    This is an interesting enough topic that I’m cross-posting it to my blog, but I wanted to post the message here in its entirety since it is in such direct response to what you’ve been talking about in your last few posts.

    1. That’s an interesting way to look at it, Chris — and your list of famous spouse-consulters made me laugh, because Orson Scott Card and I are scheduled to speak at the same SF convention next month.

      I have to say — and I mean no disrespect to what you and your wife have going by saying this — I would absolutely disagree that the ability to be mutually honest in other aspects of life would necessarily translate into being a good first reader — or that it’s even fair to put one’s SO in that position (first reader, that is, not sexual), regardless of qualifications. I know plenty of writers who (apparently) haven’t the vaguest problem trumpeting their sexual dysfunctions in even the most public settings, but would positively scream if their lovers said anything even vaguely critical about their WRITING. Not everyone’s sensitivities work the same way.

      One reason that this is often true — and this a problem that often crops up with getting feedback with close friends or relatives as well — the SO has often heard so much about the book in process that s/he is likely to fill in logical gaps automatically, without thinking about it. Also, people within the same social circles (this is going to sound funny, but it’s true) often misuse the same words. If everyone in your community is prone to saying “It’s a doggy-dog world” rather than “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” it’s extremely unlikely that anyone in the community, including one’s spouse, is going to catch the error. (Believe me, freelance editors see evidence of this CONSTANTLY.)

      Ditto with local stereotypes, private jokes, etc.: one’s SO is obviously going to have quite a bit of background information that no other reader would have, and thus is likely to cut slack where another reader wouldn’t. Not to mention that fact that if one is writing with one’s SO in mind, one is more likely to cater to his or her taste in the writing.

      Which is not to say that it is utterly impossible to get ANY good feedback that way. But I think it’s dangerous to suggest to writers that such feedback should be regarded as similar to what an agent or editor might say upon reading the same work, regardless of one’s SO’s qualifications or the level of mutual intimacy.

      And I say this, incidentally, although my mother was her quite prolific first husband’s editor and sometimes even cowriter throughout their marriage. (She was also his first agent, more or less.) So I have seen it work, and brilliantly.

      However — and this is a BIG however — no pro would seriously consider having a spouse be the ONLY first reader of work intended for publication. Or at least, one who didn’t already know for certain (as all of the writers you mention would have known after their first books) that a professional editor would also be giving serious feedback. So I would be really, really reluctant to start recognizing exceptions.

      1. Touché, Anne. My point wasn’t that a spouse could be your ONLY first reader in the first place, so I suppose the talk of “exceptions” is somewhat irrelevant, anyway. To your point that someone well-qualified beyond the spouse has to be an early, deep reader, I most avidly agree. My real point was more to defend the notion that having the spouse as an early reader can be genuinely helpful at all, which I now see you weren’t completely at odds with, anyway.

        As to people discussing sexual shortcomings in public (or openly at all), that’s certainly not something I’ve ever personally seen (maybe it’s a west coast thing). So perhaps my litmus test means something a little bit different in NC. I certainly was very uncomfortable writing it out at all, as that’s not a topic ever discussed in polite society here! But no analogy was more apt, so there it is.

        At any rate, you raised a lot of good points about local/inside knowledge and the tastes of the spouse running parallel to the book. I hadn’t quite thought of those things, so those definitely add a lot more weight to your argument in my mind, even in situations where you can be pretty sure that your spouse is “shooting straight” with you.

        1. Just a minor point Chris. We on the west coast do n’t discuss our ‘sexual shortcomings’ (that is a funny mixture of words), in public. In fact I believe we from the west coast have a dearth of shortcomings although I’m not sure what the opposite would be.

          My novel with the subltle title ‘PEEHEN’ has been first readered quite a bit, I have ammended and often revised to fit valid criticisms given. I say valid because not all criticism may fit one’s genre. I think I said that very poorl, sorry. It is my baby, and don’t we all want to show off ‘our babies’? I am sharing right now with another writer whose opinion I value, what more can I ask?

          1. That’s a good point, Gordon — talking about writing with other writers IS a form of receiving feedback. I’ll have to think about that one.

  2. When I was working on the first draft of BEYOND THE OCEAN’S EDGE, I had not yet started learning how to go about getting published. I knew nothing of agents, acquistion editors, line editors or FIRST READERS. At the same time I didn’t want to publicize the fact that I was writing a novel. My daughter, then in the eighth grade was one of the few that knew. She read the story as it was being created, chapter by chapter. She was not afraid to tell me what she liked or didn’t like, nor was she reluctant to point out potential grammatical errors.

    Once the story was finished, and as I began to research the publishing process, I started to let people know that I had written a book. One of my co-workers read it, and in general heaped all manners of praise upon it. While I was certainly glad to hear it, I also knew that it would need considerable work to be a well polished work. (When I told him that I was editing and revising, he asked why, as he thought it was okay as is.) One comment he made has remained with me, and it is one that both amuses me and validates my work. He said it read like it had been written a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. (With the revisions and all that have been made since then, I don’t know if he could stll say that.)
    Other readers of my novel have included a high school classmate (whose dad was our senior year English teacher) and a friend of a co-worker whom I have never met. While neither of these individuals offered line by line criticism, they did supply considerable advice and quite often questioned various aspects of the story. Many times I felt the concerns they raised to be valid and I attempted to eliminate or lessen the reasons for the concern.

    In addition to having the first chapter professionally edited a couple of years ago, members of my critique group have critiqued several chapters as well. I have incorporated many of their suggestions into the story as it now exists.

    My personal belief is that we can have a wide variety of first readers, each with a differing amount and detail of feed back. I like to have a few folks read it just as they would read something of the shelf at B & N. I want to get their general impressions of the story. It’s nice to have others read it a little more closely and offer thoughts on over all plot and construction. Then of course, I want some to read it and critique it, word by word, line by line, and page by page. To me, all feedback, regardless of the level or detail can be constructive. A write just needs to be aware of the source and adjust his/her acceptance level of the critique to match.

    I also believe it is helpful to put the work aside for some time and then to go back over it myself. Reading something (in hardcopy) six months after I was last dealing with it, places it in an entirely different light.

    1. I think you’re wise to go into feedback situations not expecting any single reader to give the full range of feedback, Dave. Every reader brings a different perspective to the table.

      Which means, of course, that if one approached one’s SO and said (as I myself have been known to do), “Honey, I value your opinion, but I love you so much that I fear your eagle eye and habitual honesty may lacerate my innermost soul. So would you mind reading this and just telling me what you like about it?” that would be perfectly legitimate. It’s when expectations are not communicated clearly (or are too high) that trouble tends to crop up, I find.

      1. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think that many beginning writers have this idea of writing in secret and not sharing it with anyone until it is published and available at the bookstore. As I’ve progressed, I’ve come to realize that a writer should have an entire community read it. The more feedback, and the more varied the feedback a writer receives, the better the finished product will be. Having someone in that “local” community offer highly critical feedback can also help one steel him/herself against the sometimes insensitive and blunt responses from those in the industry. As I see it, one should never depend upon one or even two “first readers,” regardless of whether or not they meet the qualifications as you (Anne) set forth.

        1. Oh, you’re SO right about that, Dave — I constantly meet writers who want to keep the book under wraps until the day it astonishes the world in print. It’s completely understandable, but I think it renders the submission process much, much more difficult than it needs to be.

          As for deviating from my first reader criteria…well, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, there is no human problem that could not be solved easily if only everyone would do as I advise, but naturally, every case is slightly different. Here, as always, I hope that my readers will take from my advice what works for them and throw the rest out the window.

  3. Hi Anne,

    I just wanted to say my husband thanks you!

    I have started my first rewrite and I can see it is going to be tough slogging. Your advice not to make your loved ones your first reader is most timely. You’ve made my husband one happy camper by letting him off the hook for the rewrites.

    He was the first and only reader for my first draft. Since September I was in the practice of handing my ms to him, one chapter at a time, always asking for his ‘honest’ opinion. It was an emotional rollercoaster ride but we survived (forget about praise, he is a natural born critic and was quite ruthless). Surprisingly, I am happy to report our marriage and my ego are still intact -albeit somewhat bruised.

    I have been reading your blog with great interest and have to tell you how appreciative I am of the astute advice and guidance you provide your readers. On your recommendation I read Carolyn See’s ‘Making a Literary Life’ and found it an inspiring book that was worthwhile to read, not only as it contains solid, practical advice but also because it is written in such a genuinely honest and interesting fashion.

    I’ve learned a lot lately reading your previous posts about standard format, but I am unsure about the format for dialogue. I feel silly asking, but should dialogue be left margin justified, or indented?

    Also I’d like to thank you for mentioning the Vericon conference. I plan on bringing the family as we are great fans of all three writers, Lois Lowry, Orson Scott Card and Phillip Dick. I feel like I scored a hat trick! I wouldn’t have known about this if not for your blog! Many thanks, and hope to see you there.

    Regards and wishing you much joy in 2008!

    1. My SO keeps talking about forming a support group for the spouses of writers, RM, and this is precisely why! They’re as much in the dark as we are about what’s appropriate feedback.

      Fortunately, by the time mine read a manuscript of mine, I already knew that I should set some boundaries. So the instant the first critique popped out of his mouth, I knew to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, honey, did I not make it clear that your job is to be supportive? In case you haven’t noticed, that pack of beloved wolves panting on our doorstep for the stack of manuscripts currently on my desk will be more than glad to give me critique.”

      Every paragraph of a manuscript should be indented, including those containing dialogue. And NEVER feel silly about asking a question about standard format — trust me, if you’re wondering about something, so are another 150 readers, so you’re doing everybody a favor by asking.

      I’m tickled that you’re going to be making it to Vericon — it’s a good convention. Please buttonhole me and introduce yourself!

  4. I read my writer’s group’s submissions, take an hour or so to go through the piece and make suggestions. I don’t insist that the writer accept any or all of my suggestions. And they are rejected frequently.

    But it would be nice if the writer follows some of my suggestions and incorporated them into her prose. But no, mostly what I see in revised works is the same problems as in the earlier version. What does one do in this situation? Repeat my earlier edit suggestions? ignore the revised submission?


    1. Hoo boy, is that ever a good question, Kathy! I know this particular frustration very, very well. And if it makes you feel any better, occasionally one of these souls comes back in a year or two and says, “You know something? You were right.” But it is, alas, rare.

      I should probably write about this in the blog proper (in fact, I think I will), but the sad fact is, not everyone is an equally happy reviser — and amazingly often, the feedback in question is on technical points, or even grammar, matters that should be quite easy to fix. So from the POV of the reader who pointed out the problem, the writer’s not making the correction seems, well, illogical.

      But not everyone comes to a writing group for detailed advice; I’ve known many who come primarily for mutual support or a sense of community. And then, too, many, many writers simply hate going over what they’ve already written. As evidence: it’s not that uncommon (sigh…) for a reviser to take big suggestions for changes — i.e., the ones that involve new writing — while neglecting suggestions that involve revising existing text.

      Unfortunately, it’s easy for the conscientious writing group member who (rightly) points out repeated problems to become the bad guy of the community. Which is rather unfair, as it’s a lot more fun to make plot- or character-level suggestions than to point out for the 37th time that a particular semicolon is being used incorrectly. Often, once a particular group member is cast in the (necessary) role of nit-picker, others will back off on proofreading, knowing Ol’ Eagle-Eyes will catch it.

      I know that it’s frustrating, but your time is valuable. If you’ve pointed out a problem once, that’s where your responsibility ends — and if a member of your group has already demonstrated that s/he does not take feedback seriously the first time around, I don’t think that you are under any obligation to expend energy trying to correct the problem on subsequent drafts.

      Why? Well, when it comes right down to it, though, you can’t force another writer to make changes you feel are necessary; all you can do is point them out. Unless you are an editor at a publishing house or the writer’s agent, you simply don’t have the leverage to pressure a writing change that the writer does not want to make (or, more commonly, doesn’t want to take the time to make).

      Unfortunately, some people would rather keep making the same mistakes over and over again than to admit that they might have been wrong. Even if you tell them until you are blue in the face that one of the biggest standard differences between a writer who can work successfully with an agent or editor and one that cannot is the ability to listen well to feedback and incorporate it, you’re probably not going to end up achieving much more than frustrating everyone concerned.

      Even if you are 100% right. Perhaps especially if you are 100% right.

      Instead, you could sigh gustily upon seeing the same mistakes twice, force yourself to read past them, then say in group, “My line edits were on your last draft, so you might want to take a look at those again,” rather than essentially reediting the piece. Then go on to any larger suggestions you may have on the new draft. As a reader, not revisiting the old problems is going to save you a lot of time and chagrin.

      If a mistake is habitual, it also works well to introduce it as a general topic for discussion for the group; the writer might genuinely not know a rule. (When I taught at the university level, I was forever having to explain rules of grammar. Not everyone had good English comp teachers, apparently.) By approaching it generally, the writer making the mistake is less likely to feel singled out.

      Good luck — this is a tough one.

  5. I suspect that talking about one’s sex life IS more common on the West Coast, Chris, although it’s certainly not universal. (See Gordon’s comment.) I’ve overheard discussions in restaurants that would turn a modest person’s hair green, however, and just this weekend, in a very respectable store catering to cooks, of all places, I observed a gentleman waving a very large spatula on high and calling the attention of a cringing being known to now known to everyone in the store as “Sweetheart” of certain non-traditional uses for said implement. No one batted an eyelash, although all of the female customers did back rather hastily out of his reach.

    There are quite a few regional variations in etiquette, though. When I moved east for college, I remember being astonished at how different the conversational rules were. Where I came from, for instance, it would be considered extremely rude to inquire about someone’s religious beliefs, and there’s a 19th century Californian tradition that precludes close inquiry into someone’s family background — perhaps because so many of the folks who showed up in CA in the 19th century weren’t too fond of the places they had left behind. Encountering people at Harvard who habitually boasted about their ancestors was a bit of a shock.

  6. My fiancé is my–well, not my first reader, but my pre-first reader. I’ll give him an unfinished draft of something with explicit instructions to tell me 1) what he loves about it and 2) how I can make it even better. Note that with 2) I get the same information I would get if I asked him to tell me what was wrong with it–which is something I actually forbid him to do.

    And when I started doing this he wasn’t my fiancé yet, so obviously something about the arrangement works for us!

    Occasionally, if I’m feeling crappy and discouraged about something, I’ll just ask him to tell me what he loves. This usually gets me undepressed enough about it to find a way back into the material.

    I do think his understanding of what I need was sharpened the first time I asked him to critique something and he said he was concerned because it seemed very similar to something else I had written. I came this close to breaking up with him–as it was I didn’t return his phone calls for days.

    So I guess this is more support for the idea that the more specific you are about what kind of critique you want, the easier it is for a reader to be helpful.

    1. It also speaks well of you, Dr. F: if you hadn’t been open to his feedback as well as forward-thinking enough to ask for what you wanted.

      A pre-first reader is an interesting idea; I do that as well. My SO now knows that it’s a GOOD sign if when he walks through the door, exhausted from a long day’s work, I say, “Hello, honey. Would you like to get a glass of water before I read to you?” I figure that if I can get him to laugh at a line under those circumstances, it’s probably funny enough to consider keeping.

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