A few words on feedback, part X: making it easy to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth


Hey, I spaced out yesterday, apparently, but kudos to a community member are definitely due: congratulations to long-time reader Thomas DeWolf, whose memoir, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History came out yesterday! Congratulations, Tom!

You may remember Tom from his guest blog last month — why not pop by one of his many book signings and ask a follow-up question or two?

Here’s to his success — and to my making a similar announcement about YOUR book in a future post.

Back to business.

Welcome to the penultimate 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.

After I signed off yesterday, I had the strange sensation that there was some disgruntled murmuring out there in the ether. “Whoa, there, baby,” these disembodied voices called to me in the dead of night, “haven’t you overlooked something here? I won’t get to set reading guidelines for anyone who buys 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, ethereal questioners, and one that richly deserves an answer — in fact, an answer with many parts.

In the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally, unless you are one of that intrepid breed of author who stops every soul who passes within a ten-foot radius to pitch her newly-released book. (Yes, they do exist, and it’s a wonder to behold.) Therefore, your target audience members’ 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 are counting upon interacting with you in future social situations. Sheer self-interest, basic politeness, and the off chance that they actually LIKE you will probably make them want to be considerate of your feelings.

Which, as we’ve been discussing, automatically renders giving honest critique even of excellent writing much harder for them. The perceived necessity of being tactful is going to kill pretty much all of the spontaneity of their reactions right off the bat.

Second, a non-professional first reader is, as I have been pointing out, doing the writer a great big favor. (As opposed to professional readers, who tend to be paid to give feedback on manuscripts.) Good first readers are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them.

So it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see, isn’t it?

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the response of readers who buy your book will, by definition, come after it is too late for you to revise it for publication.

By contrast, your first readers are giving you feedback early enough in the process to influence the book before it goes to press and, if you’re being strategic, before agents or editors see it. 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.

To that end, yesterday’s post 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 following this advice as requiring merely effort, honesty, and advance planning to pull off, but to be completely honest, that’s only the beginning. 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.

Why so much more? Because 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 doing this empowering, but over the years, several of my loyal, intelligent, talented advisees have informed me that they find this tip far and away the most distasteful of the lot. They consider it pushy, if not downright presumptuous: empathetic souls that they are, 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, how can amateur readers be expected to perform the same task without similar assistance?

Think about that one for a while. I’ll wait.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. Giving a list of thoughtful, specific questions for a first reader to keep in mind will decrease everyone’s stress levels — and you, as the author, probably already have some idea of where the book’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Pointing the reader toward them in advance will make it okay for her to comment upon these parts, rather than politely avoiding any discussion of them.

Yes, it happens. Often.

Even just one or two questions will be helpful to your reader — and don’t feel compelled to use the same set of questions for every first reader. What problems will THIS reader be most likely to catch, and where will it best serve you for THIS reader’s knowledge and/or creativity to be concentrated?

Such requests tend to be especially well received if you are clever enough (and I know you are) to couple very pointed suggestions with compliments on the reader’s strengths:

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.

Yes, I know, I sound like your mother (are you sitting up straight?), but honestly, this is a situation where courtesy 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 great feedback-giver, won’t you want to use her for your next book, too?

I honestly will wrap up this series tomorrow; turns out I had more to say on the subject of stressed-out feedback-givers than I had thought. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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