A few words on feedback, part XI, in which I finally stop yammering on the subject and move on


Welcome to what I devoutly hope will be my last post for a while on strategies writers can use to wrest good feedback from their first readers. Last time — and probably a few times before, knowing me — I brought up the deer-in-the-headlights look that first readers often exhibit when asked post-read for commentary both more complex and more potentially usable than Oh, yeah, I liked it.

One would think that they might have at least suspected that some follow-up questions would be forthcoming, but I have it on good authority, through the excellent medium of listening to writers complain lustily about it for many years straight, that it isn’t always the case. Why, only a few days ago, intrepid reader Nadine posted an interesting observation about this phenomenon, in case you missed it.)

For the past few days, I’ve been talking about steps a writer can take to minimize the possibility of finding herself post-read without reader feedback that can be incorporated in the next draft. Today, I want to turn the question around, to discuss why intelligent, articulate first readers so often have this reaction.

Even when they loved the book. Strange but true.

In practice, first readers new to feedback-giving almost always experience some difficulty giving specific feedback. Oh, they may not say so point-blank, but you may notice them freaking out a little if they are asked pointed questions, as if the author had abruptly transformed into an IRS agent conducting a five-year audit.

If you doubt the pervasiveness of this reaction, you might want to spend a little more time at author readings. Audience members frequently freeze up if the author of a published book responds to their praise (or, heaven forefend, to a simple request to autograph the book) with, “Thanks — what was your favorite part?”

Note to self: don’t do this at future readings.

I don’t think that this reaction is due to a pervasive public perception that authors are godlike beings before whom the average reader should quail. (As much as some of us might like that to be the case.) No, ask for a detailed analysis of pretty much any written material, and most readers will suddenly find it difficult to breathe.

Even — and I find this fascinating — people who habitually recommend books to their friends will often balk if put on the spot.

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.

Poor souls, when an author asks their opinion of his book, they think they’re being asked IF they liked it, not why. If they didn’t know that they would be expected to cough up a more detailed response — usually why a writer seeking feedback asks first readers to start turning pages in the first place, right? — they tend to feel as defensive as if the author told them their opinion was wrong.

As if the author above had said to them, “You actually LIKED that trash? In heaven’s name, why?” rather than, “Please tell me what I did right in this book, so I may cater to that taste in my next, the one that my agent is breathing down my neck to produce while I’m on this book tour,” or even, “I am a seething mass of insecurities; please reassure me.”

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate.

Now do you understand why I’ve been so insistent about giving your first readers a study guide, so they’ll {know} what’s going to be on the test and can prepare accordingly? It’s the best way I know to bridge the communication gap and nip this common anxiety in the bud.

I’m not just saying this because I was the prof who habitually stopped mid-lecture to announce, “Gee, wouldn’t THAT make a fabulous final exam question? Let me repeat it a couple of times, so you can write it down.” (And yes, my department did hate that I did it; thanks for asking.) From the unprepared reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun.

They tense up because it’s not fair, strictly speaking.

Writers are far less likely to have this response, of course, for obvious reasons: usually, we were the folks who ruined the grade curve in English class. Hand us an essay question about a book we like (or hate), and we’ll go on for hours, won’t we?

But just for a moment, let’s try to identify with the vast majority of the population that does not instinctively respond with joy to being asked to produce a book report on the spot.

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?

How about 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. “What if I accidentally cite a DC Comic instead? Will I lose points?”

I like to call this the what color am I thinking? school of test-construction, because it requires the students to guess, with virtually no guidance, what the teacher wants to see in the essay. Short of sophisticated telepathy, how on earth is the student supposed to know what criteria will be used to judge her response?

We’ve all had teachers who put us in this uncomfortable position, right? 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. Because I value your time and my page space, I shall not reproduce one of her opus here, but trust me, those questions were epic.

My high school biology teacher, even 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.”

Half of my classmates instinctively clutched their chests, anticipating a heart attack. Did Mr. Young intend this as an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, an instruction to reproduce the entirety of The Origin of Species, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

Are these examples dredging up your long-buried responses to the kinds of exams that drove you nuts in school? Got that I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening feeling firmly in mind?

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, I would implore you to visit the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories at right with all possible speed), 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 have an ego the size of New Zealand, are being paid to do it, or both. Even then, it’s intimidating at first, but there are compensations.

If it’s any consolation for those of you who were told that your English degrees had no use in the real world, 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.

If you are using folks without either of those advantages as first readers, 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.

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. Even if you are not prey to nagging doubts about the quality of your writing in the dead of night — if you are, trust me, you are far from alone — I can virtually guarantee that at some point along even the most bump-free road to publication, you will appreciate having some concrete reasons to feel good about your book.

In case any of you had heard otherwise, very little about the publication process is designed to {reduce} a writer’s insecurities. Yet another reason that a good fit with one’s agent is a positive boon to an author: who better to reassure you about your inherent talent, worth as a human being, and general fabulousness while your book is making the rounds of editors?

But I digress, don’t I?

In your list of feedback criteria, 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? If you would appreciate references to specific page numbers (trust me: you do), either ask your reader to keep a list of ‘em or provide some sort of easily-attached tape flags.

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 those of you who haunt critique groups have started to wonder if coming up with such a list for fellow members wouldn’t be such a terrible idea prior to exchanging manuscripts, give yourself a gold star for the day.

It’s a good idea to tell your reader up front HOW you would like to receive feedback, too. It honestly isn’t self-evident. In the margins? On a separate piece of paper? As a bullet list to accompany verbal communication? Remember, the more writing you ask to receive, the more of a time commitment you are requesting, but unless you take shorthand or have a tape recorder always handy (which not all first readers will appreciate; ask), it’s hard to keep in mind everything said within a context of a conversation.

Think VERY carefully whether you really do prefer verbal feedback, though. Receiving critique can be a pretty intense emotional experience; if you don’t think you can keep saying, “Rework the running order completely? Thank you for suggesting that,” for half an hour straight, asking for written feedback may well be a better choice. (As a fringe benefit, it’s also more likely to be detailed.)

Oh, and do remember to mention up front whether you would like the manuscript back after the reader finishes with it; unless you ask for marginalia specifically, most readers will assume that it is theirs to keep — or recycle, as they see fit. If you expect its return and your first reader lives far away, it’s courteous to send along a SASE.

This is especially true if your manuscript is longer than the reader may have expected — just as agents and editors grow a trifle pale when a 600-page manuscript shows up in the mail, amateur readers tend to balk a little when handed a tome heavier than a lhasa apso. More pages equals more of a time commitment. If yours tops the infamous 400-page mark — where most pros would start to get nervous about marketability, incidentally — do tell your first reader that up front.

And finally, at every step throughout the process, observe my final tip: be HUGELY grateful for your first readers’ help — and express that gratitude early and often.

Yes, even if the feedback turns out not to be very helpful. As I keep mentioning, reading a manuscript with an eye to feedback is a far, far different thing than dipping into a book for sheer pleasure, no matter how polished the writing is. It’s hard; it’s merely polite to treat it as the favor it is.

The same holds true when you are the feedback-giver, to a certain extent: the more polite, specific, and clear you can be, the better the experience for everyone concerned.

Which means, of course, that if you find yourself on the receiving end of a manuscript, or in a critique group that does not already have guidelines for feedback established (fie!), it’s perfectly legitimate to ask for guidance BEFORE you begin reading. I’m quite serious about this: both you and the writer will be happier in the long run if you do.

And really, do you want to guess how someone you just met on an online forum or at a writers’ conference prefers to receive feedback? That’s the kind of challenge that can make even the best of readers freeze up.

You don’t want to trigger bad exam flashbacks, do you? Of course not.

As always, keep up the good work!

(PS: the nifty photo of the statue appears courtesy of the fine folks at FreeFoto.com, kindly filling in the gap until my digital camera is fixed.)

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