Getting good feedback, part XII: making it easy to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — and congratulations, Governor Gary!


In the interests of broad inclusiveness, I try not to delve into politics much here at Author! Author! — no easy feat for someone who has spent as much time as I have writing platforms, let me tell you — but today, I can’t resist cheering a bit: hooray for former Washington Governor Gary Locke, just nominated to be Secretary of Commerce!

I’d been hearing the rumors for some time — in caucus states, the politically-involved tend to talk to one another, even outside campaign season — but I wanted to wait until it was official before I added my congratulations. How pleased am I, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: if I weren’t genuinely happy about this appointment, would I have posted a photograph featuring my now-happily-vanished second chin?

Seriously, Governor Gary, as he is known chez Mini, is precisely the kind of person who ought to be in politics: smart, well-meaning, and actually sincere, a policy wonk whose face lights up when discussing soft timber trade issues. (Don’t laugh; it’s perennially at the top of US-Canadian trade talks.) During his tenure in the governor’s mansion, he positively littered Asia with Washington apples, yet was environmentally-conscious enough to establish himself as “Governor Salmon” — wild ones, that is, the kind that need stewardship to keep from going extinct.

I ask you, writers: is that a nickname that would be even vaguely plausible in a novel? Of course not. So imagine Washingtonians’ surprise when Governor Gary started referring to himself that way, as if he were planning to swim upstream to spawn any minute.

But did we all pay attention to the plight of the endangered salmon? You bet.

I wasn’t kidding about his being a superlative policy wonk. Marvelous choice, President Obama — and a brave one, considering the issues that are likely to come up during his confirmation hearing. Best of luck to all concerned.

Okay, let’s return to our series already in progress. Stop picturing a besuited salmon taking the oath of office from a grizzly bear with a timber wolf nodding meaningfully in the background; it’s time to get back to work.

This will be 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, most of the people to whom you might be thinking of handing your manuscript — and, for the vast majority of aspiring writers, whose query letters have not yet borne fruit, the source of most actual requests to read it.

After I signed off yesterday, I had the strange sensation that some of you still had your hands raised with questions about how to set up a productive feedback situation with an inexperienced first reader. “Whoa, there, baby,” some of you must have been wondering, “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, oh hand-raisers, 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. For a crash course in writerly self-promotion, check out the Bette Midler/Nathan Lane film about Jacqueline Susann, Isn’t She Great? It’s not the best-constructed movie ever made, but it is stuffed to the gills — sorry, Governor Salmon — with great ideas for book promotion.) 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 to be 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 throughout this series, doing the writer a great big favor, particularly if she is also a non-writer. Other than the pleasure she may derive from reading your doubtless charming prose and the I-got-there-first gloating rights several years hence when your tome hits the bestseller lists, he’s unlikely to get much out of the unquestionably difficult task of figuring out how a manuscript could be improved and conveying those suggestions gently to a possibly extremely sensitive author. (As opposed to professional readers, who tend to be paid to give feedback on manuscripts, or members of writers’ groups, who are receiving critique in return.)

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 prior to 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 at all. 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 substantive, useable feedback.

To that end, I advised you yesterday to give your first readers a list of questions, preferably in writing, before you entrust them with your 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, successful first-reader wrangling 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 constructive feedback — as opposed to the more frequently-heard vague murmurs of, “Oh, it’s great.” — but putting one’s wee foot down and insisting that other people take it seriously as well.

Personally, I find doing this empowering, but over the years, quite a few of my loyal, intelligent, talented advisees have informed me that they find this last 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 their first readers’ reading ability, if not actual intelligence.

To put it more bluntly than they usually do, they believe that only a moron would not understand without being told the fundamental difference between valuable input that might help a writer revise a manuscript and a dismissive, “I liked it,” or between a close read by a smart person who expects to be questioned about her opinion and a casual skim by someone merely curious about what his cousin has been working on in his spare time, or even between substantive feedback and “Oh, I hated that part.”

In other words, they believe that everyone who might conceivably read their books will think like a writer, not like a reader — and like a writer intent on revision to boot. That’s a mistake, because the demands of revision are far from intuitive. There are plenty of brilliant readers who have absolutely no idea what kind of information a reviser might find helpful.

Unless, of course, the feedback-seeking writer tells them.

If any admonition beyond Just tell me what you think still 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 possibly be expected to perform the same task without similar assistance?

Think about that one for a while. I’ll ponder the future of wild salmon while I 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.

Besides, you do have some questions about the text you would like answered, don’t you, some fears you would like allayed? Chances are that you do. Unless a writer is a dyed-in-the-wool narcissist incapable of considering the possibility that anything he created is less than perfect in every way, he usually has some idea of where his 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 help get the feedback flowing — but don’t feel compelled to use the same set of questions for every first reader. Specialize. 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 personal 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?”

“My protagonist is an accountant, just as you are. Would you mind making a note on anything she does that seems unprofessional to you, or if the way her year unfolds, particularly during tax season, seems implausible? If you could keep track of the relevant page numbers, that would be great.”

“The last agent who saw this said it was about fifty pages too long, and I know from going to movies with you what a good sense you have for when a scene has gone on too long. t would be really helpful to me if you could tip me off about where the plot seems to drag a little.”

“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.”

That third one made the hair on the back of your neck wiggle, didn’t it? Yes, what you thought as soon as you read it is in fact accurate: few first readers will make notes of the pages where they have spotted problems unless the feedback-seeking writer asks them in advance to maintain such a list.

Remember what I said earlier about the practicalities of giving good feedback not being intuitive? I’ve seen first readers mention proofreading problems without citing page numbers.

Oh, you may laugh, but think about it: why would a reader be aware that saying, “There are misused semicolons on pages 8, 22, 68, 104, and 203,” will be a suggestion far less time-consuming for a writer to implement than, “You don’t always use semicolons correctly or consistently,” if she’s never seen a manuscript before? Since manuscript format differs in so many ways from book format (and if that’s news to you, I urge you to proceed with all possible speed to the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category on the archive list at right), how is she to know whether what looks strange to her is important enough to risk offending the writer by mentioning?

As the feedback-requester, it is the writer’s job to make her role clear to her. Not only will being clear and specific about your expectations result in better critique, but it will render your first reader’s task more pleasant.

Your first reader is entitled to courtesy, after all: 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. Best of luck throughout the confirmation process, Governor Gary, and everyone, keep up the good work!

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