Writers need readers long before they present their work to their intended audience. Finding helpful readers for work-in-progress is necessary – and tough. Over the years, I’ve collected a group of readers I can trust with my new work, and I’ve developed a strategy that lets the readers know what kind of feedback I’m looking for and protects me from harmful criticism and useless praise.
I ask my early readers two questions: 1) What do you like? and 2) Where did you get lost, confused, bored or fed up? This is the only feedback I ask for, and I ask that my readers be as specific to my text as possible.
The first people who hear some of my work are those I write with at Wild Words Salon. At Salon, we write for an hour, then we read what we’ve just written aloud, and we tell each other what we heard that we liked. This feedback is often surprising and always helpful, as is this free writing, little of which is actually making it into my novel, although all of it has helped me figure out my characters and their stories.
I take all this praise, go home and write and write and write. Whenever I either grind to a halt or I’m so excited about a breakthrough, I read aloud to my husband. This could be a prescription for divorce, and it’s taken almost thirty years to figure out how to make this work.
Tim is a very good reader, but he’s also a physician, used to prescribing remedies. I’ve learned to ask him exactly what I want, which is usually, “Just listen,” as I read a section aloud. Often, simply hearing myself read is instructive. Then I ask him what he liked and if there was any place he became lost, or stopped believing the narrator. When he starts saying, “Why don’t you change . . .?” I say, “Please tell me what you missed; please don’t tell me how to fix it.” The big risk with any amateur reader is that s/he will tell you how they would rewrite your work. So it’s worth teaching your readers that what you value is their response, not their “fix”.
While I’m working on a book, I also start creating a list of potential readers, and I start sounding them out. I like to have variety: professional writers, avid readers, men, women, younger, older. I also like to have readers who have some depth of knowledge of anything I’ve had to research. In the case of Into the Wilderness, that included readers familiar with chamber music and Vermont politics; in the case of Elegy for a Girl (not yet published) that included people familiar with the post-war changes in Vermont’s transportation and agriculture. For Ellen, I’m sounding out readers familiar with the novels of Jane Austen, and women who are or have been married, as well as general readers of fiction.
When I have a draft I’m ready to show any of these readers, I’ll choose a few and ask them to 1) Let me know what they liked and 2) Let me know where they stumbled in the text – lost the thread, lost credibility, didn’t understand what was happening, what the motivation was, whatever. In both instances, I ask them to be as particular as possible, which is why I often spend the money to mail these readers printed typescripts to write on and return. Whenever possible, I take these readers out to lunch or invite them over for dinner, so we can talk about their reactions to the book in a friendly, mutually nurturing, atmosphere. With those readers who live too far away, I phone or Skype.
I always make sure not to send the book out to too many readers at once, for two reasons: the first is that I can only take in so much feedback at a time; the second is that I want to keep some of my readers in reserve – for the next iteration of the manuscript. It’s extremely helpful to have readers who are reading each draft for the first time.
Only when I’ve had at least these three sets of readers do I send the book to my agent, who is a wonderful reader. She will often see something that everyone else has missed, and I’ll rewrite again. Last time I sent her revisions, she objected to a single word – and she was absolutely right!
Finding readers during the development of a project is not the same as having a book edited. Editing – including fact checking, punctuation and proofreading – is an entirely different step, a step that comes after writing the best story you possibly can.
Deborah Lee Luskin is an essayist, educator and novelist. She lives in southern Vermont and on the web at www.deborahleeluskin.com