Writers hear it all the time – connect with your reader. Give the reader what he wants. Manager her expectations. Don’t confuse them. Surprise them. Keep them interested.
These are all worthy goals, but they’re after the fact. First, you write, then you get feedback. Feedback lets you gauge how well you’re getting your message across, and whether you can keep someone interested enough to go on turning the pages.
Like everything else in life, feedback can be good, bad, useful, useless. How do you tell the difference?
First, start with a majority opinion. If you write a short story and ten people read it, and all ten raise questions about your main character’s motivation, you should think that through. If ten people read it and you get back ten comments all about something different, that’s not going to help you much.
Feedback, then, from a group is excellent for showing you something that’s really off, really out of place, and really needs to be address and improved. Comments that ask why your protagonist is wearing a green shirt, for instance, probably won’t steer you towards a better narrative.
Get feedback from good readers. Sometimes it’s hard to know beforehand if a reader is good or not. Try not to look for feedback from people close to you, unless you know for a fact that they’re widely read, have eclectic tastes in books, and like to talk about what they’re learning from the books they pick up. Otherwise, people who love you tend to spare you the awful but necessary truth about your work.
If you’re in a book club, and some of the members make excellent insights week after week, approach them and see if they’d be willing to take a look at something of yours. You can also take a class and hope that the other students are sharp, though if they’re not, then presumably your teacher or professor will shed valuable light on your pages.
A good reader, offering good feedback, is going to point you in a direction, not rewrite your manuscript. Let’s say you write a story about a woman living alone in a house where she spends hour after hour looking out the window at a neighbor’s home wondering about the people who live there.
You might get a comment like this: “The story has no core,” or “This is a ‘how things are for this character’ piece, not an actual story.” When you consider these remarks, you might (ideally) conclude that you need to make something actually happen, either to the woman in the house or to the people she’s watching, to really engage the next reader.
Here’s another example. You write about a man who wants to find his father after many years. Their relationship had been hard, and the man broke it off, refusing all attempted contact. He tracks him down, they meet, they reunite. Great, right? Wrong. An astute reader will point out that you haven’t made clear to the reader why the man wants this reunion now. There’s a crucial plot point missing from the page. Without it, the story is incomplete. Maybe the man has come into money, or his wife just left him, or he’s learned that his time on earth is limited. The reader needs to be inside the man’s head enough so that the search, after so long a time, makes sense.
Ideally, good feedback teaches you what questions to ask yourself. This, in turn, leads to the essential skill all writers must obtain – self-editing. You have to learn to decide for yourself if your work is strong enough for publication. The questions you entertain can be thought of as a sort of list, items to check off when you’ve written a good draft and are ready for the next step. For instance, your list could look like this?
- Is my character a plausible person? Can the reader really picture him?
- Is it clear what he wants and why?
- Does the dialog sound natural, or does it seem staged and sort of clunky?
- Is the setting both evocative and appropriate to the central story?
- Does the pacing move well, does it get bogged down, or zoom ahead skipping over important plot points?
- Is everything explained to the reader, or is just enough shown for the reader to draw her own conclusions and therefore have a personal stake in the outcome of the story?
There are a lot more questions and items on your checklist, of course, but these are a good place to start when you’re seeking feedback from good, fair, experienced readers.
Lastly, try hard not to be upset or offended by constructive criticism – as long as it is constructive. Writing is a life-long endeavor for the truly committed, so take it slow, take your time, and keep at it, no matter what!
Anne Leigh Parrish’s debut novel, What Is Found, What Is Lost, came out in October 2014 from She Writes Press. Her second story collection, Our Love Could Light The World (She Writes Press, 2013) was a finalist in both the International Book Awards and the Best Book Awards. Her first collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home (Press 53, 2011) won a silver medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards. She is the fiction editor for the online literary magazine, Eclectica. She lives in Seattle.
What Is Found, What Is Lost: A Novel (She Writes Press, October 2014), Finalist in the Literary Fiction category of the 2015 International Book Awards
Our Love Could Light The World: Stories (She Writes Press, 2013), Finalist the short story category of the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards; Finalist in both the 2013 International Book Awards and the 2013 Best Books Awards
All The Roads That Lead From Home: Stories (Press 53, 2011), 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards Silver Medal Winner
Category: On Writing