Inviting Reader Response

EllenMSWhen I wrote about Finding Preliminary Readers back in September, I hadn’t yet asked anyone to read my current work in progress. But that changed in June, when I reached that place where I could no longer see the forest for the trees; I needed new eyes on the page, and I needed to know what works and what doesn’t. It was time for me to follow my two rules for asking for feedback.

  • Rule 1: Tell your readers exactly what kind of feedback you want.

I queried ten different people, hoping two or three would be up to the task. They all said yes. This group includes people from every decade between twenty and ninety; it includes men and women; and the group represents a variety of professions: two high school English teachers (one retired, one current), a professional book reviewer, a physician, a carpenter, a fiber artist, a poet, an antiques dealer, a Jane Austen fan, and my agent. These are the instructions I sent them:

Thank you for reading Ellen. In addition to bearing witness to the work I’ve done over the past three years, here are other, specific ways you can help me finish the book:

  • Praise: Tell me what you like about the book – what characters, scenes, circumstances – anything and everything that you liked, in detail.
  • Tell me if and where you lose the thread of the story or have a question that you need answered to maintain your willing suspension of disbelief. Please tell me what your question is and where it arose.
  • Tell me where you yawn and/or lose interest.
  • Please alert me to typos, grammar, spelling.
  • Also let me know about inconsistencies, anachronisms, repetitions, dead ends.
  • It would be incredibly helpful to me to have your written synopsis of the book. What do you think it’s about?

Two things that would not be helpful and that I ask you to refrain from:

  • Suggestions about how to fix problems
  • Allowing anyone else to read this draft. In fact, I would like the hard copies returned to me and the electronic ones deleted from your machines when you are done.
  • Rule Two: Listen to what your readers tell you without defending your work.

Two readers have already responded. They both had questions and comments. Hard as it was, I just listened. I didn’t try to answer their questions or explain what I was trying to do. And I didn’t blame them for not getting it; I accepted responsibility for not being clear. I noted where they lost the thread of the narrative or didn’t believe the course of the action or wanted less or asked for more. Lest you think I’m inhuman, it wasn’t always easy to refrain from defending my work as it stands. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the comments that rankle the most are invariably the most salient.

I’ve also learned to let my work ferment. While the book is out with my readers, I’m doing other things, some writing-related, like updating and filing my clips, and some not, like heading to Maine for a week’s vacation. All the while, I’m thinking about the book, but I’m not actually delving into the typescript. For the time being, I’m just letting it sit.

dll2013_124x186Deborah Lee Luskin is looking forward to reading the novels of Virginia Woolf while vacationing in Maine.


32 thoughts on “Inviting Reader Response

  1. i hear ya. i went thru the same process recently. some criticism is hard to take but most really only helps you improve your work. but out of my 10 readers, only 2, maybe 3, had a real eye for it. so take it all in and then listen to yourself.

    • Yes, it’s hard and humbling to dissent – but so important! Even those who “don’t have an eye for it” must be considered, eve though there’s no pleasing everyone . . .

      • yes, everyone considered and respected, and it would be unwise to ignore any consistent critique, but like you said, you can’t please everyone and it’s your book.

  2. This step of the process seems to be a difficult one. I am pleased to read that I am not the only fearful person out there. But you have helped me see a way forward. Thank you and good luck.
    P.s. I hope Ellen is a good character, and book.

    • Difficult? yes. But the process makes for a better book.
      I hope my readers like both Ellen the character and Ellen the book! Thanks.

  3. ‘Ferment’ is a good word to describe the process of refinement. If I am permitted to supplement the thought further : All writings need to undergo a ‘brewing’ process as well, before these develop that heady quality – of intoxicating the readers!

  4. Great post! I am driven by those who give me advice for instance my husband who is a grammar buff, I ask him to edit my more important pieces for grammar mistakes. However when it comes to the message I am trying to convey I look to my daughter or sister for help. This is regarding my blog but for longer pieces I have not yet gotten to the point of wanting to share! Maybe some day. My gratitude is yours, Allie.

    • Yes, content and style are both important. It’s great that you’ve found different readers for different needs!

    • Criticism is hard – which is why I don’t ask for it. I ask for questions, which are different. I also never show anyone a first draft, which is way too fragile. The draft I’m sending out is maybe #12 – and something I’m confident has weight – and needs toning.
      Thanks for joining the conversation.

    • Thanks for your comment. I do think the guidelines are helpful, especially to my general readers – those who are not writers themselves.

  5. Such a great process. i love the wisdom behind you knowing that the most unwelcome advice is usually the best. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Feedback nurtures creativity. More important, of course, than “What did you like?” is “What didn’t you like?” At times the response is shattering, but it it is always helpful if the person you’re asking is qualified to answer. It’s good to listen to feedback, but ultimately the artist is the best judge. Listen closely but maintain confidence in your own vision.

  7. Pingback: Posts I loved this week | Taylor Grace

  8. Great advice! Some of the best feedback I’ve gotten have been from those reviews that were the hardest on my work.

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