Sunday, November 23, 2014

5 Things Your First Readers
Won’t Tell You (But Should)

by Art Holcomb

Writers work almost entirely in the head, isolated and alone - whether in a quiet office, a busy Starbuck’s or in the den with a four-year old playing tea party with her bear around your feet. 
It’s just the nature of the beast.
And, at some point - certainly before any given piece of writing is sent to an agent or editor -  and probably just after you have written something particularly clever – you’ll want (actually NEED) to show it to someone, and allow them to bask in the glow of your creative brilliance and remind you that you are loved and beautiful.
You’ll print the piece out or email it to the person you trust most and then smile and wait for the accolades to come in to refill your emotional tank.
Be careful.  There’s something you should know . . .
It’s may be a trap. 
Because you are probably choosing the wrong person for the wrong reasons to be your First Reader.
According to a major university study, more that 85% of all artists (including writers, painters, sculptors, etc.,) turn to a family member or loved one for the first opinion of their work, and more than 75% of those will seek out friends and loved ones exclusively.
Now, feedback comes in all kinds of sizes, shapes, colors and concentration.  Positive feedback can make you continue with a bad project or head down a dead end road.  Negative feedback can put the skids on a project that is on the verge of showing incredible promise. Either situation can be deadly.
Because there’s a lot at stake for you emotionally and professionally, consider the following possible things that these first reader might want to tell you but can’t.  This is especially true when giving the work to a loved one or friend because - the real problem is – you like these people and they would very much like that to continue:
(1)   I’m worried about your reaction and I don’t want to offend you. Young writers never react well to bad news.  They see criticism of the work as criticism of themselves – it’s only natural.  The reader may think: I don’t want you unhappy with me so I’ll be passive and will color my responses – So . . . I’ll just be encouraging!
(2)   I might not have enough time to do your piece justice and so I’ll just give it a positive review. S/he’ll be happy with that. Time can be critical – it is a major investment in time and energy to read a draft of a novel so as to offer any kind of meaningful criticism. Few people realize that when they agree to read your work. 
(3)   The subject/genre/medium doesn’t interest me – and so I can’t get deep enough into it to give a fair reaction.  Personally, I love science fiction and mysteries but don’t care for fantasies.  I always come into reviewing a new SF experience with excitement.  If I’m asked to review a fantasy novel, I’m approaching it at a deficit from the very beginning.  I’m not the right guy for the fantasy first read - if what you’re looking for is objectivity. This can be a vital piece of information that you need!
(4)   I just don’t want to read it – no matter what it is – but saying so may hurt your feeling or make me seem like a jerk. Enough said.
(5)   I might have an agenda of my own: Writers are vulnerable and it is an act of trust that we put ourselves and our work out there in another’s hands and say “Do your worst.” You need to be sure of the readers motivations. You can often find in critique groups writers that want only praise for their own work, while always having a bad thing to say about anyone else’s. Agenda are important!

So, when the time comes for a first opinion about your new work, keep in mind - the relationship between artist and critic is a powerful and oft-times fragile one.  
You should keep in mind the following:
Be sure you know what you want from your First Reader from the very beginning. If you are looking for general impressions and encouragement to go on, then someone who likes to read and enjoys books could give you what you’re looking for.  If instead you’re looking for a technical critique, you will need an experienced (and published) fellow writer or editor (and hopefully someone working in your genre).
Never let anyone read your first RAW draft! No matter how much you need technical help or validation, this work is never ready to show around until you have had some editorial passes to it for structure, characterization and story issues.  Take the time and make sure you’re giving them something that reflects your best and considered effort.  One of the worst things that can happen is to give the reader a raw draft and then several other drafts as the stories change; the mind cannot help but average them all together, making the changes harder to track and polluting their impressions of your finished work.
The real value of a First Reader is to tell you where the story LOSES HIS/HER INTEREST. That will lead you to the areas that need work. Pay very close attention to that - if you’ve lost them on page 145, you’ll lose your fans there as well, and that would be the real tragedy.

Due Diligence is the key: Take your ego out of the equations and find the best person available to give you a fair and honest appraisal. Writers and criticism circles can be great, and never have there been more professional services available to you to help develop your stories – but be careful, not everyone who advertises their services are equally qualified.  Best to stay with people you trust.  People you can develop a long term relationship with.


  1. Stay turned for more tips next week!

  2. Hi Art,

    Just getting over to your blog, thanks to having it linked over at Storyfix, BTW. Bookmarking you for further inspiration as I really enjoy your strategies and commentary on writing.

    As far as first readers, you've really hit the mark. Family members make the worst critics. In fact, anyone who is a non-writer can only only offer either encouragement or vague ideas that something is off without understanding the specifics.

    It continues to amaze me that with so much information available to writers today that was unheard of not too many years ago, that so many people come to the table totally unprepared. Writers may be alone inside their own heads when it comes to the work, but do they have to come to the page in ignorance? I think it all comes down to those pesky "rules" no one seems to like. Most people have an aversion to learning anything under the heading of rules for fear of being boxed in, selling out, or just not being able to do what they want to do. Hogwash!

    It's really something writers need to get out of their heads. Because what passes for rules in any of the arts does not come under the standard definition for rules in most other areas of life. Sure, there are a lot of vague books on the subject of writing out there. Even some of the better ones may seem confusing until you learn a bit of the lingo. But learning craft should seem exciting. If not, whay do you want to write a novel anyway? Craft deepens your knowledge, gives an understanding of techniques that can take your word-play from flabby to that of a lean, mean writing machine. Imagine a painter attempting a portrait with no knowledge of anatomy, or a city block without understanding perspective. It sounds ridiculous because we all know that painter isn't likely to come up to par. Maybe if they are persistent, they'll figure out by trial and error what some of the basic things a professional painter might've taught them in 8 or 12 months. Yet writers insist they can do it all the time because it's "only words." As if words were not as vibrant as any paint, sculpted like granite, or composed like a symphony.

    The most honest of friends and family can possibly tell you that your work is good if the potential for a good idea is there--in their opinion. Or they can also squash you flat, nip that nasty creative streak in the bud because you're going against the grain of what passes for normal in the life of most non-creative folks. Possibly the best reason of all right there not to show your work to someone who doesn't share your dream.

    I might also add that even the most avid readers come at stories from a completely different angle than a writer.