At some point in our writing careers, most of us want to find readers for our work, readers who can give us useful feedback and whose names we’ll generously include in the acknowledgements when our book is published.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the acknowledgements for any book on your shelf and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s a small sample from my own library:
“Among the trusted readers who’ve helped me hone this book, I want to give particular thanks to…”
“…helped restructure and refine the early draft into a much superior book.”
“It is with the grace of Providence that I was led into the company of the following people, whose generosity, enthusiasm, and good shepherding sustained me in writing this book…”
The folks who appear in your acknowledgements play no small part in the writing.
I’ll be honest – what we all want is to come to the final line of a story or poem or book and be able to sit back knowing we’ve created – all by ourselves – a masterpiece. Writing is, after all, a solitary pursuit. We don’t need an orchestra to make beautiful music. Or do we?
And so we come to choosing our readers. How do we do this to get the kind of feedback that will help us, readers we trust, readers with enthusiasm and generosity as well as keen eyes and hearts brave enough to be honest with us? Readers whose names will be included in our books?
Beyond that, how do we set aside our own egos in order to hear what a brave and intelligent reader might tell us?
I have one particular reader who has been with me through nearly my entire writing career. He is not a writer. He’s an internationally known jazz musician who loves to read. His comments to me are always astute and helpful, intelligent and thoughtful. I can’t imagine going forward with a big project without his eyes on it.
I generally also ask at least two other people to read the material and the choice depends somewhat on the material. When I finished the first “polished” draft of a novel that had a lot to do with the Vietnam war, I asked someone who’d been there and was a writer, to give me feedback. Since the novel was what is now called “women’s fiction,” I also asked a couple of women who read a lot of good books to take a look.
And I never ask anyone to give me feedback unless I provide them with a few guidelines: What questions do I have about the work? About specific scenes and characters? What do I want to know about the clarity of the writing? What’s missing? Was anything confusing?
Readers are a bit at a loss when facing a book-length manuscript without such guidance, and you’re likely to just get back general comments like, “I enjoyed it.” You’ll be glad to know this, but it won’t help you much as a writer. Or they might start editing – correcting your punctuation and spelling. This is not the kind of feedback you need until you’re ready for an editor.
More than anything else, I ask my readers to simply let me know what works and what doesn’t work.
This is perhaps the most useful strategy in making readers feel comfortable and also in steering readers away from judgmental terms like “good” or “bad.” It’s important because less courageous readers are not going to tell you something is “bad” even though it may be a chapter or a passage that needs to be fixed.
Your friends and your mother will tell you it’s “good,” but more often than not this is because they love you and not because it says anything about the writing.
“Does it work?” is much more likely to elicit feedback you can really use.
My last piece of advice about readers is this: When you get all that feedback, read through it and then put it aside. The urge to accept all suggestions or the urge to reject them as having been made by people who were not nearly as intelligent as you’d believed are both likely to take you down a bumpy road.
Give yourself time to think about the suggestions and then, oh a couple of weeks or a month or two months later (this happened to me), pull them out again, decide which of them make sense to you and get started on your revisions.
In your idle moments, you can start writing those acknowledgements. Be sure you get the names right.