As writers, we love (and hate) feedback. However long it takes us to produce a story or a book, in the end, when we feel ready, we can’t wait to surrender it to someone who’ll point out its flaws and merits. But that in a sense is an editor’s job. The job of a beta reader is to look beyond what needs to be ‘fixed’ and focus on helping the writer imagine and realize her creation more fully. There’s always a degree of anxiety when handing work over to beta readers, workshop peers, agents and the people who we hope will buy our work. A critique can shatter or bolster our confidence, and it can be damaging if we don’t know how to give and take it.
The sole purpose of offering up a critique is to help the writer develop her work. Personal likes and dislikes shouldn’t come into it while a project is still in draft form. Comments like, “This is not my kind of book,” or “I don’t like leprechauns, so I couldn’t identify with your leprechaun protagonist,” have the same effect on a writer as a pin on a balloon. It says more about the critic than the writer, and it does nothing for the work. By the time a writer sends a novel off to an agent or publisher, it’s implied that the work is finished, and most of us have received rejections that reflect the kind of personal response that sheds almost no light on our writing or story. Workshop reviews offer a different kind of feedback–we’re working with a writer to improve a work-in-progress and offering input that will illuminate her process. Our objective is to help her gain fresh perspectives, new insight and in the process of engaging with the work, enrich her own original vision. A good place to start is to engage with the author’s intention and what she’s trying to achieve. When in doubt, ask questions.
How are the elements of craft synthesizing, and are there areas that the writer could explore more deeply? Offer suggestions such as off-the-page experiments, which can be incredibly helpful, even cathartic in clarifying foggy spots. For instance, the fact that John sold his mother’s ruby pin when he was three might never appear in the novel, but it will say something about why he goes to jail at twenty for armed robbery.
Consider what’s on the page
We bring ourselves to just about everything we do, so a personal response to a story is inevitable. Try to decide whether your response has to do with all the stuff that makes us who we are. We don’t only bring ourselves to the table but our history, culture, hang-ups, preferences and phobias.
Consider what the writer might do off the page to expand or condense the narrative
If for example, a main character lacks depth, that may be exactly the writer’s intention: to create a character who goes through life without a single thought in his head. If it’s not the writer’s intention, then suggest ways she might experiment off the page by planting random thoughts in that character’s psyche. Again, these may never appear in the novel, or they might, but the exercise will enrich and expand characterization.
This is often not easy to do, and we need to be clear about what we want, at least to ourselves. If we’re only after praise, then we’re in for a rude awakening, because readers who are asked to critique something usually do exactly that. They’ll often rummage to find things to ‘fix,’ digging into the story to reveal its shortcomings, (unless they’re Mom or Dad, who think we’re bloody marvelous whatever we do). Sharing a work-in-progress is an act of trust. We believe the reader means us well and wants us to produce the best writing we’re capable of. In an environment where the unspoken rules of workshop etiquette are observed, that trust is appropriate, but a critique can be disempowering if it’s not. One of Caryn’s previous posts takes a closer look at Surviving the Biology of Negative Feedback–tips I for one could definitely use.
Consider the source
Although a peer might mean well and try to offer feedback that focuses entirely on the story, she may cross the line into that shadowy place where personal likes and dislikes, prejudices and frustrations gatecrash the party. She may just be that reader who never reads fantasy and who is now having to grind her teeth through Bing the Dragon’s Adventures in Netherland.
Consider the consensus
If you have more than one person reading, see where their observations converge. If forty people identify an area that could be more richly imagined, odds are it’s an area that could be more richly imagined.
Consider your own verdict
Ultimately, it’s our work and we get to decide what to keep or discard. For that reason, we walk a fine line between humility and authority, and once we consider the points of view of readers who’ve had their say, we need to revisit our work with an altered perception that might open up new dimensions.
In the scramble to assess whether our work is good enough to launch, feedback from a wise, well-meaning, smart reader is priceless. Reading consumes chunks of time, concentration and energy, so hang on to those who’ll be brave enough to do it and give you honest, discerning feedback. You’ll recognize meaningful feedback because it resonates long after all the other judgments have fallen away. And it’s a great way to become a better writer.