Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On showing your work to trusted readers

I've participated in a couple of conversations lately about showing works in progress to friends before you show it to an editor. Many writers like to give their work to friends before they send it to an editor. They may want someone who cares about them to give them comments before an editor weighs in, or they may be seeking reassurance, or perhaps they don't feel ready to officially submit a piece. I'm generally not a fan of this approach, but if you are going to do it, the most valuable service the friends can provide is to act as trusted readers.

A trusted reader is not an editor. Editors, at least in theory (and with this clause I mean no offense to the many fine editors working today), have the skill and experience to comment as trusted readers and to act as story mechanics by spotting and fixing what's wrong or weak in your piece.

Trusted readers, at least to me, are people who meet the following qualifications:

* They read a great deal of the type of stuff you write. If they don't, then they aren't at all representative of your likely audience.

* They are willing to ignore your feelings and be completely honest. You gain nothing and lose a great deal when friends soft-peddle their opinions to protect your ego.

* They have nothing to prove and no ego attached to the job. If they want to show how smart they are, then they'll start trying to act as editors.
Assuming you've found one or more such people, here's all that should you ask them to do:
Please read this and tell me what you think of it.
No more, and no less. Your request should be exactly the same one you would make if you had not written the piece, if you were trying to decide whether to read a book or story and your friends were willing to help.

Of course, "what you think" is a mighty big category. In priority order, the trusted readers should ideally answer only these questions:
1) Did you enjoy it? If they didn't, then you know how at least these readers will receive the work.

2) How did it compare to similar published work you've read? Note we're talking published work, not other works-in-progress from other friends. If they shrug and say that it was about the same as what they like to read, that's actually pretty good praise, because it means you're hitting a professional mark.

3) What, if anything, particularly worked for you? This answer matters only in that it will help you learn how others see your work.

4) What, if anything, didn't work well for you? This response might suggest areas you should investigate--or it might not. You have to make that call.
The first two questions are drastically more important than the last two. In fact, if you're trying out a new trusted reader, I suggest you encourage them to answer only the first two.

Note that nowhere did you ask them for line-by-line critiques, commentary on the plot, etc. You want them to experience the piece as readers whose opinions you can trust (hence the "trusted reader" label).

All of the above leaves open two obvious questions: What do you do if you want detailed critiques, and, what do I do with my work? (I mention the latter because I've received this question many times.) I'll answer both of these in later posts.

6 comments:

J. Griffin Barber said...

Good to have confirmation that some of the things I am doing are 'right' or at least proven to have worked for others.

Mark said...

I'm always glad to help!

amosgirl said...

Thank you Mark. I'm going to try my best. Your post helped me know what I need to be doing and looking for and hopefully when to stop. We shall see. Amy

Mark said...

Glad to be of service, Amy!

Andrew said...

This seemed like a good thread to put this comment.

I am re-reading the Jon & Lobo books that I have now repurchased as e-books. I look forward to the next one in the series.

You have a great gift for moving the plot forward. The books are very readable, and I enjoy the time I get to read them.

Your books make me feel you again, returning me to my teenage years of enjoying adventure. It is my sincere hope you are inspiring others to take up the craft and write more along the path you have started.

Mark said...

Thank you so very much, Andrew, both for the support and for the very kind words. I greatly appreciate them. I hope you enjoy Children No More.

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