I’m a terrible first reader.
I say that honestly, not because I’m asking for people to disagree. For years, I was the youngest writer by decades in various round table critique groups or classes I’ve taken. People handled me with kid gloves because they thought I needed encouragement, not solid advice and honest opinions about what was and wasn’t wrong with my work.
As a result, I developed a habit of being brutally honest and pulling no punches when I critiqued their work in hopes that they would get angry enough at me to rip mine apart the way I wanted it to be.
Unfortunately a lot of writers take a critique of their work to be a critique of who they are as a person, and that just isn’t true. Still, the way I critique can and has reduced people to tears. I’m not proud of it, and lord knows I’m not always right (or even right some of the time). I know the way I see things is only one person’s point of view, and I don’t mind when the writer whose work I critique decides that she doesn’t agree with something I’ve said.
What gets to me, however – and not just when I’m critiquing, but when other people critique – is when the writer doesn’t listen at all.
Instead of weighing the critique and asking herself why the reader had a problem with a certain thing, she immediately goes on the defensive. She doesn’t stop to consider that the people critiquing are also the people who may one day see her book on shelves and decide whether or not to buy it.
Fact of the matter is, when you do this, you’re only hurting yourself and your chances of being published.
Learning to take constructive criticism is hard. It took me years to learn to sit down and shut up while other people were talking about my stuff. Having someone, whether they’re a perfect stranger or your best friend, rip up something you’ve worked so hard on, something that oftentimes reflects you, is hellish. It never gets better. It always stings. Sometimes you will cry. There’s no shame in that.
But never, ever, ever disregard them completely, unless they:
1.) Are legitimately out to sabotage you. And no, these people are not a dime a dozen. In fact, unless you’ve ruined their marriage, run over their dog, and sabotaged their career, chances are this person doesn’t exist. And anyway, why on earth would you ask that kind of person for a critique?
2.) There is no 2.
Taking critique is hard. We all know that. But what you have to remember is that with every critique comes an opportunity to improve your work.
To make it better.
To turn it into something that hordes of people will pick up off the shelf and shell out their hard-earned money to buy.
This is why you should be excited about getting opinions – not because you think that someone will tell you that your story is the best thing they’ve ever read. (If they have, you should probably ditch that person as a first reader, or at the very least keep someone else around who will tell you the truth.)
Editing is a chance to improve. No one gets everything right the first time, the second time, the third time, the fourth time… I can’t tell you how many drafts I’ve done of The Goddess Test at all stages. Close to twenty. Not all drafts have included major changes, but I never read through something I’ve written without making some kind of change. And getting someone’s opinion on what to change is not only invaluable and oftentimes gives me even more ideas on how to improve the story, but it could mean the difference between getting signed and not.
Think about it – who would you rather have catch the issues in your story? A first reader or an agent? Or worse, an editor?
Let me tell you, getting rejection after rejection from various editors was not fun. It hurt a hell of a lot more than getting rejected by agents.
Speaking of, we get so focused on writing for agents and editors that sometimes we forget that while they’re a very important part of the equation, they don’t decide whether you sink or swim. The reader does.
I have two fantastic first readers: Caitlin and Sarah. They read my material quickly, they give me honest feedback, and I couldn’t be more thankful for them and the work they do.
They also have two very different styles of critiquing. Sometimes, when one of them mentions an issue I don’t think is there, I’ll wait for the second critique to come in, and if the second one make no mention of it, I’ll ask her directly what they think of the problem the first person brought up. And even if the second person tells me the first is imagining things, I’ll still consider it and often come back to it on a later draft.
Occasionally they bring up something that, while they think is off, I think works, and I can give solid reasons why I think it works. (Whether I’m right or not…) But you know what I’ve learned?
First readers are almost always right.
Sometimes they get it wrong, but you know what? If they bring up a problem, they bring it up for a reason. Something feels off to them, and maybe they’re not entirely sure what it is yet, but something is wrong.
And trust me, something is always wrong. It might not be the exact thing they pinpointed, but something is off, and as the writer, my job is not to sit there and defend my work for hours upon hours. You don’t get to do that when it’s off in the real world. My job is to read my own writing with a critical eye and figure out where I went wrong. Maybe it’s something small, or maybe it’s something big. And if it’s something big, that can very easily mean the difference between a contract and nada, so you bet your ass that I’m going to do everything I can to fix the problem.
I want to write things people want to read. Not every writer does, but I do, and a huge part of my process is getting feedback. It isn’t easy, and it hurts, but you know what?
In the end, I am always thankful for the people who took the time – sometimes hours out of their busy schedules – to read what I wrote and tell me what they thought.
Because the moment you stop appreciating the effort they put into your work and listening to what they have to say – really listening and weighing their opinions – that’s the moment you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
Don’t do that.