There comes a time in the life of every work-in-progress when you want to share your writing with readers to see how it is working outside of your own head. Maybe you’re sharing a scene with a writing group, or a chapter with a workshop, or a whole manuscript with a group of beta readers. This is always a moment to be very intentional – and very careful. So much damage can be done because you are often feeling very vulnerable and as a result, it's easy to make mistakes.
Here are three of the most common errors I see writers make when sharing their work-in-progress.
1. Giving the work to the wrong people at the wrong time
As I said above, I always advise people to be very intentional about this step in the creative process – to know why you’re sharing the work and what you hope to get out of it, and then to carefully select the right readers to give you what you need. Imagining that people can read your mind about what you need is a recipe for disaster The same is true for secretly hoping that your readers will simply love your work and validate your vision and lift you up and erase all your doubts about your ability and your worthiness and your story. It’s just never going to happen.
So define exactly what you need at this stage of the process, and choose the right people to give it to you. Literally write down your criteria as if you were hiring someone for the job then select people you know are willing and able to help in those specific ways.
- If the work is very new and fragile and you just want someone to say, “Keep going,” it would be a mistake to give that work to a friend or relative who’s going to rip it apart. You want to find readers who understand the creative process, who are perhaps in it themselves, and who know that at certain times, you just need a little kind encouragement.
- If you are looking to get a sense of the sweep of the whole story, and how the pacing and flow are working, don’t give it to a nit-picking grammar-loving guy who worked as a copywriter in the newspaper biz his whole life.
- If you ARE wanting a nit-picking grammar guy to find every last little error before you send the work to an agent, then DO pick the newspaper friend.
A corollary to this warning is that if you can’t find the right people, don’t settle. Hold off on sharing your work until you can attend a workshop or conference and meet the right people, or until you can afford a professional evaluation.
The second corollary to this warning is to beware of choosing your life partners as beta readers. Even if they love you and your work, and are involved in creative work themselves, they may be a poor choice. Make absolutely sure that they meet your criteria
2. Failing to tell your readers exactly what you need
Once you define what you need from your readers, make sure you actually communicate it to them, with as much specificity as possible.
- Is there a one- or a three-week deadline by which you would like feedback returned?
- Can they write on the pages you give them or make notes on an electronic version? Or would you prefer a simple summary or phone call to follow up?
- Are there questions you would like them to have in their head before they start reading?
- Are there questions you would like them to review once they are finished reading?
- Should they tell you if they get bored or confused or think you are wasting your time and should take up tomato farming instead?
My 21-year-old daughter recently asked me to read something of hers. She said," I wrote this. Hold it in your hands gently..."
I spend my days giving tough love to writers who are serious about getting published, and she knows that. This was the ideal way for her to communicate to me what she wanted from me.
3. Not claiming your right to ignore feedback that doesn't serve you.
The hardest thing to do when it comes to reader feedback is to ignore it, but in certain situations, it is imperative to do so. What you are looking for is feedback that resonates with something you believe to be true about the work – a place you knew was weak, a place where you tried to get away with something. The goal is to bring the work on the page as close as you can to the vision in your head. You are not trying to match someone ELSE’S vision, and you are absolutely, definitely, 100% not trying to meet the “vision” of a committee of readers.
So if a critique comes out of left field, or no one else has said anything at all similar, or it just feels wrong (as in you think the feedback is bizarre or that the person giving it is being vindictive or clueless, or you can’t figure out where on earth they came up with the thing they are saying) you must ignore it. And I mean totally dismiss it.
This advice assumes that you are open to actual, honest and possibly negative feedback about the work; that you are prepared to have to do a lot of hard work once you get the feedback; and that you are seeking feedback because you want to be a better writer. This is not permission to just say, “All my readers don’t get me so I shall write whatever the heck I want to write and ignore all of them.” It’s permission to assess one particularly bizarre bit of feedback and, if warranted, to ignore it.
How do you confidently make such as assessment?
It just happened to a client of mine, whom I shall call John. Some of the details of this story have been changed to protect people’s identities, but the story is real.
John prepared a finished novel manuscript to go out to a small group of 5 readers, whom he selected for specific reasons, among those being an affinity for the topic of the story, membership in his target audience, and first-hand knowledge of the world of financial institutions and Wall Street.
Feedback from the readers trickled in with some great, actionable advice to shore up a subplot and clarify a character’s intentions. One reader asked if a friend could also read the book and give feedback, because she liked it so much and she thought this friend would have great feedback to add to the mix. All readers were enthusiastic and full of praise even as they gave their honest assessment for ways to make the work better.
One of his readers was a colleague in the Wall Street world, and when John got back this guy’s feedback, he wrote me this email:
"Okay, so that’s the last time I ask this “friend” to read anything, ever. He ignored everything I asked him to do and wrote 22 pages of everything he found wrong with my book—which was pretty much everything from the premise to the style to the characters to that Nasdaq scene, which he didn’t buy at all. Said it wouldn’t be possible. As you know, I had a trader friend of mine also read it—he suggested a few minor changes, but felt, for the sake of my story it was accurate (simplified, yes, but plausible). I guess I will go through this reader’s notes to see if there are things he picked up on that I agree could be changed/fixed (the whole Nasdaq scene? The whole story rests on that scene!), but it was all pretty harsh and I have to say that I’m not looking forward to it."
I immediately wrote back and said, “DON’T DO IT.” I urged John to ignore this friend’s feedback – to literally not open those 22 pages again. Because while it was kind for this friend to agree to be a beta reader, he didn’t play by the rules.
- He didn’t fill out the simple one-page Q&A John asked for
- He took the opportunity to rip the work apart in every way
- He did not offer any helpful or encouraging feedback in his 22-page missive
- He clearly did not understand the creative process or what John needed at this time
- He was mean-spirited in a way that suggested that he did not have John’s best interests in mind – In fact, I suggested that perhaps he was jealous, and John later concurred that several things led him to believe this was true.
When I gave John permission to ignore the feedback, he was SO relieved. He asked, “Really? Can I?”
And I said, “YES!!!!!”
A huge part of becoming the writer you were meant to become is learning to listen to your own creative instincts and to trust them. Sending work out to readers is supposed to help you hone your voice and instincts, not tear them down.
In the brand new masterclass on writing for young people that Judy Blume (!!!) just launched -- her first-ever online course offering -- she tells a story in the course intro about receiving a terrible review and falling into despair and wanting to smash her typewriter. At the last moment, she said to herself, "WAIT! You're going to let this one review stop you from being a writer? That's crazy!"
That's the mantra we should all adopt -- even from a critique from a "friend" who you invited into your creative process at the very start of the process.
P.S. In January 2018, Author Accelerator will be introducing beta-reader matching events as part of our forthcoming membership program. We won't do the matching for you, but we will hold events so you can align with like-minded writers who are equally serious about getting their work into the world. We will also offer training to help you share your work in a way that will be supportive and additive rather than mean and destructive.