Last week in the “Negotiating the Ocean of Story” post, I found that Tamara’s question gave me an opportunity to ask you and all the others sailing with us a question. I posted it at the end of that message and now am sharing it with you again.
I gather there’s now a widespread practice, via the Internet, of writers sharing their work in draft form with other people, who read it and respond with criticisms, opinions, and advice.
Almost all the people writing me with questions cite the judgments and advice of these readers — alpha readers, beta readers, first-draft readers, second-draft readers….
Writers seeking critique of work in progress used to turn to family members or friends, or a small peer-group of writers, or members of a class or workshop. Such a group normally shared some common interests and values, and was on the same general level of skill.
Evidently many writers are now putting out their work on the Net in a way that invites anybody who happens to visit a site to read it and deliver judgment on it. So you may not know what qualification these readers have for giving advice, on how much experience in writing, or even reading, their judgment is based. You may not know whether they’re responding honestly to your work, or playing at being experts.
It worries me that so much of the reader-response cited in these questions doesn’t sound like the reaction of the normal fiction-reader (who, after all, is probably not a writer.) It reads like “rules” they read in a book about writing. All too often it repeats the dreariest clichés of academic writing manuals, or the fatuous panaceas of the latest vendor of snake oil — Write-A-Bestseller-In-One-Week!
It takes a good deal of experience in reading, in writing, and in thinking about writing, to say what’s necessary to a story and what isn’t, what belongs and what doesn’t.
I’m not knocking non-expert readers. Undogmatic, good-natured amateur response can be tremendously useful, particularly when it’s about specific elements of the story. “I think their whole argument about the sofa cushions could go out — it just repeats what their quarrel about Higgs bosons did better” – That’s a critique worth heeding, particularly if more than one reader says the same thing. But the reader who tells you to “cut everything unnecessary” is just parrot-squawking some useless “rule” they read somewhere.
And I’m hearing lot of parrot-squawk. It worries me.
So my question to you all is:
Do you consider it a good idea to offer your work in progress to numerous and/or unselected critics? If so, how do you decide which criticisms are valid and useful?
I just spent about 400 words asking the question, so let’s call 400 words the limit for answers. I originally set this up to get responses through a comment form, but on reflection, have decided that this topic should be discussed in the comment section on this blog so that people can respond to each other. Submit your answers in the comment section below. I look forward to reading them and will respond to them at a later date.
Some readers have already submitted their comments using the earlier form. So far we’re getting an interesting set of replies, all pretty much on the negative side. It would be great to hear from people who feel positive about getting reader input, too. In a complicated issue like this, there aren’t any wrong answers, and debate’s always valuable.
The comments we’ve received so far are below. There are also a few comments on the original post that readers may want to review before adding their opinions.
- Leena: I am responding as a reader. I read (and buy or lend from my local library) dozens of books every year. I deeply dislike the idea of a writer trying to please anonymous “readers” from the net.
I think I am a good reader and I always start reading new book or poem or short story or any text hoping that it is a good one. I hope to be entertained or moved to tears or shaken or surprised from that writer conveys through their writings. I want writer to be true to himself/herself. It is frustrating to realize that this writer wants to please everybody (impossible!) or wants to please experts (critics) or wants desperately to write “next Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code”. Respect your own craft enough not to sell your souls so cheap (do you say anything like this in English?). I respect authors too much to believe that you should be my marionets.
I understand you may want as many people as possible to enjoy your work (and maybe earn your bread and butter too!) But really the best books I think are written from deep inside vision or just very hard work. Best ideas are born in sauna as a Finn might say. Sweating is necessary!
Were I ever to write a novel I would ask opinions only from wise and experienced and sympathetic reader I know of (my mom) who is also an avid and tolerant reader. Internet is full of trolls, why ask them anything is beyond me. They just want to make soup out of your bones.
- John: I leaned heavily on a critique group in the past, but they were a very carefully (and small) group of people whose judgements I trusted, who each had their own set of strengths that complemented my own, and who each brought something to the table. I also learned that even though I trusted these first readers, I didn’t have to accept everything that they said if my instincts led me in a different direction.
It took a long time for the members of this group to find each other. We each had our successes and carried that wisdom to the table. I think the risk of asking a broader group for critiques is that you just don’t know these people and where they come from, just as they don’t know you. An outside view can be important, but dozens of outside views at the same time? It seems like that could overwhelm the creative process and leave you in a worse place than when you started.
- Beth: I think asking for online critiques (using a password-protected group) is better than not getting critiques at all, although I would much prefer to be part of a local group. It’s difficult to judge a critique when you don’t have a sense of the person: what they write, what they like to read, how closely they read your story.
Some of these critiques are valuable, some less so. For me, the critiques are often more useful in aggregate. If several people say the same thing, it’s probably worth looking at.
However, people have said some bizarre things about my stories. Even relevant criticisms often aren’t phrased in a kind way. The hardest part is knowing what to take seriously and what to discard. Too many of these critiques can make you doubt yourself. But the writer of the story is the one who knows the story best. The writer of the story is the only one who can fix what’s wrong.
A few of these web sites give points to critiques based on word count, which incentivizes people to write as much as possible. I’m not sure that’s the best way to get a helpful critique.
And I do wonder how much effort strangers on the Internet are really going to invest in helping me improve my writing. With an in-person group, at least you see the same people every time, and you’re critiquing their stuff too, so they have a reason to try when looking over your piece.
My favorite online critique was for a story where I made a joke about Schrodinger’s cat in a box. The critique I got said something like, “You’ve left a lot of loose ends in your story. Like, whatever happens to the cat?”
- Zena: I stopped offering my works in progress up for critiquing years ago. I found doing so derailed my focus, often fatally, even if I completely trusted and respected the person(s) doing the critiquing. I would get so hung up on some comment or other (especially if I wasn’t readily able to grasp the issue in question) that I wouldn’t be able to continue. Much like the centipede who ended up in a dither in the ditch, considering the running order of her legs.
I’m also an inveterate non-conformist, and when people throw “rools” at me, I see it as a challenge. What do you mean, no adverbs? Positively ridiculous! Short sentences? Pfft, I’ll meander if I want to. I won’t even go into my feelings on the editing process (to paraphrase Neil Gaiman: “If I had wanted a comma there, I would have put one there.”). Stubbornness isn’t necessarily an attractive trait, but somehow I feel I have to learn to follow my own voice, and not bow to the style trends of the moment. Similarly, I would never offer my work to be critiqued by strangers in a chat group: I have way too many deep-rooted trust issues.
There are very few actual rules of writing that I’ve found helpful. Usually they involve things like “just finish the damned thing and fix it up later.” I’m still learning to resist polishing every sentence before proceeding. In some ways, looking for advice/criticism can become almost a diversion tactic: I have to find the perfect nugget of writing wisdom/affirmation before I can produce my perfect work; if I don’t find it, then I can’t continue. It’s like waiting for the planets to align.
And, of course, what I really need to do is plough through the work and get it done. No excuses. (That said, I’ve found this series extremely informative, likely because it focuses on specific questions, and not generalities. Many thanks for your insights!)
- Dan: I don’t believe it’s a good idea to offer your work in progress to large numbers of voluntary critics. First, you don’t know who the reader is, so you don’t know where that reader is coming from. That critic may prefer something that is very much NOT what you want to write. Second, if you hue too much to what critics demand, you will lose the unique sense of self that populated and drove your ideas and art to begin with.
Stick to a trusted, respected small group of friends who understand what kind of story you want to tell. And use your gut to determine which critiques to listen to. If they seem to make sense, they probably do. If the critiques from your small group are uniform, they’re probably right.
Even then, learn to ignore them when necessary. You are the writer, after all. It’s your story. And nobody can tell it like you can.
- Gaia: Submitting my work to writers’ groups which meet in person, rather than online, is useful. People often point out errors I didn’t see. I don’t use all feedback, but make changes that seem sensible to me. I wrote for myself for a long time, but only recently got bold enough to share my work with others. The writers’ groups are a good way to work on the craft.
- Ian: Shaping the Ship
I dreamt of a voyage and on waking I built myself a ship. She was all my own work, inspired by others I had admired, and I was pleased. I loaded my cargo of dreams, opinions, memories and hopes. Blithely I set sail upon the ocean of commerce.
But my judgment had been imperfect, my knowledge incomplete and my workmanship reflected the deficiencies. The waves laughed at my efforts, the wind blew unfair and my ship sank. “It was unseaworthy,” said Neptune, “and his arrogance deserves punishment. All his own work, all his own fault.” Fortunately, Neptune’s wife intervened for me. “He lacks experience and good guidance. Spare him and he will learn.” They cast me ashore.
I built my second ship, a fine sloop not unlike the first. This time I sought advice from all and sundry, for everyone has at least seen a ship. Advice was plentiful. “Paint it green,” said my mother. “No, blue,” said my wife. “Add a compass,” the navigator advised. I added a steel hull for the bridgebuilder, a second mast for the butcher, a third for the baker. Now a schooner, my ship won a diesel from an insurance salesman, impractically stylish new sails from the tailor, a streamlined superstructure for the aerodynamicist and forty seacocks on the plumber’s advice. All satisfied, I set sail once more.
The waves scorned my return. “Leaky, unseaworthy, watch the steel-girded compass steer her in circles, see the sails droop from the mismatched spars, she’s top-heavy and will overturn! And that diesel stinks!” they scoffed; and they were right. Neptune groaned. “Too many cooks. He chose his advisers, it’s his own fault.” His wife, favoring me, intervened again and I was washed back on a beach.
For my third ship I was circumspect and sneaky. I welcomed advice from all, followed it only from those I trusted. Those were the few who had built ships themselves, successfully. Not any kind of ship, only sailing sloops like mine. The others I thanked profusely, entertained handsomely, ignored. My ship took shape, ship-shape, Bristol fashion. I went to sea in my ship once more, and this time my voyage succeeded. Neptune smiled, perhaps still through tightened lips, while his wife applauded. My next ship will be even better. I’ll christen her ‘My Fault’. [‘In the style of Ms Le Guin’?]
- Lauren: I haven’t offered my writing drafts to numerous or unsolicited critics because I’ve been over-whelmed with the input from as few as twenty readers. I’ve gone the old-fashioned route and asked eight friends, relatives, and a writing teacher to critique my first novel. I also submitted the first chapter to a writing workshop group. It often felt as if my story was being written by committee. Many times reader’s comments contradicted each other. At first, this was really confusing but eventually the contradictory criticism forced me to figure out what I felt was right and to trust my gut.
Two or three skilled, serious readers might be more helpful than scores of less experienced ones. However, I learned that just because a reader is skilled and experienced doesn’t make their word gospel either. I paid a professional writer/teacher to review my well-ripened draft and while she did provide helpful observations, not all her comments ended up being right for this particular book. As a teacher in an MFA program, she had fallen prey to a passel of writing “rules” that my rebellious mind questioned. Fortunately, she welcomed questions. Our conversations enabled me to sort through the parrot-squawk and understand the valid issues she’d brought up. For a first-time novelist, the experience was worth every penny because it taught me that, ultimately, nobody can “fix” your manuscript but you!
I’ve yet to find the “perfect” reader who will tell me exactly what to fix and how to fix it. This is good! If such a person existed, I might get lazy and wouldn’t be forced to keep diving into the story and rewriting my way back out again.
Maybe we need to ask ourselves what we hope to gain from a critic/reader. Does our ego seek validation? Do our feelings want to be stroked? Do we want affirmation that we have indeed followed all the writing “rules” and will be rewarded by the gatekeepers at the NYC publishing houses? Or do we want to learn if the way we’ve written our story is having the effect on readers that we intend it to? Different readers can provide different types of feedback. We might find the feedback we need by offering our work to the Internet masses but I suspect culling through piles of random comments might be more trouble than it’s worth.
- Jason: Having someone that doesn’t understand where you are coming from only offers useful insight as to how someone will take your story to the left field.
But, if your family and friends are bad critics; or will just compliment it to not hurt your feelings, you might not have any choice in the matter.
- Caerwyn: I can honestly say that I’ve never shared an unfinished piece with an unknown audience. Some of my stories go from in-my-brain to off-to-publishers without ever seeing another pair of eyes.
If I feel as though there’s likely a particular problem with a story (Are the characters interesting enough? Or: Is this story overly confusing? That sort of thing) then I’ll send it to one or two close friends who I know have a good eye for whatever I suspect the problem is. I ask them for specific feedback on this thing or that thing, but stay open to any general remarks they might also have. Sometimes, if I’m not quite sure on the problem, but still feel as though there’s something wrong, I’ll send it to a few friends, and then ‘triangulate’ ideas on how to improve the story by looking at places where people’s feedback overlaps.
On the other hand, if I feel as though there’s a quite open-ended technical/writerly problem with a story (How do I pace this piece properly? How can I get this mess to a climax that has impact and meaning?) then I send it out to a (private) writers’ group that I’m a member of. This is mostly for stuff where I actually need suggestions on how to fix something, so I’ll go with whichever of the suggestions ring most true for me, or get me the most excited to go back to the story. Either way, I try to trust myself first and foremost. I’ve definitely been in the situation where almost everybody who’s read a particular story has picked up the same element that they didn’t like (eg. Not explaining a particular incongruous strange thing that happens), but I’ve kept it in anyway–because I felt as though I would be sacrificing the story that I wanted to write by changing it.
- Kate: I’ve tried all kinds of editors, beta-readers, first readers, and everything else with mixed results. As the length of my stories expands (and thus also the time to finish them), it’s tempting to look for encouragement from someone, so I consider sharing my draft.This usually doesn’t help me finish a story, and has actually stopped a few stories in their tracks. There seem to be a number of reasons for this. One is plain discouragement, if I get negative feedback. Another is discouragement if they point out a problem that I know will take a huge amount of editing to make the story work.
On the flip side, if I get excited and talk about my story with them, I sometimes feel as if I am done, and have no more desire to actually write the story down, because I’ve now shared it.
I have had a few experiences where having a first reader has been just the right encouragement to get me to the end of my story. But that is much less common than the opposite experience. I have spent a lot of time thinking about first readers/cheerleaders, and finding that perfect balance that made it work those couple of times. I want to bottle that magic, because I certainly haven’t been able to reproduce it with any consistency.
I love seeing first reactions to my writing, but I have learned the hard way that sharing before it is finished is usually a recipe for disaster. These days, I do my best to wait until my draft is done before I recruit editors, betas, first readers, or anyone else.
When I do select a first reader/beta/editor, it’s usually someone whose writing I respect and whose opinion I trust. Even so, I still reserve the right to disagree. I always weigh comments carefully, and if there’s something particularly bothersome, I may ask a second opinion, but I feel comfortable not taking every single piece of advice from a beta reader/editor, no matter how much I trust them.
- Lisa: Mostly no, especially not a first draft where the main thing is just to get the damn thing down on paper. Later on it may be useful to see if there are patterns in reader reactions, or find where things are unclear. An author might be worried about an issue and targeted critiques can answer whether or not a problem exists. Nevertheless, random critics may not understand your genre, and may try to impose their own styles and tastes. If you don’t have a strong vision of your work, you run the danger of writing by committee. Even a vetted writing group can become over familiar with your work, and without “clinical distance” you won’t get accurate feedback. Having said that, you can run into the same problems with a hired, developmental editor. At least those others are free.
- Lisa: Just wanted to add that professional developmental editors often are no better. I had one (very expensive) editor tell me that you can’t use pathetic fallacies in historical fiction. Another (slightly less expensive) that recommended changing to first to third person because otherwise modern readers would question the verisimilitude of the story (of a historical novel). These were their words. Another who line edited some Spanish words, but clearly didn’t know Spanish. Yet another who said of a slow opening “just get to the good part as fast as you can.” I actually paid for this last jewel bit of advice.
The first workshop I ever took had an editor from the Paris Review. He was one of the submitting writers and wore black all the time, black jeans, a black long-sleeved t-shirt. It was in LA so he was working on a screenplay. The head of the workshop loved him; they’d go to the cafe together, two writer dudes drinking tea during break. Anyhow, he (Man in Black) gave me his feedback and it was good. I also gave my piece to my partner, who is dyslexic and doesn’t read except when he absolutely has to–for example in the case of my work. And guess what: he gave me the exact same advice as Man in Black from the Paris Review. It was one of my earliest lessons about the subjectivity of feedback. I’ve never forgotten it.
- Tinney: Heath I think there is time enough for unselected critics when you get to the review stage. I write historical fiction set in medieval Italy, so I make sure my early readers include someone who writes fiction (preferably fiction that I like) but does not specialize in the medieval period, someone who reads fiction but as a rule does not read historicals, and someone whose main interest is fantasy, which requires a comparable level of world-building to historical fiction. The first two keep me from making unwarranted assumptions about what readers know about the period, and the last keeps me honest in my storytelling and prevents me from hiding behind the history.