I think, at least I hope, I’ve become a better reader over the years. For me, it helps to know something about the writer and her sensibility. For example, it wouldn’t do for me to suggest to my humorous cozy-mystery writing friend to get all moody. Moody goes with my writing territory, not hers.
When it comes to reviewing others’ works, our ability to divorce ourselves from our personal writing styles is a talent that takes time to hone. I’m not perfect, that’s for sure. Sometimes I’m way off base. I have a friend who writes what she likes to say are intelligent, witty, trashy mysteries. I had a chance to read her first chapter just after we met. I cringe now, thinking about my comments. I was off base because I was reading in a void, having yet to get a sense of her and her storytelling goals. Some writers are serious, others “trashy,” others slapstick, others noir.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I’m asked to be a reader, whether one-on-one or in a group:
1. Be honest about where you are in the craft process and how willing you are to be a teacher. I consider myself fairly skilled at this point. I’m beyond the basics such as learning what show-not-tell means, and I understand point of view and how to wield it. Also, I’m not a teacher. This means that when asked to join a critique group, I ask in return, What’s the skill level? Do the writers have writing and critique (VERY important) experience? What often happens in groups with mixed-writing levels is that the more advanced writers end up being teachers, and they don’t necessarily receive the feedback they need to improve their own skills and stories.
2. Take into consideration your partner’s genre and style. Be honest that you may not be the best reader. You may find that your partner doesn’t mind, that she looks forward to the kind of perspective you can bring. For example, I warned a friend who writes women’s fiction that I may not be the best reader for her. She didn’t seem worried. Perhaps since I know her work already, I’ll have some good feedback when it comes to conflict or suspense–but within the boundaries of her genre, of course. Trust your gut–if it’s a genre you have no feel for whatsoever, don’t waste your time or your potential partner’s time. (For me, this would include techno-thrillers.)
3. Take note of how far along the work in progress is. If it’s a first or second draft, don’t bother copyediting the draft. True, sometimes we can’t help ourselves–I make corrections without thinking sometimes–but stay in the big picture. Pacing, flow, inconsistencies, characterization, etcetera. Ask your partner what kind of feedback she’s looking for.
4. Don’t force feedback. We aren’t under obligation to find something wrong with a piece — god forbid we think it reads great just the way it is! Forcing yourself to find something to say leads to crappy, useless comments.
5. The bigger the chunks I can read in a go, the better feedback I’ll have. I’ve been in partnering situations in which we exchanged one chapter at time. This is OK, but you lose the flow of the whole after awhile. It’s hard to provide macro level feedback when you’re seeing the story in small chunks.
In the end, what comes around goes around. Do you want valuable feedback? Best to learn how to give valuable feedback in return. In truth, this give and take is one of the best things about being part of a writing community.
(And, in case this isn’t obvious — always point out what works and what you liked about a piece.)