5 Tips for Becoming a Better Reader for Your Writing Peeps

writing_critiqueThis week we’ve been talking about readers for our manuscripts, but what about when we’re the readers?

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.)

Author: Lisa Alber

Lisa Alber is the author of KILMOON, A COUNTY CLARE MYSTERY (March 2014). Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging at Lisa Alber's Words at Play round out her distractions. Visit her at www.lisaalber.com.

11 Replies to “5 Tips for Becoming a Better Reader for Your Writing Peeps”

  1. Thanks Lisa! I’m not a big fan of reading a chapter at a time either! I’m going to suggest bigger chunks in my new writing group. Have a great weekend and thanks for the insight!

    1. Hi Kristy! In my former writing group, we did a pass through my manuscript (KILMOON) in 50pp chunks. This was heavy burden for them, and I was so appreciative. I received a great set of feedback though.

  2. I’ve been a part of writing groups where I’ve been one of the more advanced members and also a part of groups where I’m on the definite bottom. Having been in both positions, I can vouch that there are challenges that come with both roles!

    1. So true! As the low person, I used to feel so intimidated and out of my depth. In my very first critique group, I was so raw I didn’t understand the lessons the others’ were trying to convey with their critiques. I might have been a slow learner. 🙂

  3. Great post, Lisa!

    I would say, on the point about more advanced writers ending up being the teachers for a group, that teaching someone is the best way to learn. So even if someone ended up being a more advance writer in a new group, your writing will still benefit greatly.

    1. I’ve heard that a lot, Lori, and I imagined it’s true. Maybe it was the particular groups I was in, but I got frustrated. Maybe if I had an aptitude for teaching it would have been different … The thing is, some people love writing, but as a hobby–they’re not looking to improve their craft in a serious way for publication. When I realized this, I bowed out of the group.

  4. #3 is very important. I always ask if people want proofing corrections or not, for example.

    I’m thinking about #5, though. I got some really good feedback on my mystery story book from somebody who could only read one story at a time, over nearly a year. It was useful to see which things she lost track of and where I needed to think about adding a reminder about who a character was, for example.

    Because I’m thinking that, in the modern world, people tend to read in a very fragmented way, always with interruptions.. Writers often deplore that, but it is the reality and it’s probably a good idea to write with that in mind.

    1. Hmm … Anthony now you’ve got me thinking. I agree that we need to include little reminders for readers, especially when we’ve got lots of characters. We need to keep them oriented at all times. (In fact, my fave writing teacher, Elizabeth George, has this rule of three–mention something three times.) But, overall, I’ve found critiques over a year, a chapter at a time, problematic.

      1. I agree that it’s best to work in larger chunks, but let me use Natalia’s dating analogy. Chapter-by-chapter feedback is the writing buddy equivalent of the long-distance relationship. Not ideal in the abstract, but worth it for the right person. 🙂

        In going to have to think about this rule of three idea.

        1. Good analogy!

          EG’s theory is that it takes three mentions for something to stick in readers’ heads. I don’t know if this is true, but she swears by it.

Comments are closed.