The Importance of Readers

Ben Franklin readingThere’s a phase of the writing process to which I’m particularly resistant. It’s not the dreaming phase, where even the worst ideas look golden. It’s not the sitting-down-to-a-blank-page phase, where I hesitate to ruin those golden ideas by turning them into words. It’s not even the arduous process of writing an entire first draft, then a second, then a third. When things look like crap, with no trace of inspiration anywhere, I do somehow manage to keep writing, trying out different directions, trusting that, if I create enough material, a usable paragraph–maybe even a brilliant one–will pop up somewhere. It’s not fun, but I can make myself do it. When I’ve got enough good kernels, I start methodically reworking the text. Rearranging, revising, tightening, expanding. This part is the most exciting, because I know I’ve got something decent, and I know that reworking it is going to make it better. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The carrot at the end of the stick. So I work like a madwoman, and eventually…eventually I have sitting in front of me a masterpiece. A piece of writing that’s going to change the world. And what do I do then? Excitedly share it with a few close friends? Yeah right.

I’ve just spent entire weeks–months, even–pouring my heart and soul into this thing. The last thing I want to do is show it to somebody who might view it objectively. Who might see room for improvement. Or, heaven forbid, actual faults. No, I want to keep my baby wrapped up tight, safe from the eyes of anyone who doesn’t love it as much as I do. Who won’t read each line with the requisite shiver of delight.

The thing is, this reticence doesn’t seem to extend to publishers. It pains me to say it, but I’ve actually submitted pieces for publication before I’ve let anyone I know read them. This is an awful habit. A habit NOT TO BE RECOMMENDED. I fall into it because it’s a lot easier to take a rejection slip from a faceless stranger than to look into the eyes of a friend who says, “I didn’t understand a single word. Maybe you should consider selling vacuums.”

Friends are scary.

And that’s because friends are people whose judgment we trust. People we have in our lives because they like us. Who wants to go and ruin a great thing like that? It would be so much nicer if we could have some faceless stranger say, “Your work is wonderful! We’ll pay you a million dollars for it!” before we have to present that work to our friends. “Here’s my best-selling novel!” we could say. “Wow!” our friends would reply. “We didn’t know you were a writer!”

But here’s the thing. (And I need to hear this as much as anybody else.) Feedback is essential to the improvement of anyone’s writing skills. And not just the feedback that consists of, “Yes, we’d love to publish this!” or “No, we hate your guts.” What we really need is the kind of detailed, methodical feedback that only the people who know us and love us are going to have the time and motivation to provide.

This is not to say that all friends make good readers. You will know, likely after the first conversation about your writing, whether a person’s feedback will be helpful to you. Whether they will help you see the things you couldn’t see on your own. Whether they understand what drives you and are willing to help you achieve your goal. If someone tells you that you have no business being a writer, don’t show your work to them again. But if someone tells you, “Here are three things I see in this piece that could really use work,” LISTEN. That’s your audience speaking to you. And their thoughts are invaluable.

Recently, I got up the courage to give one of my short stories to a friend: a fellow writer whose opinion and good will I have great faith in. I was terribly nervous. This story had already been through numerous drafts and was very close to my heart. But I knew something wasn’t quite right with it, and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Well, my writer friend nailed it on the head with her very first comment: “I feel disoriented by the ending,” she said. “It’s like it turns the tone of the piece completely upside-down, and I don’t quite know what I’m supposed to think about it. What were you going for there?” It turned out that, once she asked me this, I could easily articulate what my intention had been with the last line, and as I was explaining it to her, I realized that I hadn’t done any of the work necessary in the rest of the story to prepare the reader for that ending, to give it the meaning that it had in my head. Realizing this was the key to fixing the story. Maybe I would have eventually figured this out on my own, but I never would have homed in on the problem as quickly as she did.

That’s the thing with readers. Yes, you might theoretically be able to teach yourself to write all on your own. (And we introverts are certainly tempted to try.) But it’s going to take a heck of a lot longer. Readers will point you in the right direction a lot faster and save you a lot of trial and error.

You’ve heard of the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to make you truly great at something, right? That statistic comes from research conducted by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer, which they published in a 1993 paper titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” What you may not know is that, by ‘deliberate practice’, they don’t mean merely doing something over and over. There are a lot of people out there who have been doing one particular activity for a lot longer than 10,000 hours and are still pretty crummy at it. Deliberately practicing an activity, as opposed to merely doing it over and over, involves certain key elements, and one of those is feedback. “In the absence of adequate feedback,” write Ericsson et al., “efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects.” Now that’ll put the fear of God into us introverts!

But is it really so startling a finding? If we want to learn to write in a way that moves people–that makes them laugh, cry, or think deeply–then wouldn’t it be very helpful for us to know which parts of the pages we’re currently producing have that effect and which don’t? Opening oneself up to criticism is scary, sure, but it’s so valuable in directing our future effort that it’s got to be worth enduring all the nervousness and potential embarrassment. If you’ve written a story or essay or anything else, you’ve found the willpower to sit yourself down day after day and cover pages with words. You’ve done the hardest part of the work. And presumably, you plan on doing it again. Why not make your future effort pay off double- or triple-fold by getting a little feedback in the meantime?

These are the things I’m telling myself now. Along with this: that a reader who knows my work and who has shared with me the process of developing and refining it is going to share my joy more fully when the piece finally makes its way to publication. And we know we all want as many people as possible dancing a jig on that day.

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16 thoughts on “The Importance of Readers

  1. It is so difficult to allow ourselves to become vulnerable, especially with a creation from within that epitomizes who we are and what we think. In some sense, every time we hit the publish button, we are baring our souls for the entire world to see. And yes, our friends are among those who see it. It was comforting to know that others feel the same apprehension about receiving feedback. Sometimes this feedback comes in the form of positive or negative words. And sometimes, the feedback comes in the lack of those words. Either way, it is very easy to become emotionally attached to our creations. But, in the end, I want to have someone read a piece and think differently, feel differently, and smile. And the only way to achieve that is to listen and then continue your dance with the thoughts inside. Thank you for sharing such a thought-provoking and inspiring post 😉

    • “Silent” feedback can certainly be discouraging… Sometimes, though, a little nudge will do the trick and elicit a more helpful response. It’s just hard to bring oneself to nudge sometimes; we don’t want to be pushy!

  2. I’m so glad you specified this part of the 10,000 hours thing: “Deliberately practicing an activity, as opposed to merely doing it over and over, involves certain key elements, and one of those is feedback.” I’ve been thinking a lot about writing as a practice and it helps to clarify that repetition of behavior only works if you are continually working to improve and change and grow. Good food for thought for those of us trying to pursue the writing life.

    • If you have any insights of your own on what makes for good writing “practice,” I’d love to hear them. Obviously, the need for feedback is something that has recently struck me as important, but I think I’d be well served to keep thinking explicitly about what would improve my craft.

      • I think the more you have other people read your stuff, the more you can anticipate what your readers would say as you’re trying to edit your own work. I’m in a writing group with three other people and sometimes when I’m self-editing, I can hear one of their voices–“Not enough reflection here–tell us what the narrator is feeling in this moment” or something like that. Figuring out if you’re the type of writer who writes too much or too little in first drafts, making sure you’re balancing exposition with scene, laboring over even small sections to make sure you’re picking the most precise words to express your meaning–these are all things I try to remind myself to do. But I have to say, nothing quite compares to having someone else critique your work, which is why I think this post is so right on.

  3. Brilliant piece! You only need to watch the audition stages of X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent to see people who haven’t sought honest constructive feedback. Writers’ Groups are often a good place to start and if you need that “strangers distance” try an Internet writing forum. You often have to give feedback to three other pieces of work before you can submit your own and that in itself helps you learn what works and what doesn’t.

    • Haha! Yes, you’re so right about X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. Those shows seem to underscore, too, the importance of feedback from someone with a trained ear (or eye, in the case of writing). Don’t let your mother’s be the only opinion you ever seek!

      And you’re quite right about writers’ groups as well. An invaluable resource.

  4. I found that enrolling in an MFA program gets you over the obstacles and insecurities of feedback real fast! Everyone gets critiqued. Everyone has room for improvement. Learning to give good feedback on others’ works turns out to be just as valuable because you take those same skills back to your own editing process. There’s camaraderie in the process, and once you’ve shared your work you want to continue workshopping pieces long after graduation because you realize the value in it.

    • I can imagine how helpful a writing program is! In a way, I’m trying to cobble together my own tuition-free MFA, and I’m helped along by two friends who’ve been through them and are still very interested in workshopping. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Great piece and perfect timing since I just returned from a chat with a fellow writer friend and feel so very lucky to have her in my life and reviewing my work

  6. Also I agree with PP about MFA program. I just started last fall and indeed it gets you into the practice of writing, sharing and revising on a regular basis. Not just writing in a regular basis.

    • This actually relates to your comment on my other post: by regularly confronting our fear of sharing our writing, we realize it’s not so bad after all–in fact, it’s extremely helpful!

  7. Ahh I used to be terrified of showing anyone my writing! So I totally get this, but after enrolling in a writing degree and taking as many writing elective in my other degree, I learned to let go of that fear, but like you said, not all friends are great readers. I’ve had people in my classes that were actually really useless when it came to feedback and it made it hard to try and give them back stuff that helped when they didn’t help you. Good feedback is always, always so enlightening and helpful. Ahhh if only it was always available!

  8. It’s hard to show our work to those few trusted beta readers. It’s a leap of faith and a willingness to hear faults. Very scary stuff. It helps to remind myself I want to write the best book possible and that means multiple drafts and feedback. And inevitably during the revision process, I can see the story becoming stronger.

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