What are you going to do next with that story you finished last week, the essay you finally completed yesterday, the poem that you’ve been working on for years, or the novel that languishes in your laptop? You’ve done the work … or at least all you know to do … so now what are you going to do with it?
Let somebody read it.
I know that sounds like the scariest thing to do with your writing, with these words that you birthed from your very soul. But more than likely, you wrote this thing down because you wanted it to have a life outside of your mind. You want someone to read it, but it’s stressful to imagine what they’ll think, how they’ll respond, or the criticism that might come.
But letting someone else read your words might be the best thing you could do to give your writing the life it deserves, especially if you spend a little time finding the right person to give you the right kind of feedback at the right time. Here are a few suggestions:
1.) Determine what kind of feedback you need. Do you need encouragement? Do you have specific concerns? Are you on your 45th draft and you really need someone to check your commas? Or do you just want to know if your novel’s any good? Knowing what you need or want in terms of feedback is the first step.
According to Alice LaPlante, author of The Making of a Story, “one of the worst things you can do to a piece is to assume it’s more complete than it is.” So if you’re just on your first or second draft, this isn’t the time to ask someone to review your grammar, especially when the structure of the piece might still be off. Remember, writing takes time. Understand where you are in the process before you invite readers in.
2.) Invite readers who can give you the feedback you need. If you want to know if your poem or novel is any good, ask someone who regularly reads in the same genre. (Someone who doesn’t like or doesn’t read poetry is probably not the best judge of your poem.) If you need help with grammar, ask your friend who teaches English. If you just need encouragement, invite your mom to read it. If you want someone to really tear your writing to shreds, ask your teenager to read it. (Just kidding on those last two.) But seriously, think carefully about who you invite to read your words, anticipating what each reader has to offer.
3.) Ask readers for the specific feedback you’re looking for. Especially on long works, when there are a million different things readers could comment on, giving them a few things to look for and respond to will help them … as well as you. I recently submitted the first three chapters of a novel to my writing critique group, and I asked them to comment on character set up, rotating narrators, and any predictions they might have based on the early scenes. I learned a lot about where to go next based on their specific responses.
The National Writing Project’s Guidelines for Response Groups suggests that writers ask early readers to respond in one of three ways: bless, address, or press. To “bless” means to comment only on things that are working, the good stuff. (LaPlante says, “One of the most helpful things we can do when reading an earlier draft by a colleague or student—one that is still in the creative revisioning stage, for example—is to point out what’s interesting, or what seem like ‘hot spots’ in the text.”) To “address” means to comment on what’s working plus one problem area or concern that the writer identifies. To “press” means to comment on what’s working, plus any problem areas the reader identifies.
4.) Remember that you are the writer. Of course you don’t have to take the suggestions you get from your readers, but at least be open to hearing their responses. At the very least, realize that every time a reader identifies a concern, something about your writing made them stop. Their suggestion may not be the best way to address the concern, but at least you know where the stops are. Also, when a reader tells you that something is really working, believe them. And try to do more of that.
LaPlante says it well (if not colorfully) here: “I tell my students that they need to approach a workshop critique [or any critique] carrying two equally strong but contradictory thoughts in their heads: to be open to criticism and ready to receive whatever it is they can learn from the discussion, and to retain the option of telling people to go to hell if the advice doesn’t make sense.”
It’s scary to invite someone into the life of your writing, but if you ask the right person to comment on the right things … the things you yourself have identified … then the feedback can be invaluable.