Jay Lake: Writer

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[Process]

[process] The gentle art of selecting first readers

asked in comments here:

Can I ask you a off topic, writing related question? You mentioned recently in a post that you were ready to send off your current piece to first readers. My question is what would be the criteria in choosing first readers? Are they just average people, or other writers?

I first understood years ago, in critique workshops, how widely varying individual readings of any text are. Individual experience, genre and sub-genre, vocabulary choice, social or emotional relationships between the reader and the writer — all these and much, much more color the way stories are read in manuscript. Add to that “workshop effect”, which is to say anyone reading a manuscript critically will find something to critique, by definition. All in all, reader reaction around a workshop table will be rather different from reader reaction in real life.

At the same time, it’s what you have to go by.

I haven’t workshopped regularly in a few years now, except as a guest pro. That’s a combination of logistics, life choices and evolution in what I need from a workshop. Longtime readers of this blog will recall my prior disquisitions on the three basic types of workshops. One thing I’ve come to realize is that for me, at least, in order to be effective, a workshop needs to allow me to “play up.” If I’m the most experienced writer in the room, I’m generally getting the least personal development out of the process, however rewarding it may be at many other levels.

What I’ve done is substitute an increasingly wide and varied network of first readers.

To your question, what I look for in first readers can vary considerably. If a reader is able to offer cogent critique, that’s absolutely a win. Also, strong line editing skills. (These two foregoing are decidedly not the same thing, though some people do have both.) But I also look for reader reactions. From relatively naive readers (ie, not deeply embedded in my genre), from experienced readers, from readers of different generations and temperaments and outlooks, from readers with specific subject matter expertise as well as from readers with wide general knowledge bases.

I’ve learned to pretty effectively analyze my own work critically. That was the job of my workshops for many, many years. But I can never read as if I were all those other people. Each of them brings a different experience, a different tone, a different outlook. Some will like a given work more than others, some will understand it better.

In both cases — workshoppers and first readers — the single most important element is me understanding where they are coming from. Joe Superfan reading my work with an eye toward what was done first, better and more powerfully in the New Wave gives me very valuable feedback which I can only exploit if I understand the viewpoint from which he is reading. Likewise Carolyn Rocketscientist, who will make passing comments on physics, science and math which I take very seriously even if I don’t at first understand them. My dad, an old State Department China hand, read Escapement for me, because of his insights on everything from Chinese history to Wade-Giles transliteration.

Criteria for first readers: A variety of experience and viewpoints, ideally including people who are not necessarily fans of you or your work. They should have the ability to effectively communicate their reactions to you. (Though “I didn’t get it” can be the most valuable feedback of all, under some circumstances.) And they should care about writing, because that is how yours will improve.

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