Sunday, September 03, 2017

Reading Another's Work

“To write is human, to edit is divine.” - Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

This month I had the honor of critiquing someone's novel. I read carefully and with gusto. I read for pace and plot and character. I read to find holes and places where it lagged. The author had done a lot of work so my job was easy. This isn't always the case.

What do you look for when you read another writer's work? Even if I know the person well, I try to distance myself and forget what I know about her. I tell the truth and don't sugar coat my responses. But it's helpful to be kind. If something's not working, I just point that out. And, I don't necessarily try to fix it. People who have read my work often make suggestions as to how to fix a problem. They want to help. More often than not, however, the thing they suggest is flat out wrong. It won't work for the story or it won't work for me as the author. I listen and note that there is something wrong in that place or near that place, but I try to find my own fix.

So how can you be more helpful to people who want you to read their work? I always find out how far along they are in the book. Is this a first draft? Is this their thirtieth draft? How long have they been working on the book? Is this the first year or the fifteenth? This makes a difference both in what I look for and how I handle the comments. I am unlikely to agree to read a first draft unless someone is just so stuck they need help figuring out if they have a book at all. And in that case, I read with such a gentle touch that most of my comments will be about what is working. I will apply lots of praise and, instead of criticism, ask questions. "What did you mean by this?" or "What are you trying to say?"

No matter what stage a writer is at, I always ask what they want. Do they want a line edit, fixing all the punctuation, or do they just want an overview of the big picture. I have a hard time not marking spelling mistakes, but I'll do my best to focus on the big picture if that's what they want. If a person is in later drafts, I'll dig deeper. By later drafts, the author has gone deeper into the work and really needs a heads up about what a reader thinks. Hopefully by then they have also developed a spine around the book. I won't be mean, of course. That helps no one. But I'll really focus on the honest truth.

It's so touchy. We writers have such fragile egos. We want help, but we mostly want you to tell us our words are lovely and that we should go have a cookie then send our work to anyone who publishes. It's hard not to take any feedback, positive or negative, personally. This is our work. Our baby. But we need to learn that feedback is not personal. It's about the work. That's a good rule. Take nothing personally. If only I could make that stick.

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