Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to Talk to Your Readers

posted by Rebecca J. Carlson

It took me some time to learn how to take feedback from test readers.

The very first time someone (other than my mother or my husband) read a manuscript I'd written I couldn't wait to talk with her about it. I had a chance to drive her to the airport, and was so excited to have her to myself for forty-five minutes. Once we got in the car I launched into what I thought she wanted to know--the entire history of where I'd gotten every brilliant idea and how I'd developed every charming character. She listened patiently, and when at last I wound down she offered, "Do you really have to start the story with someone making photocopies?"

Oh. That. Yes, maybe I should have thought of a more compelling opening scene.

Many drafts and many readers later, I had learned to keep my mouth shut and listen to what the reader had to say about the work. But I noticed something interesting about their comments. Often, a reader would point out something wrong and make a suggestion of how I should fix it. After I got over my bitter disappointment that my manuscript wasn't perfect yet and went back to take a look, the reader would be right about there being something wrong, but often it wasn't what they told me. There would be some other thing, some underlying thing that only I could see, only I knew how to fix.

This has come to guide both my response to critique and my giving of critiques. I no longer try to tell another writer what's wrong or what I think should be done to repair it. I say vague things like, "I didn't buy that." and "This confused me." I only go into more detail if asked. I also like to heap on the praise when good stuff is happening, because that's what I want to see! More good stuff!

And when someone tries to tell me what's wrong with my manuscript I listen carefully, knowing that my reader has probably detected a flaw even if my reader can't quite pin down what the flaw is. We all know that feeling, when reading a book, that something isn't working. I can be blind to that in my own work, just like my own children look beautiful to me even when they have tangles in their hair and watermelon smeared on their faces.

So thanks to everyone, everywhere, who has ever helped me comb the tangles out of a manuscript! I've learned so much from you, and I look forward to working together again.


  1. Rebecca, this is a great topic and you're right on the nose. People are good at picking up things that are off, but their suggestions don't always work with what you know your characters would do, or could really throw a clunker into your story line. And you're so right that it pays to listen!

  2. In my experience there are two kinds of critiques. Critiques from fellow writers, who often can tell you how to fix a problem, and critiques from wise readers, who just tell you how they felt as they read. Wise reader feedback is an invaluable way to learn how to fix problems on your own, but I also value writers who know more tricks of the trade. They can point out that if the ending doesn't work, it's actually the beginning that needs the fix. A story that's "too long" may in fact just be written in passive voice or with too many adverbs. A story that's too short may have too much telling and not enough showing. So when I'm critiquing in a writers group, I always try to figure out the fix. This is how I learn to repair similar problems in my own work. My personal dream, though, is to be the writer that editors love, because they can just say, "There's something off here," and I can then magically fix it for them. Whenever an editor tells me I've "nailed" a rewrite, that's almost better than getting the paycheck (almost.)

  3. I hear you, Emily. That's why I love taking workshops from great writers. They have words for what I'm doing wrong. The first time I heard the term "maid and butler dialog" was because I'd written a whole chapter of it and taken it to a workshop. I didn't know what was wrong because I didn't even know what to call it.

  4. Ok, I have to ask: what is maid and butler dialog?? :)

  5. Susan, this is what David Farland says about maid and butler:

    "David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Curing 'Maid and Butler Dialog'

    While working with one of my students today, I noticed a little penchant for 'Maid and Butler Dialog.' This problem gets its names from stage plays of the 19th century which often started with a maid and butler preparing the house as the master was about to return. “You, know,” the maid might say, “it’s been nineteen years since Lord Taft left to Africa. Do you think his wife will even remember what he looks like?” “Well, the Butler says, as you may recall, he was always a handsome man, and liked fine wine, the Taft men have always aged well.”

    The dialog sounds stilted, unnatural. People only talk that way when they’re brain damaged. So the solution is to take the info-dump out of dialog." David Farland's daily kick November 3, 2010.

    Anywho, nice post! I think you have to grow as a listener just like you have to grow as a writer. When I first started recieveing critiques I wanted to explain why the reader had to be wrong. Now I settle in and beg for the good stuff. I love it when a reader tells me what's wrong and what's right, and it takes practice to let them. I also agree that receiving a critique from a writer is different that a reader, but both are vital and I have both kinds of readers.

  6. @Leisha Thanks! I always thought of dialogue like that as the Bob dialogue. As in "Well, you know, Bob, the federation has been negotiating with the far planets for years now..." Ack! :)

    @Rebecca Great post! And you are a fantastic critiquer, my dear, responsible for much of my craft improvement!!

  7. Thanks, Sue! My ongoing mission, to see that there are more great books in the world, whether I write them or someone else does.

  8. Hi Rebecca! Great post! I feel it's VERY important to ask the writers what is it that they are looking for so we know how to gear our crits for them.

    I've always had a question about Earthcrosser: Is it VERY important that the little sister gets her elevator fixed? Is it a foreshadow of some kind? I'm really curious! ;)

  9. That was my attempt to show Nathan doing something mechanical. If it doesn't work I can always think of something else.

    And you're right, Elizabeth. As good readers, we should gear a critique to the needs of the writer.

  10. Neil Gaiman: "Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

    I try not to tell people how to fix things in their writing, either. And I appreciate they don't do the same for me. But I always think of the above Neil Gaiman quote whenever I critique someone's work. I think it suits here quite well.


What be on yer mind?