At some point, all of us writers need readers or listeners or both. We toil away for weeks on a story, years on a novel or memoir. We alternately think it’s terrific or crap, the best thing we’ve done or a sorry excuse for spending time. And then we just don’t know any more.
If we’re lucky, we know some other writer-types and a fair number of reader-types who can help us out. And if we’re smart, we do so very carefully. Here are some ideas.
If you can identify friends or writing colleagues who enjoy the genre you’re working in, they are a good place to start for trial readers. You’ll get better feedback if you give your novel to an avid fiction reader or your collection of vampire stories to a short-story vampire aficionado. A client came to me recently. She had finished her book but hadn’t farmed it out yet for trial readings. Her book, a spiritually oriented self-help book, needs readers who will be engaged in that process, for they are her target audience.
If possible, choose someone with whom you have a mutually supportive relationship. This is not the time to share your hard work and tender creation with your contentious sister or your overly critical friend from high school.
Ask for specific feedback. Many readers are tempted to focus on the tiny details of your writing: an inconsistent formatting of subheads or missing commas or a misspelled character name. If you want that kind of feedback, do say so. But most of us want something quite different from trial readers. We want a sense that our writing is meaningful, interesting, engaging, useful or entertaining. A simple list of questions to your reader at the outset can elicit the kind of helpful feedback you’re wanting. Here are some I like to use:
1. Where were you most engaged?
2. Where were you least engaged?
3. Were there places you were tempted to skim or skip (what were they)?
4. Were there places you didn’t understand?
5. What did you want more of or feel was missing?
Whether the feedback has come to me in writing or in person, I keep these as my criteria for useful response. Anything else (such as “I really didn’t like the character of Bill” or “your part about the bar downtown seemed unrealistic to me”) I’ll take under advisement but I don’t place much weight on it as I wasn’t asking for it.