Some advice about asking people to read your writing

I was just commiserating with two friends/coworkers/colleagues who are also college-trained writers about when people we know send us stuff to read and give feedback on. We’ve all had similar experiences with this – and, in fairness, we’ve also been the person asking. As such, we’ve learned a lot about what to and not to do when seeking feedback on your writing. Here then are our basic suggestions:

  1. Understand the mechanics of writing. Nope, you don’t have to be college-trained to be a good writer. That is a fact. Many notable writers didn’t major in English or even go to college. Among them: Jonathan Franzen, Harper Lee, and J.K. Rowling. There are tons of others so feel free to Google. But while that’s true, all the best writers have one thing in common: they comprehend how sentences and narratives work. Look, I get it – when considering “the most exciting things to study,” dozens of subjects jump to mind before “grammar and punctuation.” Rocket propulsion, dragons, robots, Photoshopping boobs onto things, etc. – all of these are more exciting areas of research. And you should totally write about them. But first, learn how to do it so that your writing is readable. If you don’t know where to start, here are some killer books on the subject of writing:
    1. On Writing, by Stephen King
    2. Punctuation Plain and Simple, by Edgar C. Alward
    3. bird by bird, by Anne Lamott
    4. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
    5. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, by Stanley Fish (I’ve never read this one, but it comes highly recommended by a very reliable source)
    6. Any ol’ book, and a bunch of them. Writers who don’t read baffle me. You can learn so much just by exposing yourself to how others do it.
  2. Make sure it’s fairly solid before sending out. I almost wrote, “never send out a first draft,” but that’s inaccurate. Some first drafts are perfectly fine for an initial round of feedback. Just do a quick once over, if possible, before sharing. You’ll be saving yourself possible embarrassment and your reader the struggle of figuring out what the hell you’re trying to say.
  3. It’s most polite to ask before sending. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as you know the person really well or you have already established a give and take writing relationship. But the first time especially? Definitely ask. You don’t know the person all that well? Definitely ask. (A note about querying someone you don’t know that well: popular authors and writing instructors are among those who receive the greatest volume of requests for reading. Expect to either be turned down or ignored entirely. And don’t take it personally, probably. There’s not enough time in the day, you know?)
  4. If possible, offer to pay. Proofreading, copy-editing, and developmental editing are jobs. They’re hard work and very time involved, especially if done well. So, if you’re asking for this level of assistance with your writing, be prepared to pay or barter. Speaking of which,
  5. Specify the feedback you’re hoping for. Are you looking for your reader to simply read, then give an overall opinion, or are you looking for a high level of scrutiny? Be clear in your initial query so that your reader doesn’t have to respond for clarification.
  6. It doesn’t make your request better by suggesting that the reader “just look this over really quick.” If it’s really quick, you’re not going to get worthwhile feedback. Is that really what you want? Also, even a fast read is still someone’s free time. Or, as I think of it, their expensive time.
  7. How long do you wait before following up? A really long time. If you’ve asked someone to look at your writing, especially if you are not super close to the person (but even then), and you don’t hear back the next day or even the day after that, be patient. Everybody is busy and nobody is aching to look at your 7 page personal narrative about buying organic produce at the farmer’s market, no matter how compelling. My rule is to always wait 50% longer than I think is reasonable.
  8. If you’ve been sending out the same version of those 19 pages for the last few years, stop it. At this point, you’ve already received a bunch of feedback. It’s time to consider that what you’re actually looking for is not edits but validation. So here it is: good job. You wrote 19 pages of a novel. Now write 19 new ones. Put that one in a drawer for a year, minimum, and don’t look at it or, especially, send it out anymore. No matter how tempting. Just stop it.
  9. Criticism is part of the deal. Grow a thick skin. The person you’ve asked to look at your writing will be offering feedback. This is also known as “criticism.” Sometimes the reader will be highly skilled at offering this feedback and sometimes she won’t. Either way, don’t be defensive if it all possible. Also, you can take or leave the criticism. That’s your choice. You don’t necessarily need to (and probably shouldn’t) tell your reader why you’ve made one choice or the other unless she directly asks you, “Hey, did you get my feedback? Did it make sense?” If you’re defensive or rude, you’re going to lose a reader, guaranteed. Also, I suggest that you really think about the criticism before disregarding it. Just because it rankles you doesn’t mean it’s useless. As a matter of fact, I’ve found that some of the hardest to hear feedback is the most useful. But whether you take it or leave it, don’t let it ruin your day.
  10. Sometimes people will say no. That’s okay. Be gracious, especially, when you receive a no. At least they got back to you!
  11. Offer to reciprocate. If someone reads and provides feedback for you, remember that he’s a writer, too, and might appreciate the recipricocity. Even if he doesn’t, it’s classy to offer.

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