Yesterday, I horrified the masses by taking an in-depth gander at that most perplexing of social situations in which a writer may find herself, the friend who asks to read a manuscript – then keeps it forever and a day. I may be harping on it a little, but I have my reasons: although one occasionally encounters advice in writing manuals about whom to avoid as a feedback giver (it varies, but the universal no-no: spouses, significant others, POSSLQs, and anyone else who has ever spent any time in the writer’s bedroom other than to make the bed), I’ve never seen this problem discussed elsewhere, or heard it solved by a writing guru at a conference.
And this is a shame, I think, because it’s a genuinely difficult situation for the writer, the kind of experience that can make good writers swear off seeking reader feedback forever. But a writer needs feedback, and not all of us have the luxury of a well-read, genre-appropriate writers’ group meeting within a couple of miles of our domiciles, or the time to join it if one does exist. So think of this as a survival manual for trekking through the feedback wilderness.
Advance planning can go a long way toward avoiding a Gladys outcome. (For those of you who missed yesterday’s post, Gladys is the aforementioned remiss friend who turns your manuscript into a doorstop). Observing Tip #8 — making sure up front that the reader has time soon to read your work — and Tip #10 — ascertaining that your first readers fully understand what you expect them to do, and that it involves significantly more effort than merely reading a book – may cost you a few potential readers, but being scrupulous on these points will both reduce the probability of your being left without usable feedback and help you hold the moral high ground if your Gladys starts to dither as the weeks pass.
How does one set these ground rules in conversation, you ask, without sounding like a taskmaster? First off, take her out to coffee or lunch to discuss it (remember, she’s under no obligation to help you out here), and second, don’t save the discussion until you are about to hand the manuscript to her. Schedule it as soon as possible after Gladys has agreed to read your work – but not so soon that you haven’t had a chance to come up with a short, preferably written, description of what you would like your first reader to do to your manuscript.
Include in this list HOW you would like to receive feedback. Verbally? Writing in the margins? A separate sheet of paper? A Post-It™ note on every page where the story flags? Also, what level of read are you seeking? Should Gladys go over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb (a real bore, for most readers), or just ignore spelling errors?
This level of specificity may seem a tad schoolmarmish, but having the list on hand will make the discussion easier on both you and Gladys, I promise. The catch: once you have made this list, you have an ethical obligation to stand by it; no fair calling Gladys up in the middle of the night after you get the manuscript back, howling, “How could you not have caught that the pages were out of order?”
While you are explaining what it is you would like your first reader to do, mention that in order for the feedback to be useful to you, you will need it within a month. Or six weeks – you choose, but try not to make it much less or much more. That’s long enough for a spare-time reader to get through pretty much any manuscript without sleepless nights, so you need not feel as though you are proposing a pop quiz, but not so long that Gladys will simply set it aside and forget it. The point here is to select a mutually-comfortable date that is NOT on top of one of your own deadlines for getting work out the door.
I cannot emphasize this last point enough. If you are working on a tight deadline – say, to pick one out of a hat, having to revise an entire novel within the next three weeks – it’s just not fair to expect a non-professional to speed-read your manuscript quickly enough for you to be able to use the feedback. (Actually, most freelance editors would charge extra for a turn-around time this short.) If you can cajole your writing friends into doing it, regard it as a great favor.
But if you thrust Gladys into that position, don’t be surprised if you never hear from her again. It’s stressful. Pick a reasonable deadline, one far enough from any imminent deadlines of your own that you will not freak out if she needs to go a week or two over.
If she gives you feedback after the agreed-upon date (you will explain kindly), while you will naturally still value Gladys’ opinion, you will not have time to incorporate it into the book before your next submission. Being able to turn the book around that quickly (you will tell her) is the difference between being the kind of helpful friend who gets thanked in acknowledgments and the kind of friend who is appreciated in private.
After you state the deadline, ASK if it will be a problem. If Gladys hesitates at all, remind her that it’s perfectly okay to say no. In fact, you would appreciate it, because you are at a point in your career where you need prompt feedback, and while she was your first choice (even if she wasn’t), you do have others lined up (even if you don’t).
Say this whether it is true or not; it will make it easier for her to decline if she feels overwhelmed. By allowing her the chance to bow out BEFORE you’ve gone to all the trouble of printing up a complete manuscript, you are underscoring that you realize that she is promising something significant, and you appreciate it.
A week before the deadline, call or e-mail, to ask how the reading is going. This will give Gladys yet another opportunity to back out, if she is feeling swamped. (If she asked to read your manuscript out of simple curiosity – a very common motivation – she will have realized it by now.) Set up a specific date and time to get the manuscript back. Promise to take her out to lunch or to bring her chocolates – after all, she’s been doing you a big favor.
If Gladys can’t make the deadline but still wants to go forward, set another deadline. It may seem draconian to insist upon specific dates, but inevitably, the writer is the person who loses if the feedback relationship is treated casually. If you are open at every step to Gladys’ backing out, you will significantly reduce the probability that she will let you down after two months.
Or four. Or a year.
If you present these requests politely and in a spirit of gratitude, it will be hard for even the most unreasonable Gladys to take umbrage. By taking the time to learn her literary tastes, ascertain that she has time to give you feedback, and not allowing your manuscript to become a source of guilt for months to come, you will be treating her with respect. If you respect Gladys’ opinion enough to want her to read your book, you should respect her ability to make an informed opinion about whether she can commit to doing so. It is your job to inform her.
Your writing deserves to be taken seriously, my friends – by others and by yourself. The more seriously you take it, by seeking feedback in a professional manner, the better it will become. In my next post, I shall discuss how to elicit specific information from your first readers, to get answers to problems you already know exist in the book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!