Getting the feedback you need — and deserve

Given that from now until after the last New Year’s hangover has receded into memory is a publishing world dead zone, a time of internal reassessment when query letters are seldom read, to be followed by the annual avalanche of New Year’s resolution query letters in January, now is a lovely time to take a break from querying. It’s a great time to be revising your own work with an eye to sending it out afresh to agents, editors, and conferences, to clear it of those little gaffes that make you smack yourself in the head when you catch them AFTER the submission’s in the mail.

It’s revision time, boys and girls.

This, I know, will make some of my long-term readers giggle. When, you may well be wondering, does Anne think it ISN’T a good time to revise a manuscript? Or, at the very least, to scan it for common mistakes and deviations from standard format?

Yes, yes, I am the high priestess of manuscript perfection, but as I find it a trifle difficult to believe that anyone who has been reading this blog for a while isn’t aware by now WHY I preach that particular gospel, I shan’t explain again. But I shall reiterate: it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto.

In this effort, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker. As any professional editor will tell you, they tend to be rife with technical errors – mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re – and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept “caseless” when you mean “ceaseless.”

Spell check, by all means, but I implore you, do not let that be your only means of proofreading. There is no substitute for the good ol’ human eye running down a printed page of text for catching errors.

Why not proof on your computer monitor? Because, as any editor will happily tell you, the screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain quite a bit of dialogue). It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, making you skip an error.

Yes, even if you have a simply massive computer screen – this is an instance where size truly doesn’t matter. Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it. But I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit, both for my work and for my clients’. As my downstairs neighbor would, I’m sure, be overjoyed to tell you, if a deadline is close, I’m going to be sitting in my library, reading the relevant manuscript in its entirety, in hard copy, out loud.

I’m funny that way.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at the text. It is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits – most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in automatic turndowns from professionals. Like misspelling your own name or address on the title page – which happens more than you might think.

Hey, people are in a hurry.

Other than the simple fact that other eyes are more likely to catch mistakes than you are the 147th time you read a text, there is another reason that you should run your work by another human being before you submit them. I tremble to report this, but it is very, very common for writers to send off the first chapter or three of their novels WITHOUT EVER HAVING ANYONE ELSE READ THEM. The result: for many writers, the agent’s feedback is the first time many writers EVER get an outside opinion of their work.

And, as those of you who followed me through the November list of rejection reasons know, that feedback is usually either minimal or non-existent. Not, in any case, feedback that’s likely to help a writer improve his work before the next round of submissions.

Select wisely your first reader wisely, preferably another writer, rather than a friend, lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member. Long-term readers, chant it along with me now: the input of your best friend, your mother, your siblings, and/or your lover (s), however charming it may be, is unlikely to yield the kind of concrete, tangible feedback every writer needs.

No offense to your kith and kin, but it’s true. Ties of affection do not necessarily good readers make.

Since holiday time is notorious for prompting one’s relatives to ask, “So, dear, how’s your writing coming? Published anything yet?” I thought this might be a good moment to remind you of this unfortunate fact. The closer the tie, the lower the objectivity – and no, smart people are not exempt from this rule. Even if your mother runs a major publishing house for a living, your brother is a high-flying agent, and your lover reviews major novelists regularly for THE WASHINGTON POST, they are unlikely to have the perspective necessary to give you objective feedback.

Nor should they have to, really. It’s their job to make you feel better about yourself – or to make you feel worse about yourself, depending upon your taste in relationships and familial patterns.

So when your Aunt Gladys says she’d just LOVE your manuscript (and trust me, at some point, she will; everyone likes the idea of getting a free advance peek at the next big bestseller), I give you my full permission to use me as your excuse for saying no. Do it politely, of course: “I’m sorry, but I’ve been advised by a professional editor that until I find an agent, I need to limit myself to objective readers,” or “I’d love to, Aunt Gladys, but I have a writing group for feedback – what I need you for is support!” tends to go over MUCH better than, “What, are you just trying to get out of buying a copy of the book?”

And for those of you who already have agents: break yourself of the habit NOW of promising free copies of your future books to your kith and kin. Since authors now receive so few copies – and are often expected to use those for promotion – it’s really, really common for the writer to end up having to BUY those promised freebies to distribute.

Get Aunt Gladys used to the idea that supporting you means being willing to shell out hard cash for your book. Promise to sign it for her instead.

But I digress. If you haven’t shown your writing to another trustworthy soul — be it through sharing it with a writers’ group, workshopping it, having it edited professionally, or asking a great reader whom you know will tell you the absolute truth — you haven’t gotten an adequate level of objective feedback. I know it seems as though I’m harping on this point, but I regularly meet aspiring writers who have sent out what they thought was beautifully-polished work to an agent without having run it by anyone else — only to be devastated to realize that the manuscript contained some very basic mistake that objective eyes would have caught easily.

Trust me, wailing, “But my husband/wife/second cousin just loved it!” will not help you at that juncture.

And emotionally, what are you doing when you send out virgin material to a stranger who, after all, has the institutional ability to change your life by bringing your book to publication? It’s the equivalent of bypassing everyone you know in getting an opinion on your fancy new hairdo and going straight to the head of a modeling agency. Professionals have no reason to pull their punches; if a publishing professional does take the time to critique your work, the criticism comes absolutely unvarnished. Even when rejection is tactful, naturally, with the stakes so high for the author, any negative criticism feels like being whacked on the head with a great big rock.

I’m trying to save you some headaches here.

But even as I write this, I know there are some ultra-shy or ultra-independent Emily Dickinson types out there who prefer to write in absolute solitude — then cast their work upon the world, to make its way as best it can on its own merits. No matter what I say, I know you hardy souls would rather be drawn and quartered than to join a writers’ group, wouldn’t you? You are going to persist in deciding that you, and only you, are the best judge of when your work is finished.

And maybe you are right.

I am not saying that a writer can’t be a good judge of her own work — she can, if she has a good eye, and sufficient time to gain perspective on it. I would be the last person to trot out that tired old axiom about killing your darlings; hands up, everyone who has attended a writers’ workshop and seen a promising piece that needed work darling-chopped into a piece of consistent mediocrity. CONSIDERING killing your pet phrases is often good advice, but for a writer with talent, the writer’s pet phrases are often genuinely the best part of the work.

However, Iuntil you get an objective opinion, you cannot know for sure how good your own eye is — and isn’t it just a trifle masochistic to use your big shot at catching an agent’s attention as your litmus test for whether you are right about your own editing skills? Even if you find only one person whom you can trust to tell you the absolute truth, your writing will benefit from your bravery if you ask for honestly locally first.

Ideally, you would run your submission materials past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN YOUR GENRE. (No matter how good a poet is, her advice on your nonfiction tome on house-building is unlikely to be very market-savvy, unless she happens to read a lot of house-building books.) However, not all of us have those kinds of connections or resources. Professional editing, after all, isn’t particularly cheap, nor are the writing conferences where you are likely to meet writers in your field. (And even then, it’s considered pretty darned rude for an aspiring writer to walk up to a total stranger, however famous, and hand him a manuscript for critique. As in any relationship, there are social niceties to be observed first.)

In a pinch, you can always pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and uses “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” – its time-honored meaning – AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne…unless you have a serious death wish.)

In tomorrow’s post, I shall talk about strategies for getting the kind of good, solid feedback you need without treating your first readers like mere service-providers. (If you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends.) Until then, keep up the good work!

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