Anatomy of a Reader
September 28, 2022 § 30 Comments
By Amanda Le Rougetel
To write is one thing, to be read — deeply read, seen on the page for the writer we can be — is another.
Words on a page amount to something or nothing, until someone other than the writer reads them, and then those words amount to a whole new world. A world of response. A world in which the words give shape to life beyond the writer’s hopes and dreams and take hold as the reader’s.
The ultimate reader is one who, like you, reads the piece in published form. But before then, the wise and the brave writer asks for feedback on the early, pre-published drafts. If it takes courage to write, it surely takes courage to ask for feedback and then more courage to receive it: Courage and calm and confidence. Not always present in good measure, but even a scrap of each will do to get the process going.
To be a reader of a writer’s early draft is no less daunting, for it is to be both honoured and burdened: honoured to be asked for comment and burdened to do so, and not everyone is up to the task.
I categorize draft readers into three groups: the surfer, the pedantic, and the bold.
The surfers are willing to read, though are most comfortable on the surface of your words; they lack the interest in or capacity for substantive response: “Oh, it’s good,” they might say. “I like it. The dog is funny.” How disappointing when your reader doesn’t match the courage it took for you to ask them to be your reader. The surfers’ feedback — well meaning but in its vagueness void of value — is, if not irrelevant, then dissatisfying and especially so at the early stages of testing out a new piece of writing. In those early stages, writers need bold comment and naked assessment.
Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person.
Next up, the pedantics. These are eager readers, pencil in hand, happy, so happy, to slice and dice your words. In short, they copyedit, even proofread, well before those important tasks are needed — or wanted. Your work comes back to you with changes marked, tracked, and shouting off the page: “Typo on page four.” “Break up the description of the neglected garden; it’s too much as one chunk.” “Fix the comma splice in line 3.” These comments — commands, really — are well meant but as disappointing as the surfers’. They come too soon: the trees in sharp relief while the beauty — or potential beauty — of the forest is unseen and unremarked.
Perhaps, of course, I asked the wrong person.
Finally, the bold. Now, these are the treasures among a writer’s early readers, for the bold understand that feedback on a draft is more than mere opinion and is less, indeed quite different, than detailed editing. It is a commitment to be clear, honest, and constructive in response to what is (or is not yet) on the page. Such a reading requires time and skill, and respect for the writer as someone whose work deserves substantive assessment by a discerning — a bold — reader. Music to the writer’s ear is feedback something like this: “The idea is sound, but you have not written the story you are hinting at. You have sidestepped it with the frippery of the dog’s behaviour, which is amusing but not needed as foreground here. What I want more of is the woman’s childhood and her obsession with the house on the corner. Tell me who lives there and why is the garden so neglected?”
Perhaps, finally, I asked the right person.
The feedback from a bold reader gives us substance to work with and to build on. It proves to us that we are creating something of value with our writing, something worth reading and responding to, and, therefore, something worth continuing to work on. Alternatively, of course, it might be something to ditch, to move on from. Having even only one such reader in our circle makes a writer fortunate indeed.
The lesson? Know the anatomy of your draft readers and choose them wisely. Keep the surfers and pedantics in your circle, for they each have their place later in the writing process. And nurture the bold readers in your midst, for they are few and far between. Be brave enough to ask for their feedback, courageous enough to receive it, and smart enough to heed it. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in Steering the Craft (2015), her gem of a book on the craft of writing: The critique is a response to your work, to your writing. It is not personal. Learn from it. However, you are the final arbiter. The discipline of art is freedom.
So, at the end of the day, to write is to be free to work with words as we see fit — to choose them and shape them; to work alone when necessary and, equally, to connect with others when needed: Wise is the writer who asks for comment and feedback and input along the way. And fortunate is the writer who has even one reader in their circle willing to be bold and in so being to invest in us their time, their insight, their skill. And when we find you, dear bold reader, beware, for we shall never let you go.
Amanda Le Rougetel lives in the heart of the Canadian prairies in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A retired college instructor, she blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches writing workshops through Writing as Tool.
Fabulous piece, Amanda! You’ve nailed it completely. Love your designations. (I feel fortunate to have several “bold” readers in my life.) Will definitely share this post with students and colleagues. Congrats!
Thank you, Deborah. When I was teaching college students, I really struggled with how to get them to review and edit each other’s work meaningfully. Too bad I didn’t have these three reader-type designations up my sleeve back then! It would be great if they helped your students today…
Yes, yes, and yes to all of this! Wonderful essay. Love the three categories of readers–so spot on. My CP is bold and I am thankful for her.
Thank you so much, Barbara. So glad you have a bold reader. What is a “CP”? I’m sure I should know, but I cannot figure it out…
Sorry for the abbreviation. CP = critique partner (at least in my mind!)
Thanks for the response, Barbara. I am face-palming myself with the obviousness of it, but somehow I just couldn’t dredge it up on my own…
Thank you so much for this. It is the best overview I have found. You are right that seeking response is hard and giving it is harder. [A Le Guin’s book is indeed a treasure.]
Thank you, Jan. I’m delighted that my post has resonated with you.
Such a helpful essay. I loved your 3 C’s–courage, calm, and confidence–but even more, the three types of readers. I am going to share this with my writing group. We’ve been each others’ readers for a long time, but this will help us become more aware of our roles and tasks with one another.
Thank you, nagneberg48. What a compliment that you will share my piece with your writing group. That is wonderful!
As a reader, a member in a writing group of 25 years, and an author of that journey, your process is dead-on.
Thanks for spelling it out!
Thanks so much, Sally, for the positive feedback!
Thank you so much for writing this piece and opening this conversation about feedback! And, I would like to respectfully disagree with your conclusion. With your definition of a *bold* reader, when they say, “What I want more of…” this is actually opinion. They are one reader and they are saying what *they* want more of. In my experience a writer needs *craft* not opinion. The most useful feedback I’ve received is where a reader (and the best readers I’ve found are usually experienced writers) is able to identify the *craft* I’m using in my writing, and encourage and support the use of that craft. ~
For example, “so much is shown in these four sentences. We know who is here, where they are, how they are related to each other and where this visitor is from. We also have a question to answer about how he knew….” and “this question draws us inexorably forward” and “this sets the reader in time in a very clear way right from the beginning of the paragraph.” and “there often are a few things going on in a great piece, the main plot and then also the emotional drama inside the narrator, that keeps the piece textured and interesting….” it’s feedback like this that strengthens and deepens craft in both the one giving the feedback and the one receiving it and gets a reader to trust their own inner authority and grow their knowledge and use of craft, rather than looking to please a reader.
Camilla: thank you for engaging with me on my post.
You make an interesting point, but I’m not swayed. Isn’t feedback always opinion, but valuable only when it arises from a critical reading by an experienced reader (often, themselves, a writer) who supports their comments? Having one’s craft validated is helpful (as your examples illustrate), but only if that validation comes from a reader bold enough to also challenge me when needed — on anything in my piece.
For sure, at its very best, the process of giving and receiving feedback on a writer’s work is rewarding for both parties.
In closing, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I do want to please readers with my writing; the trick is for me to know which draft-readers to call upon in my crafting process to ensure that my ultimate readers *are* pleased.
And thank you, Amanda, for your engagement as well 🙂 It’s an interesting conversation and one that has many layers, and as my Dad used to say, à chacun son goût. Perhaps different kinds of feedback serve us at different points on our writing journey. At this point, I will only offer, “on the table” this article on “The Feedback Fallacy” which I found fascinating. https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy
Yes, many layers, indeed, Camilla. I’m off to read the article; thanks for the link.
You have clarified this so beautifully, spurring me to email a note (with a link) to a beginner writer who is probably muddling their way through my recent feedback:
“I’d like to think of myself as the bold, but I can see I have often veered into the pedantic, out of wanting to share the lessons I’ve learnt. Keep writing!”
Sally, thank you. I’m so pleased that my post here was timely for you. All the best to the beginner writer you’re working with. Lucky them to have you as a reader!
Reblogged this on B. Lynn Goodwin.
Thank you for sharing this on your blog, B. Lynn. I love how one thing online can open doors to others — from your site I went to Writer Advice…and so it goes. Very helpful to have these virtual breadcrumbs to follow.
Bingo! I found myself shaking my head in agreement all the way through your essay.
Thank you so much!
Your description of the types of readers is very apt! Thank you. I have some of each in my writers group. But now that I’m nearly done revising the second draft of my memoir, I’d like to find beta readers who don’t know me but do know the craft of memoir writing. Any suggestions for where find them?
Thank you, and what a good question you ask: Where to find the right beta reader for our work. I don’t have *the* answer for you, but I wonder if approaching the quest might not look much like the one for an editor. The person needs to have not only the skills you’re wanting (for critique), but the interest in engaging with YOUR work in a serious way.
Could you send out a sample, say the first two chapters (or X number of pages), to the person you think might be good and then proceed in accordance with the responses you get? But learn from my mistake: I once sent a friend’s memoir to two people in my circle who had experienced similar things to what my friend was writing about. The responses were not helpful, as they didn’t find the guidance in the book to be what they themselves were looking for. I had made the mistake of sharing it on the basis of the life experience rather than on the basis of writer/reading skills.
Having specific questions in mind that you’re wanting a beta reader to consider will help determine who you might choose and how they respond to your work.
Thank you for your thoughtful helpful reply—good suggestions!
Yes. Good input on the Beta reader quest.
This could not have come at a better time! I am today about to ask for the first time three friends to read a piece I am working on. I don’t know if they’ll accept, but although I had a good idea of what to ask for, your piece has made it crystal clear to me how to go about it. Thanks so much for this piece!
Thank you for reading, Marie. So glad the timing of my post worked well for you. Best wishes for ‘bold’ feedback from your readers for you!
So true! I have had a couple of ‘surfers’ and that has been a lovely ego boost but it isn’t what will make my writing stronger. Your piece has got me thinking about the kind of reader I am looking for. Thank you for your insight.
Thank you for reading — and for commenting, vrendes.