The Sanctity of the First Read
September 29, 2022 § 21 Comments
By Alyson Shelton
“What are you working on?” Someone new in my life might ask.
“An essay.” I’ll answer.
And that’s that.
I’m actually a decent conversationalist but not when it comes to my writing. Perhaps I’m superstitious, worrying that the heat of the idea will cool with sharing, but I also cherish that time when my idea is nascent and full of promise. And so, I don’t read very early drafts and I don’t ask anyone to read mine. It is a mostly unspoken policy and one I hold dear. The last thing I need is your pained look, which could be related to stomach cramps or the reverberations of some stupid thing you said to a cashier, to register with me as questioning the validity of my concept.
I didn’t like sharing baby name ideas either. I didn’t want to hear about that guy you once knew, the master manipulator, who had the same name as my soon-to-be-born son. Instead, I wanted to dwell in potential.
I’m still like this. Potential keeps me going on the darkest of days.
The promise of eventually sharing a work in progress with my most trusted readers keeps me going. The first read is a thing of great beauty.
And I know they only have one first read to give me. And so, I use it wisely.
I’ve been writing long enough to know when my writing is ready for readers. It’s that beautiful and maddening moment when there’s nothing left to change without feedback. In my eagerness for validation, I have fumbled the hand-off many times.
When I was younger and greener, I craved validation before I put too much time into a draft. I wanted to know I was on the right track. Little did I know that the less time I put into it, the less validation I could expect. It’s harder to love the early idea; it’s muddy and lacks the specificity and punch that rewriting brings.
I wanted to be “good” at writing. I wanted to be “good” at everything. And I wanted the growth to sting less.
After decades of writing and receiving feedback, here is my formula for reduced sting:
1, Write that first draft, even if you have to trick yourself. Just get started. Try not to judge yourself. Try not to get in your way. Try not to hate how the words on the page are not matching the idea in your head.
2. Return to it. Make it better. Show, don’t tell. Lean into the pieces that are uniquely you. Your writing superpowers. Don’t try to be anyone else; they already wrote something, this is yours.
3. Read it out loud. This is a great time to refine voice, yours as the writer and your characters’.
4. If you’re thinking of sharing it, consider the questions you’d ask. Would they be about plot holes? Character arcs? Word choice? Connective tissue? Voice? If you know the answers to your questions, or even have an inkling, you’re not ready to share it. Take your own suggestions. Fix it.
5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you don’t know the answers to your questions. I know something is ready to share when I’m at the crossroads. When I feel with certainty that if I continue to edit my work, there is a decent chance I will make it worse. I will dilute it, editing out the very thing I am trying to capture.
6. Find a trusted reader. Someone who treats you and your work, with care. Someone who never ever starts notes with, “Well, what I would do here is—”
No. Full stop.
Find someone who always, without fail, begins their notes with all the things to love about your work. Someone who sees what you are trying to do and works with you to make it more of that very thing.
I bet you’ve read more than once that trusted readers are gold. They are, which means they might not be easy to find.
Please know that reading with the care you’d like, the kind that stings the least, takes time and energy. It’s best if it’s not done as a “favor.” It’s best if you are acknowledging someone for the service they are rendering. You can pay them in kind, by exchanging work, or other agreed upon services, or of course with money. People do like paying bills with the work they do.
Clear expectations and boundaries make for the best notes. These conversations could feel awkward, especially at first, but wouldn’t you rather it get weird before you show them the work you hold dear to your heart?
Yes, yes, you would.
Also consider how much a cheap or free read might “cost” you emotionally. Is it truly a free read if you walk away feeling deflated, worthless and discouraged?
I’ve received all of the reads there are from the best, where they get it, love it and have ideas for how to make it better, to the absolute soul-crushing worst. I say this without reservation. Receiving an MFA in a truly toxic environment gives me this confidence.
Guard your work. Care for your voice. Believe in yourself and never squander a first read.
Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award-winning feature, Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, which successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp, Little Old Lady (LOL), Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and on Instagram where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, Where I’m From.