As writers, our job is to make the reader see what we see. Whether you’re telling a story based on your grandparents’ wedding or sharing instructions on how to change a tire, you need feedback — constructive criticism — to find out whether your message is coming across clearly. Only a reader can tell you that.
In my years as a writer at the Boston University creative writing program, I learned how valuable constructive feedback from writers can be. But as I’ve learned since, it’s just as valuable to get feedback from non-writers as well. After all, your intended audience is not made up exclusively of writers.
But not all feedback is created equal! No matter how perceptive your readers are, some of their comments will be of more use to you than others. Although I’m gearing my remarks to fiction writers, my advice applies to writers regardless of genre.
Seek Constructive Criticism From Other Writers
Other writers know how to critique a story. Aside from knowing the technical aspects of writing, they can edit your lines to help make your sentences cleaner and stronger. A writer can give you the most specific criticism, such as:
- where the arc of your plot could be sharpened
- a detail or an illustration would help bring the picture you’re creating into sharper focus
- the pace or impact of your story would be improved cutting lines or even whole passages.
But for all of these reasons, it’s also a mistake to limit yourself to criticism solely from writers: they’re often focused on the technical aspects of writing that they can fail to see the forest for the trees — and you, the writer, can get lost in the detailed feedback they give you. For example, I’ve sat in on writing workshops where the group discussed one sentence for upward of fifteen minutes! Obviously, that wasn’t very helpful to the writer in regards to improving their story overall.
Seek Constructive Criticism from Readers Who Don’t Write
Readers who do not write can give you feedback that’s as constructive as feedback from other writers — maybe more so. A non-writer will give you something you’ll rarely get from a writer: a gut reaction. They aren’t caught up in analyzing how you’ve put your sentences together or whether the arc of your plot reaches its apex on page nine or page ten. All that matters to a reader who does not write is the impact of the story.
To get the most benefit out of their gut reactions, you may have to coach them through critiquing your story. Some of these readers may not have practice critiquing stories, and some of them might be afraid of offending you. They’ll help you the most when you ask specific questions such as:
- Where were you turning the pages fast? Where did your interest flag and why?
- Were there places where you became confused?
- Did you like or could you identify with the main character?
- Are the characters’ motivations clear and credible?
- What was your general impression of the story: what was it all about?
- Does the ending leave you satisfied?
Remember that just like a fellow writer, a non-writer may give you feedback you don’t want to hear. But remember, these people may not want to offend you, so always be sure to thank them for their help. Thanking them will draw out more feedback, whereas if they think they’ve offended you, they’ll stop being honest and stop being helpful to you as a reader.
Search for These Types of Non-Writer Readers
Avid Readers of Fiction Who Do Not Write Fiction
This reader is your actual intended audience, so it’s critical to meet their expectations. They know how fiction is supposed to read. Above all, these people love reading. They enjoy the experience of being caught up in the fictional world, identifying with the characters, and caring what happens to them.
These readers can give you detailed responses to your characters and their motivations. They will also tell you if there were places where the plot seemed to go off. In addition to answering the questions above in a specific way, they can draw comparisons between your story and published novels they’ve read.
Someone Personally Close to You and Supportive of You
This reader will help you pinpoint where the strengths of your writing are. Knowing your strengths is important because then you don’t need to worry about them in doing your revision and can focus on other areas. Also, other readers may make you wait a while for their feedback, which can be frustrating! A spouse or a best friend is more likely to clear the decks and read right away.
One Reader Who Isn’t Much of a Reader
This person might not read your whole story, but they can help you with your all-important first paragraph. Look for someone like my sister: she liked Catcher in the Rye when she read it back in high school, but she’s rarely picked up a novel since then.
So I just read her the first paragraph of my current project, sentence by sentence. As I go, I ask whether what’s going on is clear to her. (I quiz her on that to be sure.) At the end, I ask her what, if anything, would make her read on, or what expectations about the story does the first paragraph create. I know that if my first paragraph is clear and interesting to my sister, it’s a good sign.
Artists of Other Genres: Poets, Painters, and Musicians
These readers are able to make interesting comparisons and will give you a unique perspective. A painter friend once told me that the tone of one of my stories reminded him of the mood of a Rossetti painting. What I saw when I looked up the paining gave me ideas about how to enhance the tone of my story further.
Your Ideal Reader
This reader is not to be confused with your most supportive reader, who may not tell you where you’re going wrong or even be able to tell you. This reader knows. Sometimes this reader points out things that you didn’t even know were in the story. Of course, it’s hard to find your ideal reader, but if you get yourself out there by attending workshops and conferences or by being bold enough to ask well-read friends to look at your work, that person will come along.
Search Out the Most Important, Most Constructive Criticism
In evaluating your reader’s comments, pay the most attention to comments aimed at the heart of the story:
- Clarity of writing: where they had to puzzle over something. The last thing you want the reader to have to do is stop. You want the reader on an uninterrupted ride through the story from beginning to end.
- Characters: where they didn’t understand (or believe) a character’s actions. Again, the reader will be pulled out of the story if they start thinking that the characters’ actions are implausible or confusing.
- Plot: where the story stopped drawing them in. Get your reader to be as specific as possible about this, and get them to tell you why.
- The Ending: they thought the ending was unsatisfying or in some other way not right. Again, get your reader to tell you exactly why. It’s also interesting to ask the reader what they thought the ending was going to be, or what it should be. You may get a good idea!
Any of these things may or may not be an issue with your story, but a writer’s strengths and weaknesses tend to be consistent. Most writers find that they rarely run into trouble in certain areas and often run into trouble in others.
Know That You Can’t Please Everybody All the Time
Writing is still subjective. Some advice is helpful; other advice is not. Take a look at the following advice to help you sift through your feedback.
- Note consistent feedback. The more readers that make the same comment, the more seriously you should take their advice, even if you think they’re all wrong. Most likely, they’re not.
- Consider negative comments. If you get a negative comment from your most careful reader, give it attention if no one else pointed it out.
- Remember that this is your story. You’re the one who decides whether a line needs to be edited. If so, you’re the one who knows how to keep the new line consistent with the style and tone of your story. The same goes for changing your plot line.
- Some things are on the reader, not you. A reader may miss something you said, dislike the topic, or suggest a change that would be just plain wrong. In that case, move on.
- Stick to your style. Beware the criticism of a writer who imposes their own style of writing or the style and conventions of their genre on you.
- When your ideal reader tells you to fix something, fix it! No exceptions.
Seeking out and applying constructive feedback is an all-important aspect of the writing process. It helps a writer to grow, to see where they’ve developed over time and to identify where they still need to work.
What kinds of experiences have you had with constructive criticism? What would you do to give better feedback to your writing friends?