Saturday, May 26, 2012

What Writers Need

When I sent a recently-completed story, one of my rare pieces of fiction, to two friends to read, I received two totally different kinds of responses.

One friend apparently read it hurriedly, and out of a sense of obligation, because his comments were a bit off the mark, as if he had read a different story from the one I sent him. His suggestions were not helpful. I felt I had wasted his time.

My other friend read it carefully, several times, and met with me to go over specific things he liked and those he thought needed improvement. He made some good suggestions about the way some of my dialogue needed to be updated, to suit a 40-year-old man today. Nearly everything he said and wrote in the margins ended up being helpful in my revision. He was concerned about not offending me by his comments, and I was grateful for everything he said.

I learned, again, that asking people to read anything I have written is, for a writer, like a land-mine. Unless carefully handled, it might explode.

Of course, every reader wants and deserves to hear something positive, some appreciation of (at least) one aspect of the story or essay. And it's important for me as the writer to ask, upfront, for a general comment: what did you like and what did not work for you? In that way, I am more likely to get a balanced reaction. I know how easy it is for those who critique to be negative; after all, they have received a lot of negative criticism from teachers and others.

A writer wants, craves, needs, yearns for acceptance and can easily be hurt when he or she feels rejected or ignored.

If my characters are not believeable, if the setting is vaguely described, I should be told this in a context of support and general appreciation, with the encouragement that, with some revision, the piece will be stronger. This is what I tried to do with my university students, few of whom aimed for publication, and what I do now, as I work with older adults aiming for publication.

So it's up to me, the writer, to set forth the guidelines of what I expect in a critique; otherwise, there might be unpleasant surprises, such as a generalization ("good job") or, as in the case of my first friend, rambling comments irrelevant to me as a writer since they focus more on him than on my work.

So I have to choose readers who know something about the creative process, preferably what it means to write something for a reader. My second critic met this criterion; the first did not.

My wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, a poet and writer of fiction for young readers, has often been disappointed, even hurt, by the lack of response she gets from people she expects will appreciate her work: are these readers too busy to pay attention? Are they so far removed from what a writer does that they can't take in what a writer needs to hear about her own work? Probably.

But in the case of editors and fellow writers at literary conferences who fail to notice a comic tone or an original idea in Lynn's work because it does not fit their pre-conceived idea of what a good story should have (action, for example), the issue is deeper than being busy or being self-absorbed. They may be "professionals," but they are not good listeners, I suspect, in conversations because they lack patience, empathy, and open-mindedness. They may work for publishers, but they are not good readers.

I believe many people who agree to critique a work lack the patience of my ideal (second) reader, who was willing to devote considerable time to appreciate what I had done, and to appreciate me. He paid me the great compliment of attention.

Writers need readers, but often finding good ones isn't as easy as it might seem. It's a challenge to write well; it is also a challenge to be a good reader.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

Amen! Very well put. In writing workshop classes I was often amazed by the shallowness of the comments noted by fellow students who supplied critiques.