[In honor of Learnuary 2020, I’m re-publishing this version of a post from a past entry I made in a writing RPG game site. It covers what I think is really excellent writing advice about evaluating your story with others and a major key to getting meaningful feedback. Please enjoy!]
I have had this frustration since I first remember writing short stories as a teen. The frustration is this: you write a story with a freaking awesome concept that’s been nagging at you to write it and you spend at least your weekend throwing it together with some characters and a setting and navigating plot holes and trying to do that imagination some justice with the skills you have at the time. You know it’s not a masterwork, but there it is. And you didn’t write it to hide it away— no! You wanted to communicate that thing.
So you get up the nerve to share it with a friend or family member. You wait for them to hand you back the copy or answer your email and if they ever do get back to you about it, all that they say is, “It was good. I liked it,” or “It’s not really my favorite genre,” or “It’s okay.” Or *worse*, after months and months of waiting, they give it back to you with red marks for capitalization and spelling and no comments at all! Copy editing? Here I wanted to share an idea and talk about the plot, the twist, the characters, the concept, the world! Yet I would walk away feeling like I face planted the whole thing. I wonder, do other writers feel this? This difficulty of getting real feedback? Because after a few of these letdowns as a young adult, I decided maybe I wasn’t a writer at all. Maybe I didn’t communicate anything well so it wasn’t my “talent” and I chased a few other elusive talent rabbits in other arts for a while.
And then I stumbled on Simming (Some know it as writing RPGs). Among many other reasons I enjoyed it, Simming made me feel like I was getting feedback. When someone joint posts with you, they are experiencing the same scene with you. When they answer a tag, that shows they read what came before and they encapsulate and *respond* and when you’re really on fire, you’re all talking about the plot and concept and setting and you’re as invested in their characters as they are in yours. It’s something akin to the feedback my young writer self always wanted so badly. While writing collaboratively I feel heard. I feel understood. And I feel like I’m hearing and understanding others.
But it doesn’t always play out like this either. Sometimes you are writing what feels like your A-game and no one seems to respond. You make the efforts, you invite them in, but the magic isn’t happening. It’s then I start to look at the writing and think, maybe it sucks, maybe it doesn’t engage anyone. Maybe I’m the only one enjoying this and I shouldn’t inflict my storytelling on these poor, dear friends. Internally, I’m back to my insecure highschool hack self.
It might be the writing. I’ll never count that possibility out, I guess. But then again, it might be the reading. We’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume they read the sim post or the attached story chapters of your personal work and it’s not forever lost in the slush pile of their inbox. They read but move along silently. Maybe they love it, hate it, or are indifferent. But whatever they are feeling, they consume and don’t respond. You bash your keyboard for a week, a month, a year, and then listen to the crickets.
I read a book I recommend called How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. It’s chock full of great writing advice and does a fantastic job of addressing matters specific to the genre. But towards the end, tossed in there is a little section that doesn’t even make it onto the table of contents about how to train a “Wise Reader” or how to become one yourself. By Wise Reader, he’s not talking about how to train your inner reading life for yourself, but how to give meaningful and useful feedback to the writer. I can’t legally just retype the three pages entire, but let me give a few selections and summarize it myself.
“Rare is the writer who actually knows what he’s written when it first comes out on paper. A passage you think is clear won’t be. A character you think is fascinating will bore other people silly because you haven’t yet grasped what it is that makes him interesting. But you won’t know it– until someone else has told you.” […] “Who? Your workshop? A teacher?” […] “They really can’t do the job you need. You need someone to read it now, today, the minute you finish it. Someone who is committed to your career and wants you to succeed almost as much as you do. […] In other words you need a spouse or a very close friend who is a brilliant critic.”
He goes on to describe what he really needs from this person. He doesn’t need them to fix his grammar or to give him a better idea for the story or to tell him to cut out paragraph six and combine his intro sentence with the first part of the dialogue. What he needs is someone to tell him what they think and feel at each turn. He describes how a playwright or live performer gets this feedback immediately. The audience leans in, is absorbed, laughs, cries, gasps. Or if it’s not working, they look at their watches and have murmured conversation– they are disengaged. For a piece of writing, it’s much harder to see the reactions, so you need someone to write down or tell you their responses to the scenes and the beats and the turns of phrase and the descriptions and the narration and the dialogue, etc. You need them to get inside the cogs of their own mind and narrate to you what they are feeling and thinking each step of the way.
“As a fiction writer,” says Card, “You can’t watch what they do while they’re reading your manuscript. But you can train one reader to notice his or her own process of reading and take notes that will help you find the weak spots in your manuscript. You want him to keep a record of symptoms – what the story does to him.” […] “The Wise Reader doesn’t imagine for a moment that he can tell you how to fix your story. All he can tell you is what it feels like to read it.”
And you train your Wise Reader by asking him questions.
Was any part of this piece boring? Was the story comprehensible or did it confuse you at any point? Did you find anything contradictory? What did you think about this specific character? What made you like him or hate him? Did you forget who he was? Was there any part that was tough to understand or made you have to read over twice? Was it a believable feeling? Was it too predictable anywhere? Show me where! Was it satisfying or ambiguous? Is there any part you feel unresolved about? Where does it flow the fastest? Did anything feel like it came out of left-field? What phrases did you like the best? What imagery felt too cliche or overly familiar? What parts were maybe too obscure to understand?
“You won’t be asking questions for too long. Pretty soon your Wise Reader will learn to notice his own internal processes as he reads.”
Reading this explanation has made me more sensitive to becoming a Wise Reader for my friends. I am trying to pay attention to my internal reactions as I read things others share with me. I know everyone is in a different place as a writer, so I don’t share these very specific reactions unless someone asks me for feedback. (unwelcome feedback can be demoralizing, and we all know how that feels) but I realized that as much as I wanted to have that kind of feedback for my writing, others might be thirsty for that from readers like myself. So I’m teaching myself to give feedback as a Wise Reader, and hoping the feedback process catches on with my writing circles too!
I have two points in closing.
First, remember that Wise Readers can never be wrong. You can only thank them for feedback, you can’t correct them. All they are offering is their actual experience of the work. And an experience isn’t right or wrong— it just is. If it’s not the reaction you wanted, then the writing is what has to change. The onus is on the writer.
And lastly, a Wise Reader put in some *effort* to examine their own thoughts and took *time* to make comments. If you’re like me, you have been craving this candid feedback for your whole writing life. But you’ll offend your Wise Reader if you don’t do anything with that feedback. So use it! Thank them, confirm their responses as being very helpful, and then mull over it. Use it to change the piece they are commenting on, or use it to keep in mind for your future work, in order to avoid those pitfalls and build on the strengths they’ve highlighted.
Go forth, Read Wisely. If you want a Wise Reader, be a Wise Reader. Offer feedback to others and when invited to, give it in goodwill and in the honest desire to help hone the craft. Bravely ask for feedback and patiently train up a precious Wise Reader or two of your own.
Most of all, write. It’s in you.
(Quotes from How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, pgs 121-123)