Saturday, 20 April 2013

Reading Not Like A Reader

Often, when a writer asks for feedback on a work in progress, they will ask for the reader to pay attention to things like story, character, pace, and to not bother too much with spelling or grammar or other nit-picky elements at this stage.

The reason for this is pretty obvious. It’s early in the development of the story and most of those minor errors will be taken care of during the polishing and fine-tuning stages which will happen once the story is more or less completed.

Right now, all the writer wants is an overview of how things are taking shape and whether the premise seems interesting and engaging.

Which is fair enough. But there is a slight problem.

Those small nit-picky errors are distracting. They can make it hard to get into the flow of the story. Is your attention wandering because of them or because the story isn’t holding together?

However, I can see the benefit of getting some feedback on the general engagement level of the story early on, so I try to ignore most of the minor errors in favour of getting a feel for the characters (do I like spending time reading about their adventures?)and the premise (do I care what happens next?).

In order to do this, I have to concentrate quite hard. As a writer, I’ve trained myself to pay special attention to the little errors. Now I’m trying to disregard them.

But  a strange thing happens when I do that. Not only do I overlook all the questionable grammatical issues and the typos and the run on sentences, I also stop worrying about dialogue and description and setting.

In fact, when you focus that hard, the things that stand out are: Why is the character doing this? What’s the point? Why now? Who cares?

Is this how a reader would read the story? Probably not. But then few readers would get the manuscript in this rough and ready manner.

Once you strip away the incidental stuff, the good and the bad, you can see the story much more clearly. And you really don’t need someone else to do that for you. Simply go through your draft and write down, chapter by chapter, who does what in a chapter, what the reaction is, what they decide to do next and why.

If you do that, it will become very easy to spot when characters do things for no good reason. Jane visits Mike on a whim. Dave cleans his car because he’s bored. Amy joins the army because she lost her job at the Post Office. Whenever someone acts without purpose, a real reader reading the published book will stumble or yawn or start daydreaming.

If you want to know if the story definitely works, a lot of that is down to personal taste and the kind of story you want to write—it’s a difficult thing to know for certain. If you want to know if the story definitely doesn’t work, that’s a lot easier to spot.

Although occasionally I point things out to writers and their response is, Oh, yeah, I know. I’m going to sort that out later. Which makes me wonder what was the point of showing it to me in the first place?
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32 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Never considered that. I'll try it next time I critique someone's work.
I tell my critique partners to note any mistakes, which they usually do. I can miss typos just as easily, so I appreciate all the help I can get.

Sarah Foster said...

Now I'm having bad flashbacks to writing workshops. Sometimes people are determined to find problems in a rough draft so they nitpick relentlessly. Or, on the other hand, when I have my boyfriend read my work he just tells me how great it is. I think you're right about the fact that you don't really need someone else to see your story clearly.

Stephen del Mar said...

I've never had a problem getting into a story and enjoying it when it's in a rough form.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I often get this request from writers wanting feedback on early drafts, but it often isn't the feedback they were hoping for.

@Sarah - not if you specifically want to know if the story works as a story.

@Stephen - You sir are a rare breed.

Al Diaz said...

Often I ask the writers what are they looking for from my reading. I have encountered those who care for everything I could notice out of place, but there are others who only want to know if the story works or not. And there was actually one who didn't care about anything at all but made me read it as "urgent". The story was flooded with typos, grammatical errors, lack of structure or plot. I lost my time and she didn't change a single thing. Amazingly enough, she keeps people asking for crits and betas. Why is totally beyond me.

J Keith said...

I have found that when I ask people to note any errors, they focus all on the grammar issues and not on the story itself. I have to specify the questions I want answered like do they care about the characters, are they defined enough, is the story interesting?

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - some people like the attention, I guess.

@J - it's tough for some people to offer their opinion, safer to stick to grammatical errors. Less chance of hurting someone's feelings.

Krista McLaughlin said...

You have some good points, but usually if someone asks me to read their MS, I have a tendency to point out those typos just because I see him and they are visually there for me. It can be helpful, but at the same time I understand why a writer might only want opinions on the characters and overall plot, not those grammar issues.

mooderino said...

@Krista - I'm the same and I like people to point out mine, but I try to get rid of many as possible before letting someone read it for story issues. Solves problems for both sides.

Patricia Lynne said...

Usually when my writing partners have my work and are looking at plot and things like that, they'll still correct minor errors they find. I do the same. It's I see a misspelled word so I fix it and get back to what I was originally editing.

Medeia Sharif said...

When I beta read I circle and comment on the big and small stuff. I usually end up writing comments on plot, pacing, and character inconsistencies. I notice some of my beta readers are also the same, that they have specialties. Some have the eyes of a hawk for grammar, while others have tips on building tension. That's why I always have more than one reader.

mooderino said...

@Patricia - A few errors aren't going to get in the way too much, but if every line of dialogue is wrongly punctuated it drives me crazy. I just can't ignore it.

@Medeia - that's a good way to deal with it.

The Wicked Writer said...

I think if you are handing your work over to someone to read, you should be prepared for the negative as well as the positive, as a reader of those works, if you have to make a negative comment (somethings not working, grammar is crap etc.,) it can be done in a nice way. I don't mean sugar coat it, but you don't need to say it's unmitigated crap lol. Be gentle, egos are very fragile at the best of times. What do you think? Liked the post by the way.

mooderino said...

@Wicked - I'm not so much talking about how you present your views, but if a writer wants feedback on story rather than grammar, it would help the reader make that assessment more easily if there weren't all these errors all over the place.

As for the other thing, I would rather someone be specific than gentle. And we all need to be exposed to some unpleasantness to build up a healthy immune system. In small doses, of course.

Doreen McGettigan said...

This is a good reminder for this critical person who cannot even seem to write without editing let alone read without editing!
I do tend to get hung-up on grammar mistakes etc. while reading. You might think I never make any:)
Great post!
doreenmcgettigan.com

Fe said...

I agree about sending out a manuscript for a reading with as few errors as possible. As a writer, surely one would want people to see that they were, in fact, capable of putting together a sentence or two with no errors? Then again, I'm a spelling and grammar fanatic ...

My problem has being finding someone knowledgeable in fantasy to read my work critically. I had an author read it for me but he writes murder and adventure stories - he wasn't much help. :p

mooderino said...

@Doreen - everyone else's mistakes are so much easier to spot.

mooderino said...

@Fe - anyone who's well read should be able to give you an idea if the characters and pacing are working. I think more detailed critique is when it probably becomes trickier to find someone with the right kind of knowledge.

Linda Adams said...

Believe it or not, I don't notice the nitpicky errors. I'm not good with details, so I will miss a lot of nitpicky things. In fact, sometimes the story will throw me because the writer is assuming I'm picking up on the details. I focus primarily on the big picture issues.

John Lee said...

It definitely helped a lot when you mentioned it was hard to find the flow of words in the rough stages of a piece of writing. I'm going to keep that in mind next time I ask someone to give me feedback on a rough draft. Thanks for the tip!

mooderino said...

@Linda - I think it's easier for some than others. Once you become aware of issues it's hard not to see them (sometimes even when they're not there).

@John - it's worth bearing in mind, and forgiving a reader who can't see beyond the typos, annoying as that can be.

Trisha F said...

I'm a little too proud to send out a manuscript, even for broad feedback, without giving it at least one typo-finding sweep-through.

Jay Noel said...

I had other authors give me feedback, and they were gun-shy. I guess they're not used to people "asking for it" and meaning it.

I felt like I needed someone to find all the weaknesses. Ego can step aside for a little bit!

Annalisa Crawford said...

"Why is the character doing this? What’s the point? Why now? Who cares?" These are great questions to ask yourself at the first draft stage too... I'll try to remember them.

Lynda R Young said...

I find reading the story quickly first, especially if I put it on my kindle, I can keep an eye on the big picture and not get as distracted by the little things.

Elise Fallson said...

I need to get fresh eyes on my ms. Especially now that it's gone through a few revisions. I know the story so well, it's sometimes hard to have an objective/fresh look at it.

mooderino said...

@Trisha - i think some people really don't want to go through their manuscript again immediately after they've finished it.

@Jay - it's also worth remembering you don't have to agree with any suggestions.

@Annalisa - I ask myself these questions all the way through.

@Lynda - reading manuscripts on my kindle is one of the great benefits of my e-reader.

mooderino said...

@Elise - i have the same problem with stuff I've been working on for ages.

Lydia Kang said...

I find it hard to step away like that when I'm reading. It's frustrating!

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

I don't really use beta readers or critiquers anymore.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

I love the more global responses, and I can count on specific readers to give me those. Others focus on the details to the exclusion of the deeper issues. I'm lucky to have some really fine writers read my material for all level of comments.

One thing I've found is that when I'm engaged in a ms. I make few or no comments; the comments start when I pop out of the story. I have to ask myself why isn't this section working for me? What can I tell the writer that will help him?

mooderino said...

@lydia - same here.

@michael - of course, once you go pro it's probably very different.

@C.Lee - I'm similar in I notice the problems more than the good bits. Doesn't mean I don't like it, but what takes me out is probably going to be more useful.

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