The Trials And Tribulations Of Selecting Readers For Your Writing (And How You Can Use This To Help Identify Those Who Can Help You Survive The Zombie Apocalypse!)

28 Oct

The role of the reader is extremely important to any author. Readers provide feedback at the early stages of a novel’s development on things like whether the characters are believable, if the plot lines connect properly and whether the overall story arc works. Yet finding good readers can be very difficult. The most important thing an author needs from their readers is honesty. There is nothing worse than getting a response from a reader who clearly doesn’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you something isn’t working. It’s a waste of their time, and yours. So how do you go about getting readers that will give you good feedback? Well, here’s some advice from my own experience.

Firstly, finding good readers often involve a bit of trial and error. All writers know that some bits of their early drafts are a bit dodgy. If you want to find out if someone is a good potential reader, get them to check out a bit of your writing that you know isn’t working. If they come back with a gushingly positive review, you know they are just trying to spare your blushes and there is no point in using them any further. If they tell you it’s crap, hold onto them for all you’re worth. You know they will provide you with honest feedback.

Secondly, if a reader passes this first test, be very specific about what aspects you would like you them to comment on. Too often, you will find that if you aren’t you won’t get the response you want. This is particularly important if you are you are wanting feedback from experts about a specific aspect of your story. For example, if you want an opinion on a specific medical procedure from a doctor, you need to tell them specifically that this is what you want. Otherwise you will find that your medical expert will give you comments on your grammar, or typos, which is not what you want (and may indeed not be their strong point!).

Thirdly, give readers a specific date to get feedback back to you. If you don’t you will find that reading and commenting on your writing will slip down their list of priorities. If they don’t get back to you on time, you need to find someone else. After all, they are mostly doing this for free so you can’t demand that they do it by a specific time that works for you.

Fourthly, select twice as many possible readers as you actually want feedback from. As a general rule, fifty percent of your readers will not get back to you in time, or indeed ever. In my own experience, I’ve found that family members are probably the worst possible readers, closely followed by friends and partners, unless you are secure enough in your relationships with them that they will be truly honest with you. For the first draft of my first book, I showed it to my girlfriend and she avoided me for several days. It turned out that she hated it and didn’t want to tell me. However, the feedback I eventually got out of her was brilliant and helped to improve it beyond all expectations. Our relationship survived this and she is now always my first port of call for running things passed, but this is only because I know she will give me honest feedback and she knows I won’t take it personally (I can separate off criticism of my writing from criticism of me as a person – this is a lesson many writers can benefit from).

Interestingly, I come from an academic background where peer-review is the norm. This means I am used to getting honest, blunt and indeed, sometimes deeply biased and insulting feedback on my writing (I have effectively been told to burn in hell for even conceiving of a paper let alone daring to write it on several occasions). But this also means that I know my academic colleagues will not pull any punches when I give them some of my fiction writing to read. They, in turn, know I will not take it personally because they have made much worse criticism to my face of my academic work (some justified, some not – but I’d just failed to provide all the supporting information).

My academic background provides me with not only access to people I know will be bluntly honest, but also with experts in a variety of fields that make them useful readers. These are the types of people who can provide valuable feedback on subject areas such as how diseases spread, the latest information on molecular biological research, or what governments are likely to do when faced with an outbreak of an unbeatable virus (I write in the post-apocalyptic genre after all).

A lot of them also work in the field, meaning that they have odd, but useful, skill sets like how to fix engines, how to sail boats, or indeed (in one case) what to do in the event of a polar bear attack. As I only realised when I started running my book passed them and they started giving me very good feedback (and indeed picking holes in my proposed survival strategies), this means these people not only make good readers who can give you honest and relevant feedback, but they would be pretty handy people to know if and when the zombie apocalypse ever happens. I’d certainly try to ensure they were part of my post-apocalyptic survival group.


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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2 Responses to “The Trials And Tribulations Of Selecting Readers For Your Writing (And How You Can Use This To Help Identify Those Who Can Help You Survive The Zombie Apocalypse!)”

  1. rmactsc 28/10/2012 at 03:18 #

    I hear you. It was easier to get people I only casually knew to read my first book then to get family members to read it. Even now that’s it’s over at Amazon.com entitled American Rebellion Book 1 of the Revolution people I’ve never met praise it and I’m still trying to get family members to read it lol 🙂

    • cmdrysdale 28/10/2012 at 22:58 #

      I know what you mean here. I think family are probably the worst people to try and get critical feedback from (they’ll either really like it regardless of what they think of it, or just never get round to reading it). My girlfriend’s great at giving feedback though (once I’d re-assured her I wouldn’t, under any circumstance, take it personally!), and she’s usually spot on with her suggestions.

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