Choosing a reader

We’re probably not the best judges of our own work. We can be oblivious to our blind-spots (among mine are too liberal use of commas and an annoying addiction to alliteration). It’s almost as bad to be too self-critical.

Having someone else read your work and make constructive comments can save you from grammatical ticks, grave structural misjudgements and unconvincing characters (a just about acceptable level of alliteration there, I think…)    

But it’s important to choose the right one. Some people like a loved one or close friend to read for them. I think this is risky. We’re sensitive about and protective of our writing. Exposing it to other eyes, particularly in draft, is difficult. If your reader knows and loves you, they will avoid the ruthless and often necessary truth. This won’t do you any favours.

Better to have someone – ideally a writer themselves – who you trust but don’t have an intimate or long-standing relationship with. A work colleague, a friend-of-a-friend, a fellow writing course student… someone sufficiently distanced from you and your non-writing life to be properly objective.

You can get them to read your work ‘cold’, or you can give them pointers on the things you’re doubtful about and need particular guidance on. Is this love scene convincing? How can I improve the end of that chapter? Have I fleshed out my characters sufficiently? There’s something missing from this middle section but I can’t put my finger on it… can you?

If they do a diligent job they’ll come up with things you hadn’t noticed or hadn’t thought of. They’ll find holes in the narrative you didn’t know were there and make assumptions about characters that perhaps you hadn’t intended. You’ll also be able to tell from their comments whether they found it an engaging read or not.

Unfocussed criticism can be hurtful and dent confidence but constructive comments from an empathetic but at-arm’s-length reader will improve your work. So once you’ve found a good one, cherish them.

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