Everyone who writes at some point has the same experience. I finish a short story or a novel, go over it for the tenth or twentieth time, and print out a clean copy to give a friend to read. Perhaps I’ve been reading chapters to the members of my writing group as I go along, or perhaps I am a solitary writer with no group and a strong reluctance to share my work till I think it’s finished. But at some point it will be finished enough to share, and I will have to show it to someone. What I get in return can be significant.
A recent discussion on a chat list for writers touched on the problem of getting nothing but negative feedback from a first reader. The reader even went so far as to tell the writer to stop writing. The reaction of the other writers, including me, was that this negativity is not useful. It’s destructive and there’s no point in destroying a new writer’s dreams and determination. The discussion and comments reminded me of two things—first, how kind some of my first readers had been, and, second, a story I was asked to read by someone who thought he was destined to write the great American novel. In my opinion he couldn't write a grocery list. I learned from both experiences how to make useful comments without judgment. (And I have always been grateful to the editors who were kind. When I look back at my early work . . .)
First, I ask the writer to describe the “aboutness” of the story. What is the story about? Tell me in one or two sentences. Don’t give me a plot summary—that’s different. Tell me what this story is for me as a reader. Some writers will never have thought about this, and it helps any writer focus on the story and what is or is not relevant in the telling of it. A first reader asked me this once after I'd finished a novel, and I couldn't tell her. Her question and my reaction forced me to rethink the story and what I wanted to do with it.
Second, I ask about the opening line (and sometimes about the closing line). Where did it come from? What is it supposed to achieve? Is the writer satisfied with it? I’m almost never satisfied with my opening lines, but I sometimes am very happy with the closing lines. Are there alternatives that were discarded? Why?
Third, I try to find a sentence with an interesting or unusual word usage and ask about that. Why did he or she choose this word? What is the writer trying to achieve?
Fourth, if the story is a mystery or paranormal or science fiction, I try to ask relevant questions on structure and formula (I’m limited to mystery fiction mostly), and how the writer understands the formula. With this question I hope to learn something about how others see the formula.
Fifth, I might ask about characters’ names if there is anything unusual about them, or if too many characters are named Joe or Mary. I might also point out that the ethnic identities of the characters do or do not match the setting or story line.
I could go on, but you get the idea. There is nothing in any of my comments that is a judgment or an evaluation. Each comment is meant to take the reader and the writer deeper into understanding the story and the writer’s goals. This can be edifying for both writer and reader because getting another writer to articulate a way of viewing the world and trying to present it means that I will learn something.
In addition, if I read something I think is awful and have to discuss it, I am forced to dig deeper, to reach beyond my prejudices and blinders. I have to listen to another writer’s reasons for doing something I probably wouldn’t have done. And I have to read with possibility in mind, with the idea that the writer is reaching for something. She may not have achieved it, but she has reached, and I should be willing to view the story within that frame. All of this makes me think harder.
Being asked to read someone else’s work is a compliment as well as a responsibility. Anyone who agrees to do so, therefore, is obligated to provide something useful and productive to the writer. Offering up a visceral reaction isn’t enough, and that doesn’t count as any kind of thoughtful reading. There is nothing to be gained by telling a struggling writer that he can’t write. I am well aware that the one person whom I think can’t write a phone message may turn out to be the next Scott Turow.