- Choose one person. Too many readers can be confusing.
- Make sure your MS is in standard readable form. (I recall someone once sending me 200 pages of single spaced, half-inch margin text. Unreadable!)
- Choose someone you trust. You need to trust them to say negative as well as positive things.
- Choose someone whose literary judgment is good. Not necessarily your best friend, but someone who has the skill to analyze writing.
- Do not tell this person what you have written. Present the work, not your judgment. Let the work speak for itself.
- Let them follow their own schedule to respond.
- When you get a response NEVER argue. Always thank.
- Take time to think about your response before rewriting. Criticism is not necessarily correct. Some parts of the criticism might be useful, others not.
- Focus on the big aspects of the criticism, not the small points.
- Remember, being judged is never fun, but always necessary.
- If you are going to have a long wait for a response, start something new.
Jaeda, from Moorhead MN, writes to ask, “Have you read any of your books?”
Of course, in the process of writing the book I am constantly reading what I have written. But when I do that I’m reading as part of the writing process.
Then, as I am currently doing now, I am reading my new book to a class. In that case I am primarily focused on their reaction to the book.
On occasion, when I am asked to speak about a particular book—such as when, in March, I visited Springfield, Missouri—where they held an “all-city read” event with Seer of Shadows—I’ll read the book so I can remember what happens, the better to answer questions about the story that will inevitably come my way. I’m merely doing my part for the event.
Then there have been those times when a publisher comes to me and says, “We’d like to re-publish one of your books. Do you wish to re-write any of it?” Obviously, there too, I must re-read the book.
But if the question is, “Have you read any of your books for the pleasure of it?” The answer is “No!” Why? Because, when I re-read one of my published books I will always come up with things that might have been better. Perfection is not my line of work. Having come across such imperfections, there’s not much I can do about it. So, generally speaking—with the exceptions cited above—I do not read any of my books. Too frustrating!
One of the things that is most useful to me, when I’ve finished the first draft of a book, is to read it out loud. I used to read the books to my kids If, at chapter’s end, they said, “more!” I was okay. If they said, “Can I go out and play now?” I was not okay. They, however, are grown up and gone. These days I might read the book to my wife, a tough critic. But what I like most to do—and which is most productive—is read to a school class. I usually go to a local school, a school for kids who have learning problems. They have dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc., and, of course, are smart kids who have developed all kinds of compensatory skills, among them being wonderful listeners. They provide terrific insights to my work, both positive and negative. But what is it that I listen to most? As listeners, they are very polite, too, so they won’t say anything while I read during my bi-weekly half-hour sessions. BUT—they will squirm and shift their feet if the pace of the book slackens, if I’ve become too verbose, too complex. More than anything else, I listen for those body movements. With pen in hand—when I read out loud, I always have a pen in hand—I mark those restless spots. Then I go home, and cut. I suspect—though I tell them—they have no idea how helpful they are.
The occupational hazard of being a writer is criticism. It will come at you whether you share your work with the whole world, or only your best friend. It can be supportive, painful, or stupid. It can be very insightful, or woefully ignorant.
In all my years of publishing I have never had a book about which somebody hasn’t said something negative. Indeed, an English professor at Brown University once told me that criticism was more important than the work itself. A reviewer of True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle wrote that “if [Avi] had worked harder it would have been a better book.” A recent review said that writing in the first person removes all suspense from the story. (Too bad for you, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, etc., etc., etc., … ). The late Kenneth Tynan once wrote, “A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” That said, knowing the way is important.
However painful, one can learn from criticism. I think it was the actor, Laurence Olivier who once said something in the nature of, “If you want to improve your art, never read the good reviews, only the negative ones.” What I have learned is that the best thing one can do with criticism is listen, and never argue. (I’ve never met a critic who accepted criticism of their criticism.) Still, if you argue with a critic you don’t hear what may be useful suggestions, and you become trapped in your own vision of what you have done. Nothing is harder than being a critic of your own work. Sorry, a writer needs those extra eyes.
Why is it so hard to evaluate one’s own writing?
I think the answer may be found in something I’ve often said, “Writers don’t write writing, they write reading.” The stranger who comes to your writing responds solely to the text because there are no hints, prompts, or suggestions about that text. Such readers only see what is there, and will respond accordingly. The writer of the text, however, brings an array of added information and emotion to the text.
I was recently reading the memoir of a prominent writer, who wrote about using the particular eccentric character traits of a close relation to express the thoughts of a long gone queen of England. Writers do this sort of thing all the time.
But if the passage is written in such a way that a reader cannot grasp the moment, what remains is a passage which only moves the writer, for his words are infused with his memory. For the reader, who does not have that memory, the emotion is not there. In other words, it’s not the emotion in the writer that matters. It is the skill of the writer in conveying that emotion to the reader which is vital.You write a passage about some real emotion, and when you read it over it evokes the same emotion—but it’s not in the text. It is in you. In short, it’s hard to critique your own work, not because of what you have written, but because of what you have not written.
What you feel is helpful. But what matters is your skill in communicating the feeling to readers.