Writers need effective responders.

I use “responders” instead of “readers” because that’s what we need–readers who can respond to our writing in ways that help us to revise.

Responders are our beta testers.  Any application or product needs testers to try out the product and report back to the creators–this works, this doesn’t work so well, I’d like to see this feature. First (and second and third and fourth) drafts are our beta versions, and we need to send them out into the world with all their glorious glitches.

But being indiscriminate about who reads our drafts does not serve our craft well. A crucial skill we develop is how to get effective feedback.

Maybe you recognize some of these less-than-effective types of responders:

  • the appropriator – This responder reads your work as if it were his or hers. These responders don’t listen to your writing. They only hear how the piece should be shaped according to their writing. “Rewrite this in first person. First person is always fresher than third person.” “You need to focus on the background of this environmental disaster, not on the people involved.”
  • the detonator – This responder bombs your work and says it’s for your own good. “This is a cliché.” “Use active voice.” “Never begin a sentence with ‘but.'” “I know you can take this criticism.”
  • the teflonator – This responder slides  your writing off his or her reading surface as smoothly as a well-greased egg. “This is good. I like it. Wow. Great job.”

You know when you’ve found a good reader. When you read the comments or discuss your writing, that person echoes your inchoate sense of where your writing works and where you need to revise. We all have that writer’s revisionary sense–“Something’s not quite right here.” Effective readers articulate those somethings.

If you don’t have effective readers, here’s the good news: You can train them. In fact, it’s your job as a writer to be specific about your feedback requirements: “I need help with organization. I’m not sure if I should approach this topic chronologically or thematically.” “This character’s voice is not convincing. Where does the voice ring true to you? Where does it seem off?” “I’m missing an introduction and am at a loss. What would you like to see at the start?”

I like the schema used by the National Writing Project for its electronic anthology, open to all participants of summer institutes. The anthology is a huge online space for getting feedback on writing of all genres. Writers can ask readers to bless, address, or press.

Ask a reader to bless your work. You only want to hear what works or what the reader likes.

Ask a reader to address your work. You offer criteria you’d like the reader to attend to.

Ask a reader to press your work. You want the reader to be meticulous about each area that needs revision.

Effective responders need to be skilled at hearing their own reading voices. When they read, they need to be able to notice their “aha” moments (“That metaphor gives me chills”), and their confusion (“I’m not sure of the timeline here”), and where they need more information (“I want to know what this character looks like”), and then be able to tell the writer that script of their reading experience.

Maybe one of the best ways to find or train these kinds of readers is to become one yourself. Read other writers’ works and develop the skills you want responders of your work to possess.

It’s sacred stuff we’re doing here. Offering our work for response and responding to another writer’s work takes care, time, honesty, and love.


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