Musings on the Craft of Writing

►”A Little to the Left?” (On Choosing Test-Readers)

Conscious of it or not, when we walk into a home we are in a state of mind which determines how we will react to everything inside of it.  When I come into my own home, I’m only affected by anything out of the norm (the more abnormal, the greater my reaction would be).  It’s “home”—I’m not there to critique the chairs, tables, pictures or lighting.  I’m there to relax, work, eat, whatever.  When you go visit friends at their home you’re in a similar mindset—hanging out, dinner, talking, etc..  You may like their house, furniture, etc., but you probably don’t care much.  You’re there because you’re friends and you enjoy hanging out.

But everything changes if someone says, “Hey, would you please come to my home and critique it?  Everything… The tables, couches, flooring, TV… literally everything.  I need to know how the whole thing feels to you, and how each individual piece looks.”  If we accept this request and do as they ask, we place ourselves in a differcriticsent state of mind, one which is strange to us unless we’re professional interior decorators.

And this is the same predicament we are in when someone asks us to read their stories.  We have shifted over into a mindset which is wholly different from the one we’re in when we read for pleasure.  You feel obliged to place your mind in such a state where you think you’re supposed to be making criticisms of things, whether they actually need corrected or not.

Contrast this to the state of mind you’re in when you pick up a novel from one of your favorite authors.  Your mind is open and relaxed, and you’re in a state of happy anticipation.  But what happens if someone hands you this same book (hiding the author) and says, “This is a new author I found.  Would you critique it?”  Further still, what if you’re told, “This guy is a hack.  He’s just ripping off [So and So].  Help me tear this down.”?  There is a correlation between our expectations and our interpretations.

The-Critic-Season-1-_Alt_Those in the academic world all know that (especially, new) TAs grade far more harshly than veterans or professors.  Why?  Because they’re in a mindset of “looking for what’s wrong.”  Only as they settle into the job do they learn to see the “big picture” of how to grade a student.

Anyone can be an asshole; and anyone can be a Pollyanna.  We are affected by scores of elements, most of which we’re unconscious of.  There’s the “Beauty Bias,” Racial/gender bias, bad mood bias, You-Name-It Bias… And for reader-critiques, there are a host of simple literary biases to deal with on top of the everyday human-bias pile.

So there is the rub: we need the critique of others.  It’s asinine for writers to try and share their stories with the world without getting some feedback before they sky dive it out of the plane.  But, the readers we choose are going to be imperfect at it.  Unfortunately, this often means that we may need to hire professionals (and even then you’re not guaranteed useful feedback).


It seems, therefore, that the best strategy for us is to have a large array of readers who both have maturity and experience to be of value.  Independently collect their feedback for later assimilation.  Use people who are critical of everything they read (especially books that they like), for this is a good indicator that they are likely even-headed.  Listen to their exact criticisms of other books.  Do they seem to be on the nose?  That, I think, is how we know that they may make good test-readers for us.

Opine and enlighten away.











One response

  1. Delilah

    Some very sound advice here, Daniel. I’ve had a difficult time with test readers in the past. I’m not looking for people to fall all over themselves with compliments or tear every line apart. A nice happy medium would suit me just fine.

    November 21, 2013 at 9:06 pm

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