Monday Writing Motivation: Could your best reader possibly be you?
Who is your best and wisest reader? Who is able to offer you the most cogent and practical advice in your quest to make your story as good as it possibly can be?
Writers I’ve worked with have spoken in that kind of off-hand, nonchalant way that suggests that they’re a couple of steps ahead of you in the writing game, that they’ve sent their manuscript to their “beta readers” – who have come back to them with praise and accolades. “Your story,” they’ve said, “is great. I wouldn’t change a word of it.”
Who these “beta readers” are, I have no idea. Could they be friends of the writer’s? Perhaps. Could they be professionals whom he (or she) has paid for an objective assessment? That kind of advice comes at a price – and it’s not a modest one. So I conclude that the beta readers are probably friends and family.
Not your most objective critics. There’s always too much at stake for friends and family to offer the unvarnished truth. Indeed, there can’t possibly be an unvarnished truth, because they approach the manuscript as the work of someone they love and are therefore inclined to like it.
Publishers offer professional readings of your work – but only if it interests them enough to invest the money necessary to pay the costs of one or two readers.
So, if you can’t afford to pay for a pro reader to give a critique of your work, and haven’t yet persuaded a publisher to make that initial investment required to have your manuscript vetted, what can you do?
George Sanders, whose name pops up regularly in these pieces of mine, has a very powerful suggestion.
He says: become your own objective reader.
But if I’ve already dismissed your friends and family as potential readers, then what sense does it make to suggest that you, who have the most invested in your text, can come to an accurate assessment of its worth? Or can spot the darlings you’re constantly enjoined to murder? Or can identify the faults that need fixing, the superfluous words that need pruning, the hanging participles that could, untended to, embarrass you?
Here’s what Sanders says: You have to teach yourself to read your own text “without attachment”, to have a fresh reaction to what you’ve written, and to learn to respond by changing and improving the text in sometimes small and sometimes significant ways.
The key, of course, lies in divorcing yourself from your own work. Sanders insists that it’s possible – after all, it’s what he does – and that it gets easier with practice.
So, having established a certain distance between yourself and your story, what are you looking for? Sanders is clear: anything that makes you more delighted is good. That adjective that suddenly seems unnecessary? Cut it. That verb that could be a little more active? Change it. Try to improve the number of things in your story that you like, and reduce the number of things in your story that you dislike.
“Even a single better word is an improvement in that direction,” he says.