I’m always intrigued when I read a novelist’s Author Note and see that they’ve thanked scads of people who read the work and offered them feedback. (I’m not talking about research experts who know a lot about a particular area: the Spanish language, for example, or police procedure, or Peruvian 18th-century art, or whatever, and are simply reading the manuscript with an eye for research errors. I’m talking about general readers who are reading to give feedback on the story itself.)
My own experience with this is mixed. Sometimes, critiques can be invaluable. When I know something is wrong but I’m just not quite sure what it is, or how to fix it, readers can often put their finger on it and help define the problem. It’s that unenviable feeling — “Something’s not working, but I don’t know what” — that trips me up. Once I know exactly what the problem is, I usually know how to fix it.
On the other hand, sometimes critique partners can muddy the waters more. I can’t count the number of times I’ve given the same work to a couple of different partners, only to discover that one loved it, and the other hated it. Or one complained about a particular aspect of the story, and another singled it out for praise. Sometimes I wind up seeing the readers’ point and make changes accordingly; other times, no matter how open-minded I strive to be to constructive criticism, I just wind up thinking that their take is off-base.
How do you approach critique readers? Do you ask them to look for something in particular, like too much showing versus telling, or whether a particular character is sympathetic? Or do you just give them the manuscript, tell them to have at it, and then ask their impressions later?
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