Monday, September 26, 2011

Seeking feedback from the obligated reader

In my opinion, reading is a natural thing.  It is a natural process. A person who is not concerned with the politics of the actual publishing industry who simply wants a book to enjoy goes on an exploration. They make a selection based off of many factors...cover art, reviews, and word-of-mouth recommendations.  Notice that I left out the word "obligation".  I did this intentionally because I think an obligated reader makes the act of reading a chore.  However, that is exactly the kind of feedback many authors seek out when working on a manuscript.

I think that an obligated reader is the worst kind of reader. An obligated reader is irate...similar to the irateness one feels when obligated to attend an event that they don't want to go to. They need to fulfill an obligation because it has been assigned to them. They are an editor, an agent, or the friend of an author who coerces them into reading their manuscript.  Or, they are a fellow author who reads the work in the hope that the other person will take an interest in their writing.  I also think that "give-a-way" critiques make for an obligation as well.  There's a reason they are offering that service--it simply isn't out of the goodness of their own heart. But it could be as simple as more traffic and positive word-of-mouth. obligation it is and they really, truthfully, don't want to read your stuff but hide behind a smile and the thought (I'm going to get through this as quickly as possible).

So, if your only choice for feedback is twisting the arm of someone who ordinarily wouldn't do so, how then is this going to affect your manuscript?  Quite a bit actually.

The irate reader is going to insist on being hooked right off the bat (depending of course on the level of obligation).  "You'd better hook me in the first sentence, the first paragraph, or the first page or we are done!"

They will be brimming with all the tools from their MFA classes, red pen handy. They will slash at your adverbs (ignoring the fact that authors like J.K. Rowling are awash with them and make millions if not billions of dollars).  They will pound things like show don't tell, they will grab their soapbox and nitpick your story to DEATH.

The irate reader is the WORST reader on the planet. And really...I think any feedback you get from an irate reader is almost worthless. You'd be better off just hiring an editor to help you get your manuscript in shape for whatever it is that you intend to do with it.  At least then, the person isn't irate with you and out for vengeance for making them do "work".

Do you seek feedback from people that are obligated to read your writing?
If so...have you been happy with the result?
Have you been an obligated reader for someone else?
If did that turn out?

With my own writing, I have an editor and that's it. I decided never to seek feedback from anyone that I had to obligate to read my work.  The only "obligated" readers I've had were agents that requested pages and those were all rejections.  As a parting "monday" thought, I find it interesting that the gateway to publishing must go through readers who are irritated because they are FORCED to read in order to buy the latest spring fashions and pay for spa appointments.  I guess that's why it's called "work".


  1. I'm a member of a writers' circle and we critique each other's work. Yes, it's obligated, but it isn't very irate. The feedback I've had in the past has been very helpful, and likewise when I give feedback about someone elses work (I hope). However, we know what's involved in reading an entire manuscript, which is why we only work in small sections at a time. It's not a huge job then...

  2. I think there are readers who behave like you say, and indeed there are non-obligated readers who are equally useless. People vary in their intentions and ability to help, not just from person to person, but the same person on different days.

    But I think you may be throwing out the baby with the bath water. If I go into a bookshop (ask your parents kids) and pick up a book, have a quick read, put it back down, and then someone asks me why I didn't want to read more, that's a valid question. Especially as the market becomes more open and the individual gatekeepwers become less important to the process.

    But I take your point, people looking for what they personally don't like in your writing, or those who stick to one school of thought, are pretty useless.

    Interesting post as ever.

    Moody Writing

  3. I never thought of it that way... but it makes perfect sense.... The publishing gatekeepers are 'forced' to read items and I can only guess how tiresome is must become.

  4. People are always more motivated to do something when it is their idea and not someone elses. So the obligated reader is naturally more difficult.

    On the other hand, I think it's important to have a few good critique partners. It took me awhile to find mine, but I'm glad I did.

  5. It's an honour to be asked for my opinion from someone who writes well or from someone who genuinely wants to write well. It's an honour to get their opinion on my writing.

    Otherwise you're just exchanging niceties which is a waste of time, in my opinion.

  6. I hire an editor who will tell me the truth. If one of my writer friends or other friends ask to read my work, fine. But for honest feedback, I go to an editor.

  7. Like you exactly I'd prefer only my editor. Thanks

  8. I do have crit partners, but I love all their writing. I think when people win books and the author says, "Great, can't wait for your review on Goodreads!" That is the kiss of death. Talk about obligated to read something. IMHO

  9. When I was a member of Critique Circle (before they kicked me out for sins like pointing out 24-hour diners exist)I may have been an obligated reader to get points but I never insisted anyone hook me right away or go nuts about adverbs or show vs. tell. Of course other people did so with mine. You get what you pay for, I suppose.

    The thing with agents and editors is unless they're just starting, they've had to read a lot of shitty manuscripts for years. I can see how that would kill their love of books to the point where they're just aching to find some way to toss you into the reject pile so they can move on. It's a big flaw in the process.

    Now are things like "crowd-sourcing" where authors go to groups of readers directly via social networking. It'll be interesting to see whether that takes off. In time it might even replace the traditional agent/editor gateway.

  10. You do make a good point; that's why I either wait for people to offer to look at my writing, or I ask fellow writers with the understanding that I'm happy to give their work a look-see in exchange.

  11. I don't entirely agree that obligated=irate. I don't treat all of my obligations with distaste or lack of care. In fact, sometimes too much passion can spoil a review. It comes down to skill.
    I would rather twist the arm of a journeyman mechanic to help me change my brakes than depend on the neighbor kid who just really wants to see the car with it's tire off.
    All that said, I think an editor is the way to go too, assuming you can find a good one.

  12. I think one just needs to learn to glean the good stuff out of the crits. They may be obligated crits, and thus suspect in some ways, but I have gotten loads of great edits from them nonetheless, and my books are better.

  13. When the publisher of "Harry Potter" wanted to check out how good the books will do, he had his daughter (a second or a third grader ) read the first chapter of the book. When she was done with the manuscript she asked "where is the rest of the book?". Then he knew that these books will do good with kids.

  14. My three critique partners offered to read my work and I was fortunate enough to hook up with three awesome writers whose work I enjoy reading. My test readers also volunteered. My wife... well, at least she's not irate about it!

  15. Like the other commenters, I have a several critique partners and the feel is very positive, supportive, and yes, they do point out the shit I do wrong. But the question is: is a crit group such as that an obligation? Sure, it is not solely for fun. They have not picked up my book from B&N, so it sounds like, according to your definition, that it is an obligation. So in that case, I have to disagree with the idea that an obligated reader is not useful.

    But actually, in my view, they have no obligation. They choose to participate. If my writing was so heinous to them, they could simply choose not to. Whereas a paid editor, your example of someone who is okay to use, would be much more of an obligation. Sure, they could refuse, but they would lose their livelihood, whereas my crit group partner would just get extra time on their hands.

  16. I critique and get critiqued, and for me the majority of it has been useful, but you do have to be very careful who you work with, and even then you don't listen to all their advice. It's just to subjective.

  17. I've been networking with people in the hopes of getting some critique partners. I think it's important to have a lot of different critique partners BECAUSE you can't trust everything that a single person says. I suppose in a way they're obligated, just as I feel obligated to read their work, but that doesn't mean they can't enjoy it! I have truly loved many of the stories I've been "obligated" to read over the years.

    Also, things like adverbs and show don't tell are things I point out all the time. I think they can work sometimes, but honestly? In the stories I've seen, it was dragging otherwise great stories down. Pointing them out doesn't mean I hate their work or that I think these rules are iron-clad. They're not!

  18. Sorry for two comments - just thought to mention that my experience with higher-education writing workshops is that they DON'T focus on a lot of those stuffy writing rules. All four of my writing profs basically said that the show don't tell rule was a good rule of thumb, but that people use it stupidly and blindly.

  19. Shit Mike, you're really stepping up your game in terms of post quality. Props,man. The obligated reader is a very delicate problematic of obligated readers. As much as you have to get your work out there to field proof it, it's a hard thing to sell. I got two of those (including my uber-critical girlfriend). Good obligated readers are diamonds. They're hard to find.

  20. I've mostly had obligated readers - people from the same writing network who were obligated to read my writing in order to be able to post theirs.

    Yes, some do come to the table with inordinate amounts of advice to do this or do that or your can't do that, but over time, I've found a circle of people whose criticism I value and whose work I am also obligated to critique. This exchange/barter system has worked well for me though.

  21. I agree with you in theory. Just going off of what some of the other people have said, I would think I group of crit partners can work in a symbiosis. Even though they are obligated, they are getting enough back so that it creates a positive loop rather than a negative one.
    Agents and the like, though, are more like parasites. Well, exactly like parasites, since what they want to do is live -off- the author without giving anything of substance back.

    I've done my best not make anyone feel obligated to read my work. While I was in process on it, I only actually approached one person that I asked to read it, and she ended up being less than useful. Anyone else that read any of it before it was finished approached me.

    Still, it makes getting reviews rather difficult.

  22. There is so much truth in this post. I think most of us are just afraid to admit it.

  23. The last obligated reading I did was when Middle Daughter asked if I'd read her book-in-progress. I agreed to, and dreaded it and put it off for two weeks. In the end, it was actually pretty good; not my kind of thing but I could see the merit in it and encouraged her to keep going. But it could have been disastrous. (I left the book until I finished all my other reading and was in a good mood.)

    You have a good point, though: I read all the time, and I HATED reading stuff in school because I had to do it. I would deliberately NOT read things I was assigned, as stupid as that sounds.

    One way I get around that is posting stories on the web. You might get only 1-2 comments, ever, but they're people who want to read it. And there's not much risk, because if nobody notices it, you can always send it to publishers, but if EVERYONE notices it you'll be famous anyway.

  24. I dunno. I have to agree with mooderino, there is a risk of writing off a process that can help some people.

  25. I think the biggest problem is the fear they have. I might be comfortable with some weird stylistic choices, even excited about taking some risks, and they'll be wringing their hands over my perceived rule-breaking.

    I love it, though. I'd get a hundred beta readers' feedback if I could.

    I enjoy telling one beta reader the opinions of another (without revealing anyone's identity) and watch them go crazy in disagreement. It's all just opinion anyways.

  26. Oh, I wanted to add that once a writer has mastered the basic toolbox, it's not a bad idea to step away from other writers' feedback, because you'll never satisfy them all without making your work bland.

    I've now had the experience of having a book out in the world long enough to get feedback from strangers who read it for pleasure. It's been a wonderful experience and gave me confidence in a way that critique from other writers did not. Not everybody's going to enjoy my work, but for the few who connect with it ... they're who I'm writing for. It's so clear now.

  27. Michael ... there is so much anger in your words. I gathered from your post that you were never burned by the irate reader because you hire an editor. Is this correct?

    Well, for a person that has never had CP'S how would you honestly know what the experience is like first hand?

    As for myself on my first novel I had about ten people help me along with my ms. One out of the ten was an "obligated reader." She was a bit strange, shall we say, but there were bits that helped. Of them I did read there works and helped as much as I could i a positive way.

    Did I feel obligate and hostile... No. When you sign up for this you want to help others as they have helped you. Isn't that what this community has given to ALL of us?

    On my second book I had six AMAZING CP'S and a few who just wanted to read my novel. NONE asked for anything in return even after i offered help.

    Perhaps I have been lucky, but NO ONE is twisting your arm to do anything. When someone spends SO much of their time trying to help you, obligation isn't a negative thing, You'll want to pay it back and if they don't need your help, then help someone else.

    That's what I do because I Want to, not because I HAVE to...

    As for your comments about agents, editors, and such in the publishing world, I couldn't agree with you more. Many have to edit or read ms's that they have NO interest in reading.

  28. Great post. I can tell you felt obligated to read those 1000 page manuscripts against your will. It sometimes happens with people in the writing community, we are forced to step outside our genre. Sometimes it's a good thing and sometimes it's not.

  29. I think everyone is excited to read my book and will do so happily because if they don't I will hunt them down and FORCE THEM TO EAT EVERY WORD!! Ahem...see, no irate obligations here.

  30. I have crit partners online and a local group. Is it obligation? Yes. But a good one. Networking is about working for each other, helping each other. Over time I've learned which critique to take and which not to. It's all the author's decision in the end. They see things I don't.

  31. I think I've had the opposite problem in some respects-- I just get "ohhh, it's interesting. Unique. Very nice" kind of comments. Nothing terribly helpful. Mo is very critical of what I write- sometimes too critical but not mean-spirited so I don't worry that it's an obligation read that starts from the irate reader attitude. And his comments are almost always helpful. But, I think, like you, the real work will be with the editor because at the end of the day, even your best reader's opinion isn't going to mean much if an editor says something differently about this sentence or that paragraph, right?

  32. Just because it's an obligation doesn't mean it's necessarily onerous.

    I wouldn't force anyone to read my work. I might ask, but if that person says no, I wouldn't hold it against them. I would love to get someone to tear my work to shreds (all the feedback I ever get is the "it's good" sort, which helps me not at all).

    There are obligations and there are people who like to help. I guess you just have to find the ones who want to help and ignore those who only do it out of obligation.

  33. I'm with you, I want someone to want to read my work, period. I have a few people that I know, that have offered me some pretty good advice in the past, but I'm always apologizing to them because I know I'm out of their preferred genre. They read because they're obligated. I could go online to look for folks, but in the end, I think I just have to trust myself, and those few people that I know that have given me such help in the past, even if they doing it under obligation.

  34. Sad but true Michael. Reminds me why I don't like reading anything complicated because it reminds me of the obligated reading I had to do in college. Love your post!

  35. Yikes. I hope you don't feel obligated to read my work!

    Personally, I love critting people's work, because I enjoy the process of reading roughs and finding ways to improve them. Maybe that means that I should become an editor...


  36. I try and do what I want, not what I feel I must, so I'm inclined to agree with Michael Di Gesu's comments regarding wanting to help those who have helped me.

    Not all crits are equal, but deciding what I do with the feedback is up to me. If someone is all irate when critting my work, that's their problem, not mine. Though I can't say I've had that experience. My CP's are great and we really want to help each other succeed.

    I have also participated in a 1 page critique giveaway fairly recently and I found it extremely helpful.