When my wife, who is my most important beta reader, ends reading the first draft — or the second — of one of my works, well… that’s always a delicate moment.
In fact — no matter how hard I try to keep my composure — at times one remark of hers is all it takes for me to answer back — to defend and explain all the reasons I’ve written what I’ve written.
This is an understandable reaction. The same reaction of a proud father against anyone telling him his child is a bit too wild and banshee-like.
However, about the editing process and the comments you may get from family members, trusted friends, or beta readers I believe Neil Gaiman‘s point of view makes a lot of sense:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Writers and readers
This is so because in the first case, readers are expressing their reactions as readers — and you want, you need readers to be happy with your books. In such a case your trusted first readers are simply saying: I don’t know, I kinda found that part a bit boring, or confusing. Or whatever.
Instead, in the second case, your readers behave as if they were you. As if they themselves were the writer. As a result, more often than not their advice isn’t about the story itself, but about you not being them and, consequently, not writing like they think they would.
If this explanation seems a bit too convoluted, consider that writers spend their life trying to write in the way they think they should…And next to never manage to — but I’m digressing.
This writer-reader dichotomy is the reason why when you finish your first draft you’re advised to let it rest for a while. In fact, in this way you can get back to your work and more easily read it with a reader’s eyes. Not necessarily because you’ve forgotten what you’ve written, but because the heat of the creative act has cooled down a bit.
Beta readers’ feedback — a three step approach
However, even when you’re lucky enough to have at your disposal helpful readers, it can be difficult to discern good from bad advice. This may be the case because your ego, your sensibility, you call it whatever you like, is so easily hurt you end up on the defensive no matter what.
To avoid this I usually resort to three simple steps. First, I try hard to not talk back. I try hard to avoid any arguing. This is good because so doing I allow my readers to express their opinion more freely and completely. And it’s also good for my marriage. In fact there’s nothing like a dissatisfied wife to wreck havoc on someone’s work…
Secondly I let a day or two go by. In this way I have time to decompress and think with more equanimity about the feedback I’ve received. A couple of days might look like nothing, but in general they’re more than enough for me to see through my reactions.
Finally, I try to objectively assess what I felt when I read my work as a reader. This is the last and most important step. In fact, sound feedback is most often about glitches, and problems, I myself have already noticed while writing, but that for some reason (read laziness) I thought I could avoid addressing.
As a matter of fact, good editing, once you’ve mastered the more technical aspects of writing, is essentially the art of examining your own work and point out all those places where you, knowingly, you have cut corners.
So go back and put in place all the words, all the right words. One after the other.