One thing so many writers struggle with is letting other people read their work. It’s daunting, nerve-racking, full-on exposure with nowhere to hide. But before you even think about sending your manuscript to anyone else, it should pass by the first reader and editor of the piece – yourself.
That’s the hardest part. Once you put it in front of someone else, you have nothing left to do. It’s out of your hands; the proverbial ball is in someone else’s court. But when you’re evaluating your work, how can you trust your own judgment? How can you be the very best reader for yourself?
Many instructors remind writers to “think like the reader.” But that’s a loaded statement – one of those things that you hear, agree with, and then have no idea how to actually do. So let’s explore some of the ways you can access an internal barometer to judge your writing.
It begins by asking yourself three questions.
1. Are you looking forward to any parts of the story?
It may sound a little self-aggrandizing, but it’s OK to enjoy your own writing. In fact, it’s encouraged. It’s part of knowing your voice, knowing your value, and trusting in the veracity of what you’re writing.
If you’re looking forward to a certain part – or part(s) – of your story, chances are it’s because those are sections of strong writing. It’s hard to know bad writing is coming and look forward to reading it, even if you enjoy what’s happening in the story. (Maybe you’re looking forward to fixing it, but that’ll come in a bit.)
2. Do you dread parts or skip ahead in sections?
This may sound simple, but to think like a reader, we have to approach our writing like we’re the reader. What parts do you like and dislike?
So, when you’re editing a piece, are there ever any times where you start thinking about what comes next, and you start to feel this nagging in your head, like “ah, it’s that part again?” Guess what? Your adoring readers out there will think that, too.
Remember that quote, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader?”
Through the transitive property, we can stick anything into that formula, and it’ll be true. “No excitement in the writer, no excitement in the reader.”
Don’t keep combing through the parts that you enjoy if you’re looking for ways to improve your piece. Look at the parts you dread, the parts you skip over, and ask yourself why. What’s it missing?
It’s worse yet when you not only dread parts but skip them. If you can’t even suffer to read them, why should your readers? Ask yourself: Is this writing on brand for you? Does it feel like something you’d be proud to put your name on?
If you’re skipping and/or dreading sections, I can guarantee you it isn’t on brand yet. It isn’t something you’re ready to send out there into the world.
If you can’t fully appreciate writing with your name tagged on it, then what’s the point? Painters don’t paint pictures and include small sections styled like other painters just for the sake of doing it. They make it theirs and no one else’s.
3. Are you writing something you’d like to read if it was written by someone else?
“If there’s a book out there that you want to read, but it isn’t written yet, it’s your job to write it.” —Toni Morrison
The quote applies to more than just selecting subject material. You are writing because you enjoy it, I assume, but expanding on that, you probably also have a passing interest in others reading your work at some point. (Unless you’re one of those rare writers who only writes for the joy of it, in which case, godspeed.)
But if your goal, primary or secondary, involves getting it published, then accept that you have no control over what other people will think of it. You do, however, have the ability to control what you think about it. Basically – if you saw this story you’re writing in a literary magazine, would you stop to read it?
If you’re not writing something you would like to read, then A) why are you writing it at all, but also B) you probably aren’t enjoying it either…and, thus, neither will your reader.
This may be a tough thing to evaluate, but what I do is boil my story down to the simplest terms and be honest with myself – “Would I read a gritty story about Dionysus living in an android-controlled future where all alcohol has been destroyed?”
Yeah, I would. Good thing I’m writing it.
No joy in the writer, no joy in the reader, right?
In the beginning
This question of how to be your best reader ties into another question writers will often face – “When I have so many stories going at once, how do I know which one to work on?” or the simplified version, “How do I know which stories are worth my time?” The answer to both comes from the same mindset. How do I know which projects are worth working on, and how do I know which projects are any good?
The answer to this one wraps back into “thinking like a reader.” But it’s deeper than that, so let’s dig in.
In an interview I conducted with flash fiction superstar K-Ming Chang, a spark lit around this question. When asked how she knew if a piece she was working on was good, she said that it’s her belief that a piece is really good and worth your time when you can’t help coming back to it. You can’t help working on it, writing it, editing it, thinking about it, dare I even say stressing about it.
Call it intuition. A tool in your writer’s toolbelt that gets sharper and sharper the more you read and write.
We all have pieces like that, right? The ones that nag at you. The ones you keep opening up and rereading, knowing deep down (or somewhere) that this is a piece that is worth your time. To work in another bit of advice from another expert, it was Ray Bradbury who advised to start a new story every week. You can’t write 52 bad stories, right?
But Ray, how do we know which ones out of those 52 are good?
Well, which one do you keep coming back to? Which one do you keep working on?
What even is good?
The entire question of “how do I know if a story is good enough for my time/effort/thoughts?” is kind of a loaded question as well because, well, “good” isn’t always good.
Let me explain: There is no universal standard for what “good” is in terms of story content. You could follow the three-act structure as a science, but the characters could fall flat. You could buck the three-act structure entirely and write a bestselling, award-winning story. So asking yourself, “is this good enough?” isn’t the type of question you can just answer with a simple yes or no. It requires more of a deep dive into the story and into your wants as a writer and a reader.
Now that you’re thinking like a reader, or at least thinking about thinking like a reader, the next step is trusting yourself. Which, admittedly, is pretty much the antithesis of being a writer. We all doubt ourselves. But that’s where you again have to learn to be in two minds. You can subjectively doubt your story because it’s your story, and you’re so close to it. But objectively, you have to have a discerning eye for if this story has quality beyond your internal editor’s nagging. After all, you’re a reader as well as a writer. You know quality when you see it. So trust your reader’s instinct as you revise.
Publishing is subjective enough on its own. Think about it objectively and give your work the credit it deserves, even as your internal editor is gnawing at your brain stem.
Think about the three questions above. Read your work through the eye of a consumer, not a creator. Understand what you want from your writing and where this project fits into that whole schema.
Oh, and don’t forget: “Think like the reader.”
—Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. Twitter:@sippenator101; more at joshsippie.com.