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Your First Reader

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We can probably all agree that time slows down painfully when someone is reading our writing in draft. And we’re particularly anxious about what our first reader will say about a first draft, yes?

When you decide your work is ready to be read for the first time, who do you ask for feedback? A spouse? A friend? Another writer? Your writers group?

Recently I came across an article from Poets & Writers that I’ve kept for a long time. Kevin Nance interviewed novelists and poets about the people they ask to read first drafts and what they expect from them.

Nance wrote, “Once a writer and first reader connect, they negotiate, consciously or not, what type of feedback, what level of criticism, the writer hopes to receive. Is she looking for analysis on a micro or macro level? Close line-editing or big-picture observations, especially those related to structure? More important, does the reader understand what’s going on? Are the characters and/or voices authentic and internally consistent? Are the writer’s messages and themes coming through? Is it interesting? Does it produce an emotional response?”

Good questions.

Perhaps the feedback you’ve gotten in the past hasn’t been very helpful.

That might have something to do with who you asked. People who don’t read often — or don’t write — might not have the insight or vocabulary to give you the detailed response you need.

It might also have something to do with the way you asked. “Tell me what you think” assumes your reader will intuitively know how to respond to writing in draft.

Before you hand over your work for feedback, take some time to understand what you’d like to know about your draft. Then frame your request for feedback in a specific manner.

What’s your experience with first draft readers?

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Mary Ann is the editor of The Florida Writer (the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association) and MAD’s Monday Muse. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30+ years’ experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-to-one with writers who are developing books, she designs author websites. Website

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6 Responses

  1. Jerry Tabbott
    | Reply

    I wrote up a list of questions for use with Beta readers. I was mainly interested in how well (fast, easy) my story flowed, but also asked about specific concerns I had about my characters’ likability and interaction.

  2. Aransas Vacilando
    | Reply

    The 1st novel I asked my friend to read, came back with detailed criticism, for a few pages, then stopped. I was chiefly concerned with clarity, and he focused on that exclusively. I got enough feedback from him and other readers to know that the work needs drastic rewrite.
    I requested more specific information on the 2nd book and was rewarded with reinforcement in most areas, and specific suggestions for crediting research. The 2nd book was for teens. The best feedback I received was from an 11 year-old. Though his feedback was brief and all positive, which sections he praised gave me insight into how he viewed it. With teens, my approach will always be broad, “Tell me about the story.”

  3. I go to Mexico twice a year. I left two “Proofs” of my book in the book lender shelf in the Resort with a card inside with my contact information.This printing of this book was a first draft proof with tons of editing issues. I asked the readers to tell me what they thought of the story and not to worry about editing issues.I received the following communication.
    “I have just read the book and it has been a great pleasure to dig into this world. It made this boring hotel-environment become something more. Very true insights, nicely presented.  Thank you for passing this letter in form of the book on to us readers. I liked the fact that it is so young (new). The title got me as I have always had my own world. And then it was so pleasant to read that I was finished after 1 day.” GD       4/9/16

    I made arrangements to meet the “reader” in the lobby the next morning. I was surprised when a young Swedish woman with a thick accent showed up. She was “thrilled” to meet the “author.” I was more thrilled than she was. It was very encouraging. I gave her a signed copy of the first edition proof, one copy down. The other copy was still out. I received the following email two weeks later (I was still in Mexico).

    “Loved, loved the book.  Set in my favorite place on earth..Cancun, Royal Sands. I have already promised friends this book but insisted it be returned to the “library” at the Sands for other to enjoy.    Thank you so much for a tremendous read. I am headed shortly to the Lima cigar shop for a mojito;-).  I am hoping that  Feliz has  created his own world, maybe in Cuba or another destination of his choice.”  

    To date, this book is still in a “final edit” proof format, but I have learned from this experience, just put it out there and let go.
    Oh, I fly Southwest–two pieces of luggage–this fall when I return, one of those bags will be filled with finished versions of the book. I know it’s a give a way, but it sure does feel good.

  4. Raymond Cech
    | Reply

    As an avid reader and frequently a “first” reader, I feel that it is vitally important that the writer be both general and specific in the kind of feedback they are looking for….e.g. tell me what you think? Did you feel any emotion?
    Does the story flow? Is my protagonist strong enough? What would you change? Tell me what the story is about.

    Asking targeted and general questions of your reader should get you more meaningful feedback.

  5. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    My first drafts aren’t fit for human consumption, so I do usually three before sharing. The way I see it, if readers get hung up on bad grammar or clunky sentences, their reading experience will be full of stumbles and they won’t be able to evaluate the story as a whole.

  6. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    I’ve found it useful to use the same first reader over the years for all my work. After she gives something a thumbs up, I send it to betas 🙂 She knows what I’m capable of now and knows when to push me to try and step up a level. She can also help me de-murk a theme if I’m just not quite sure what I’m writing about, and we have a level of trust that comes with time that lets us vocally brainstorm plot and argue story. That’s not to say that drafts don’t change drastically even after a thumbs up, but she’s there to remind me that story’s a process and I’m either on the right track or off in the woods 🙂 And surprising your first reader with a new skill or deeper layer of story? Sweet!

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