Writers are so often lectured on the dangers of protecting their work from criticism that you find them eagerly tossing their hopefully publishable stories at just about anyone, and then attending to every word of feedback with an air of religious devotion.
This, my friends, is not a good thing. While I applaud the effort to escape the crippling fear that so many times keeps a writer from ever sharing something, sharing with just anybody is a great way to hurt both yourself and your work-in-progress. Criticism is a noble thing to go after, but if it’s not coming from the right person, its chances of making your story/essay/poem/whatever any better are slim indeed.
Just because someone is willing to read your work doesn’t mean he should; just because she has lots of advice doesn’t mean you should listen to it. So, a couple things to think about before you hand off a book to anyone offering to give suggestions:
~ What does he/she like to read?
If you are trying to perfect a collection of poetry about coming of age during your first semester of college, it will probably serve you well to find a critiquer who likes to read poetry. Your friend who reads nothing but epic fantasy may want to help, but unless the epic fantasy she reads contains a lot of excellent poems and she’s got a great ear for them, she’s not a good fit for telling you where you might improve your word choice and meter.
If you want to know whether or not you’re doing something well, you should look to those who love that thing you’re trying to do – those who can readily point to examples of that thing and discuss it with relative intelligence. Getting advice on your young adult adventure from someone who has never read a young adult adventure in his life is going to make the both of you very unhappy. There is of course the off-chance that your work will open his eyes to a whole new world of reading and he’ll become a lifelong fan, but it’s far more likely that he’s, in this eloquent phrasing, “just not going to get it.” And now everyone’s time has been wasted.
~ What does he/she like about what he/she reads?
Simply liking the genre (or not-genre) you’re writing in isn’t enough, as genres (or not-genres) often have so many sub-categories the study of them proves quite dizzying. Even if your potential reader likes exactly the kind of book your work was inspired by, it still doesn’t mean you’re going to get the advice you need. You’ve got to dig a bit deeper to find out whether or not you have any kind of common ground when it comes to opinion.
For example, you want to write a charming growing-up-in-beautiful-countryside story in the style of Anne of Green Gables. Your friend, a huge fan of L.M. Montgomery’s classic, seems the perfect person to give your semi-polished draft to, and you might be right – but only after you talk to her and make sure the two of you agree about what makes the story good.
If the two of you disagree on the best and worst things about a book, the feedback you get on your book is going to be confusing. What you really liked, she may want removed, and what you wanted suggestions on, she’ll think fine. When trying to revise, confusion only leads to doldrums. Do yourself a favor and avoid.
~ Does he/she know how to be fair?
Criticism/feedback is an art in and of itself. If you’ve ever been part of or observed a workshop, where students share something and then listen to their classmates talk about it, you know how it can either be helpful and uplifting or a complete disaster. Good instructors will begin a workshop by teaching her students how to respond to a written piece: how to find the good and name it accurately, and how to point out the bad without making it sound like a personal attack. It’s delicate. Poor instructors will simply allow students to claw at each other, resulting in a miserable experience that does nothing to bring about improvement.
You do not want anyone clawing at you or your work-in-progress, so before you hand something over, you need to know that this person is capable of tact. Yes, you want to know the truth, but you want the truth delivered kindly. Like you might expect a doctor to deliver your lab results. Of course you’d rather not hear “It’s cancer” from anyone no matter how nicely they put it. But if you did have cancer, you’d want to know about it, have it broken to you in a professional manner, and given alongside your options for treatment.
~ Do you respect his/her opinion?
You might not be able to find anyone who is both willing to read your work and possessed with a taste for your kind of writing. Sometimes, your writing is too different, or your usual critiquers too busy, or whatever. Sometimes, you may have to get your feedback from someone not quite ideal for the job. In this case, though, you want someone whose opinion you at least have some reason to trust. Maybe you both really like the same t.v. series because the characterization is brilliant. Maybe you both admire unconventional plots, even if you write in a different genre than the one he typically enjoys. Maybe you both hate Twilight. Or you both love it. I don’t know.
But if you can’t find anyone who shares at least one writing-related viewpoint with you, it’s probably best to keep your unfinished work to yourself until such a person comes along.
If it sounds like I’m saying you should never get an opinion too different from your own, I’m sorry – that’s not my intent. It is of course possible for someone to give fair, helpful feedback on a written piece no matter his likes/dislikes or for you to get a great perspective on something from a person who thinks nothing like you.
What I do mean to say is that a little caution when choosing a feedback-giver is not a sign of cowardice – it’s actually smart and can lead to better revision in a shorter amount of time. You are, after all, writing for an audience. Getting a member of that audience to read an early version of your work is a step towards a possible career, while getting a member of some other writer’s audience to read your work is merely an intriguing experiment, more diversion than progress.