f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Eight Aspects of a Good Reader

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Eight Aspects of a Good Reader

Let’s take the Proverbs 31 approach by spelling out the characteristics that make a good reader. Find these traits in a person in your small-group and you should hold on to them dearly. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions. I’ve ranked these in the order that they are most important to me—your own needs as a writer and a person might require a different order.

1. Honest – This is the core trait and should be first for everybody. As writers, we need to hear the truth about our work. Platitudes and fuzzy feelings will get us and our work nowhere. As readers, we need to respond honestly to whatever is put in front of us. As Americans, we’ve moved so far from honest critique that apparently we need to import people from Britain to be frank with us. Honesty doesn’t equal mean, however.

2. Discerning - “I didn’t like it.” “Really? Why not?” I don’t know.” That’s honest, but not helpful. Discernment in this case is the ability to provide useful feedback that we can use to make our piece better. It’s an informed response that states what was communicated to a writer. As I’ve mentioned before, as writers we only control what we intend to say. How it comes out is interpreted by our readers. Discernment is idiosyncratic though. Three readers may have three different responses. That’s why multiple readers are best. Discernment also implies an understanding of story, if only intuitively. “I didn’t like that part because it was slow. I felt this character wasn’t fleshed out enough.”

3. Well-Read - This discernment needs to come from somewhere, and I think it mainly comes from previous reading. The more books a person reads, the more they have to weigh against. This can be problematic in that their expectations are super-high (these people tend to be overly critical) but at least they have a basis for their feelings. In the same vein, this can be genre specific. You’re most likely to get help for your mystery novel from one who knows the genre well.

4. Tactful - We all need to develop thick skins as writers. That said, readers need to be aware that these words on a page represent much more than just that. As writers, we’re invested in them. Speak the truth in love.

5. Open-Minded - We all have our likes and dislikes as readers. If we’re reading in critique-setting—be it in a writers group or even for a throw-away opinion on Amazon—we need to realize that our not liking something doesn’t mean its bad. The ability to find worth in something that isn’t necessarily our cup-of-tea shows humility. It’s an especially important trait for editors, I think, who often acquire works they might not otherwise read.

6. Thorough - I read fast. That’s a fine and useful trait to have as an editor. It lets me cover a lot of ground quickly when I need to and helps me plow through stacks of work. It’s less helpful in the actual “work” of improving manuscript. For that, slow and steady wins the race.

7. Creative - This probably should be higher. Creativity means taking discernment to the next step. Not just pointing out a chapter isn’t working, but suggesting a fix. “Creative editing” is NOT the same as writing, though. It takes a writers’ understanding of construction and craft, but it’s practiced with humility. Enger’s concerns surface here. As writers, we want things to carry our stamp, our voice. We might give suggestions that aren’t in tune with the spirit of the piece. I’ll say too that this is the part that freaks out a lot of writers when they hand over their manuscripts before publication. I can’t make that process easier for you. I can only suggest that your editors need latitude to be creative. If you fight against that too much, your work will suffer.

8. Encouraging - Finally, a good reader should spur you on. If they like your work, they should demand to read more. If they have problems with your work they should challenge you to improve. A good reader isn’t wearied by the sheer bulk of bad writing. Instead, he sees a future where struggling writers find their voice, learn their craft after years possibly of hard work, and turn in something that makes all their time worth while.
Go to Day 2 of our discussion of being a good reader.