Recently I watched Midnight In Paris. It’s a cute movie that I think most writers would appreciate for various reasons. But this isn’t going to be a movie review. As with most things, the movie left me thinking about something specific—writers receiving feedback on their work or giving feedback to other writers.
In the movie, the main character has a chance to meet Ernest Hemmingway and at one point asks the author to read his novel. The scene goes like this:
Hemmingway: My opinion is I hate it.
Gil: I mean, you haven’t even read it.
Hemmingway: If it’s bad, I’ll hate it, because I hate bad writing. If it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.
The reason this stuck out to me is because every once in a while, I’ll find myself in a conversation with either writer or non-writer friends about who I choose as my first readers and how I make that choice. The most recent time I had this conversation, I explained how there are many factors that contribute to my decision, but overall I want a combination of friends who are writers and friends who are not. In other words, I am respectfully disagreeing with this fictional Hemmingway’s opinion.
I happen to be lucky enough to have two friends that serve as my first readers for everything from flash fiction pieces to my behemoth novel in progress. I mean, these two deserve some medals for all the work they put in for my benefit. I chose them because I trust them to be honest with me and we get along even when our opinions differ. I’m not looking for people to just shower praise on me, after all. I want to improve, so I need people who will tell me what works in my stories and what doesn’t. But I was also careful to choose one friend who is not a writer at all and one friend who is a very different type of writer than myself.
It can be hard giving and receiving feedback in general. Being able to give a good critique is difficult and takes a lot of practice—and I think sometimes it can be harder for writers to critique someone else’s writing. Not because of envy, but because each writer has their own style, so it can be difficult to fight the urge to rewrite things as you would write them instead of trying to leave the style alone. Sometimes, the style is the problem, but a critique composed only of rewritten sentences doesn’t help a writer improve; at best, it helps them mimic your style instead of developing their own.
On the flip side, it can be easy—but foolish—for writers to discard the opinions of other writers. They can be brushed aside as style differences or envy or ignorance, but the instances of any of those reasons being true is rare. I understand the impulse, though; it takes a great deal of emotional preparation to put something up for critique, and it can be hard for the writer to disentangle themselves from a story. Criticism can feel like a personal attack, and when it does, the natural impulse is to invalidate it somehow. Learning to take a critique requires just as much practice as learning to give one.
So, in those ways, having another writer give you feedback on a story can be risky if you don’t choose your first readers carefully and if you don’t separate yourself from your work. However, I think it’s important to receive feedback from fellow writers. It can be especially interesting to hear from a writer you trust who has a completely different style than you, which is the case with my one friend. He always makes suggestions or asks questions that challenge me to come up with new ways to express an idea or emotion, and he often catches things that a non-writer or even a different type of writer might not have pointed out. His feedback is always invaluable.
But it’s equally important to get feedback from non-writers, and my other first reader gives critiques that are just as useful and often completely different from what my writer friend points out. (However, they’re almost never contradictory.) She works as a legal proofreader and is also an avid reader, mostly in the genres that I tend to write in, which is one of the many reasons I chose to ask for her feedback. She’s thoughtful and opinionated, which is exactly what I want in a first reader. While it’s nice to have input from writers, once my work is out there, it’s the opinion of the readers that other people will hear, from word of mouth to reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, and you don’t know what those peoples’ backgrounds might be. Some might be writers as well, others will be people who like to read, and some others might be people who only pick up a book every once in a while. The same is true once you choose to share a story or excerpt on, say, a blog: at that point you surrender the ability to control who gives you input/opinions. So when I’m still polishing a story and have the ability to decide who reads it, I try to get as many different types of readers as possible.
That being said, I’m sure there are some writers out there who are like fictional Hemmingway: so worried about competition and success that they can no longer be objective when reading another writer’s work, even if that other writer is a friend. That’s why picking first readers can be tough; you might inadvertently make a bad choice. It took a lot of deliberation for me to settle on who I would ask first, and then I had to work up the nerve to ask. Then I had to hope those friends would have the time (because it is a time commitment). Once they both accepted, I had to get over my fear of sharing my writing with anyone, even people I trust, and learn to listen to feedback without taking it personally.
Earlier this year I went through all the deliberation and anxiety again when I decided to add another reader to my latest round of novel critiques to get the opinion of someone who hadn’t seen the earlier drafts. In the end I chose another non-writer friend, but with a different background than my non-writer first reader. Like with most things in life, diversity is key, and I’m beyond grateful to have so many friends with such varied backgrounds who are willing to devote some of their free time to helping me improve my writing.
I’m not sure how other writers go about choosing their readers, but I think the choice can have a huge impact on how a story turns out and how a writer develops. Everyone’s opinion can be valuable, including those of other writers. So, I’m sorry, fictional Hemmingway, but you’re wrong. As a writer, you definitely want the opinion of other writers—you just have to be careful who you ask.