Saturday, October 22, 2011

5 Tips for Dealing with That Difficult Reader

In your face !Image by aramolara via Flickr

When people read your story and tell you it's wonderful, they make you feel like you're soaring through the stratosphere.  But then THAT reader comes along.

You know THAT reader.  He's the one who tells you your story is good, BUT . . .  Or she listens patiently while you explain some aspect of your story and then trips you up with your own words.  ("That's not what I got out of your story!")

Sometimes, THAT reader does it to be mean.  More often, though, he genuinely cares about your story and is perplexed by something  something which didn't ring true to him or which left him confused about a character's motivation.  Sometimes, his questions feel like an interrogation and make you want to lawyer up. ("I'm not saying anything further until my character seeks counsel!")

So, how do you deal with THAT reader?

For me, I start by reminding myself that I don't have to win every argument.  I don't even have to participate in every argument put before me.

This simple technique can help you, as an author, preserve your sanity.  It acknowledges that everything you write reflects your opinions, views, and ideas.  These things come from deep within you and were formed by some combination of your life experiences, beliefs, values, assumptions, and even prejudices  all of which are unique to you.  This means your ideas can be flawed, even though you may not be aware of it.

But the reader also has his own ideas, which come from his own life experiences, etc., and may also be flawed.  Perhaps this is why he reacted so oddly to your story.  Or perhaps his ideas  and yours  aren't really flawed.  Perhaps they're just different.

As the author, your options when confronted by THAT reader are few.  You can attempt to set her straight by arguing your point of view.  You can dismiss her opinions as belonging to someone who just didn't "get it."

Or you can adopt a different attitude by following these tips:

1. Respect the reader's intent.  Particularly if the reader is a peer editor or beta reader, all feedback is good.

2. Listen with your mind blank.  This is difficult to do when we feel our work is being attacked.  Our normal response is to become defensive and start formulating a rebuttal.  But if we're focusing on what we're going to say, we are probably missing or misunderstanding what the reader is saying.  This means we may overlook a suggestion or insight which can improve the story.

3. Choose not to see the reader's comments as an attack.  Again, this is difficult, particularly if the reader comes across as an attacker or interrogator.  However, you are always in control of how you respond.

4. Smile and nod.  Affirmative body language does not have to mean you agree with the reader; it can mean you understand what he is saying.

5. After your emotions have died down, carefully consider the content  not the presentation  of the reader's words.  
  • Content is the substance of what is being said ("The ending of your story lacks dramatic punch").
  • Presentation is the delivery of the content ("How could you take me on this wonderful ride and leave me hanging???").
Separating content from presentation helps you see where the reader may have a point.  It also helps you avoid the feeling that she is winning and you are losing.

Dealing with THAT reader can be uncomfortable, but buried deep within his seemingly hurtful questions and comments may be nuggets of wisdom.  Getting to those nuggets takes patience and a willingness to put our own egos aside.   However, anything that helps us improve as writers is worth the effort.

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Kristi's Book Nook said...

Great post! I sometimes feel as though my work is being attacked when a reader disagrees with where I am leading them. We as writers have tough skin for the most part, but your suggestions on how to handle THAT reader are excellent. Thinking with a blank mind and finding that the reader may have a nugget or two to offer are sound pieces of advice. Our stories require work and another pair of eyes to see what we've missed. Thanks for sharing.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Thanks for the compliments, Kristi.

Mike Sullivan said...

I know I've been on both sides. I've been THAT reader. And I've had THAT reader for a reader. I try (emphasis on TRY) to be more helpful in my comments. Writers/artists are putting themselves out there (well, I like to THINK they are) that these pieces of literature and art are a part of the creators.

I think that's something we can tend to forget.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

That's a good point, Mike. I'm sure most writers have been THAT reader from time to time.

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