There have been many discussions on how important it is to “know your audience” when writing your work. These discussions are typically about the final audience, the reader who will (hopefully) spend money on your book so they might have the finished product in their hands. And that is an important topic to go over, but recently I have been thinking how important it is to also know your audience when you share your draft copies of your work with people, be they critique partners, proofreaders, editors, writers groups or beta readers.
I have said before that finding a critique partner is like dating – trying to find the right person who is at a similar level in their writing and who has an understanding of what you want out of a critique. Same with finding a writers group. The same goes when looking for a proofreader/copy editor or editor for your work.
But it doesn’t stop there. I think that, as in any relationship, it’s a mistake to think that once you’ve found your proofreader/editor/critique partner/beta reader/writers group that they are it for life. That’s right. There is no such thing as monogamy amongst people who share critique. I’m saying it loud and saying it proud – critique sharing is an exercise in polygamy.
First, it takes work. You have to keep up your end of the bargain and do the writing, the revisions, the outlining, the plotting. And don’t think riffing off a first draft a half hour before group will get you good feedback. It will get you plenty of feedback, but you’ll be so new to your WIP that you won’t know where to place the feedback in the hierarchy of importance.
I remember reading an interview by an author (and of course I’ve forgotten who it is now) in Poets & Writers who said she never took a draft to her writers group unless it was at least the seventh or eighth revision. And her reason for this was that it took her that many drafts to understand what she was trying to say. If she took her work-in-progress (WIP) to her group too soon then the editorial voices of her critique partners would get stuck in her head and she’d get jammed in between where she thought she was going and where those voices were pulling her. That doesn’t mean she didn’t listen to the critique, just that by the time she shared her work she had a good idea of what she wanted it say and do. So if she got comments that seemed to steer her in another direction she had enough confidence to say, “that’s another idea to explore, but that is not my story. That is your story. I want to go this way with this story at this time.” Or to give them a little more importance and possibly consider them.
Next step. No assumptions. For example, when people ask for my services as a proofreader we go over several things such as formatting, what this piece is being used for and subject matter. Just because I am a proofreader doesn’t mean I’m the proofreader for your work. I have turned down work because I knew I was not a good match for it, either because I knew that I didn’t have the background and knowledge base to do the work well or because my spidey-senses were tingling and I knew communication would be off between me and the client. Sometimes I’ve taken work anyway because I knew enough that I could research further if I needed to to ensure technical and/or academic terms and phrases were being used correctly. Those clients needed to find the right “audience” in me, to make sure they’d found someone who could properly gauge if, for example, the vocabulary was what it should be.
But, if a client wanted to use my services for an historical romance, say Regency, then I may not be the best person for the job, unless I invested time and/or money in learning the speech patterns, grammar and syntax of speakers during the early 19th century. And even then Sure, we “dumb” things down a little bit for the modern ear, but it would still be my job to make sure what was there was correct and that I and the client could have an intelligent conversation about it if we had.
The same holds true for writing groups and critique partners. You don’t necessarily need to write in the exact same genre as people you share critique with, but you better be sure that they appreciate and/or enjoy the genre you write in and vice versa, and that you, or they, can converse intelligently in that genre. For example, splatter horror does nothing for me. And while I would be willing to read (and have read) such a story for someone I share critique with, there would be a resistance inside the entire time I was reading it. A little voice saying, “But I hate these kinds of stories!” would be influencing my critique. And who knows how much unconscious prejudice my writing partner(s) would have to filter through to get to the gist of what they could use of my comments. And I may even try to fight that prejudice, but it’s still going to be there, which means it’s still going to be an uphill slog for both the reader and the writer.
So, does this mean you need to find other proofreaders/critique partners altogether? No. It just means that you need to be aware of what it is you are sharing and who you are sharing it with. This is polygamy, remember? Not monogamy. Just because someone hires me to write a cover letter or personal essay or bio for them, doesn’t mean I am the correct person to handle their tech-heavy resume, for example. And while I could proofread/copy edit a users manual on say a drill, I would probably not be the best person for the job when it came to say specs for a race car engine.
And when it comes to sharing your drafts, this is even more important. You already know that people are going to critique your “baby” and find something wrong with it. You hope they’ll tell you it’s perfect, but you know that will not be the case. So, there will already be that. Ensuring that the person you’re giving your WIP to read already likes the genre is making sure that you’re not going to be fighting an uphill battle. Don’t give your high fantasy piece to a professor who specializes in contemporary American literature. You don’t need to change what you write just to please your reader, but find the right person to read it. Find someone who enjoys high fantasy. Don’t give your WIP romance novel to someone who thinks romance novels suck and are pure drivel. You’ll already be clutching your gut and you haven’t even gotten the notes back. Find someone who likes romance. Send your work to them.
Don’t send a story about zombies to someone who doesn’t appreciate zombies. It’s that simple.
They may not be your regular critique partner or part of your regular writers group (or editor or publication you normally work with, etc.), but that’s okay. This also means that you may not have anything to share with your regular critique partners sometimes either, if what you’re writing doesn’t match up with what they’re reading. But again, that’s okay. It’s not your job to change what you’re writing to suit your critique partner or writers group or even your proofreader. It’s your job to write the story or the dissertation or business brochure or whatever. The people you share that work with are simply giving you notes on ways they see things can be done better. Some of it you will agree with and some of it you won’t. And this process works better if they already like the type of work you are writing.
It’s either that or just always be disappointed. Always thinking you’re doing it wrong when actually, it’s just that what you wrote and what that person reads do not mesh. It’s like that quote by Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Trust yourself. Be the fish. Find the pond. Leave the tree climbing to the monkeys.
Recently I found a note from a friend of mine who passed away. She had written it after reading The Holly and the Ivan. She had read my poetry, Rae’s Bar & Bistro, and had liked it and wanted to support me. The note about The Holly and the Ivan read, “Well, Darling, it certainly isn’t my cup of tea – good writing tho a few redundancies – it’s surely meant for the Twilight crowd or under – But, bravo…” She wanted to like it, but she couldn’t it. It wasn’t her thing. The poetry was her thing.
It reminded me of the saying by Lin Chi: “When you meet a master swordsman, show him your sword. When you meet a man who is not a poet, do not show him your poem.”
Know your audience.