First Readers Help You Know More Than You Thought You Knew About What You Wanted to Say

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
by Sheila Bender
Finding out the impact of your drafts on readers can help you be brilliant on the page when you revise. Here's how to get the most help from early readers:
Have them answer these questions after reading what you've written:
  • What words and phrases remain memorable after you’ve heard my essay?
  • What feelings do you experience from hearing or reading my essay that you think are intended?
  • What feelings do you have that interfere with the ones the essay is going for? Where in the draft does that happen?
  • Where are you curious to know more?
All responders, those who know the situation and those who don’t, will usually want to see more than you’ve given them. The ones who were there and know the situation you are writing about may have memories that will be useful to you; they may also wish for you to include things they remember only because they were left out of your account. Responders who don’t know the situation may be so interested in you or what you have on the page so far, that they think they want to know much more than the essay ultimately will require. There is magic in having these responses, though. In adding in information that will satisfy some of their curiosities, you usually redirect the readers’ attention and in final versions, they no longer think they need to know more.

If you listen to responses to these four questions, you will have a great head start every time you start a revision. You will find it easier to shape your essay for finding and communicating insight.

When you rewrite, if what you wanted to say was misinterpreted or not picked up, you’ll find a way to be sure the experience is in there. Sometimes, readers are smarter than you are—they see what the writing says and what it says is amazing and you can run with it.

For instance, a student of mine thought she was writing a piece putting herself down for being a clutterer and promising herself (and the world) she would do better. When I read the piece, cluttering sounded delicious as she described it—maybe not PC but wonderfully rich. My response was that I enjoyed the clutter and the connections she could make by looking at the things around her. Originally, the author had a statement in her work about doing as the anti-clutter movement says should be done. After my response as well as the whole groups’, she came across an article in the NY Times that said, “Studies are piling up that show that messy desks are the vivid signatures of people with creative, limber minds (who reap higher salaries than those with neat “office landscapes”) and that messy closet owners are probably better parents and nicer and cooler than their tidier counterparts. She could use a quote from the article s an epigraph for the essay her own words steered her toward.

To bring an essay to successful completion: write and show your writing to trusted readers and if you listen with an open ear, their responses will help you find your deepest truths.


Sheila Bender's class, Creating Poems and Personal Essays from Journal and Journal Style Writingsstarts Friday, May 3, 2013. Enrollment is limited to 10 students and early registration is recommended. For details, visit our classroom page.


Unknown said...

I'm writing these questions down-- thanks for sharing, Sheila.

Marcia Peterson said...

These are really great questions to have readers answer for you. The first and last ones in particular are positive too, thus beginning and ending with some feedback that the writer can feel good about.

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