Are you the kind of author who doesn’t give a damn about what your readers think, jealously avoiding all input and interference while you craft your magnum opus? Or the kind who endlessly revises, fretting over how people will react, integrating every form of feedback from everyone who’s ever read half a sentence in your book?
Or are you perfectly confused about when to take in a constructive comment from a fellow writer or reader, and when to ignore it?
Fear not! You are one of a well-populated club. Bottom line, however: always, always listen to your readers.
* Now for the caveat (that’s the asterisk in the headline): listening does not imply rewriting. Listening implies listening.
Writing Is a Relationship
For the past several millennia, literary authorities have gone on about how writing is the world’s most solitary profession. I beg to differ. I would say it’s one of the most social, collaborative, influential activities on the planet. You are, after all, transferring ideas from your head to (hopefully) many others, communicating stories, emotions, concepts to an audience that potentially spans the entire globe. Your words have the power to open minds, change lives, influence decisions, inspire ideas and actions. Your readers can get to know you, and you can get to know them. Long-term.
How is that not a relationship?
Just like in a relationship, listening is gold. If a reader is moved by your work enough to get up, turn on their computer or tablet, navigate to your book’s page wherever it is online, and compose a reader review or comment—or better yet, EMAIL you, are you going to ignore them?
If you respect your work, you respect your readers. Listening is a form of respect, of honoring the feedback/reaction track of the two-way street that literature really is.
Note! Listening doesn’t mean obeying, agreeing, or even accepting. Just as your readers take in the words you have composed and published, so too should you bother to take in their thoughts and reactions. It doesn’t really matter whether your readers agree or disagree with you or your work, love it or hate it, or whether they think you’re the next Hemingway or a complete waste of their money.
What matters is that they have read your work and have something to say about it. What matters is that you’re listening. Because you never know when a reader’s simple remark might spark an epiphany.
I’ll share two anecdotes from my own experience.
When Is Short Too Short?
Not too long ago a reader posted a review on the Amazon page of my short story The Seventh Crane. The review was eloquently written, with feeling and care, and expressed the reader’s slight disappointment that the story did not go quite as deep and was not quite as rich as expected. I smiled when I read the comment because I had been thinking of expanding the story into a longer piece, of plunging deeper into the narrative. But somehow, it had, at least initially, wanted to be short. There’s a lot unwritten between the lines, a great deal of backstory, plot, and substance that is not overtly expressed in words. For me, that’s the beauty of short stories. The shorter the story, the more the reader gets to fill in.
One day I may write that longer piece. Make it a novella perhaps. And when I do, it will be because of this thoughtful reader who reached out via an Amazon review.
When Do You Withhold the End?
Readers can also validate specific narrative decisions you make in your work. In Verse in Arabic, a historical fiction mystery, I don’t explain the cryptic verse around which the entire mystery twirls. Yep, I leave my readers completely clueless. Bad, bad author.
More than a few of my readers have tugged at my sleeve asking my what it all means. But I won’t give it away.
Truth is, for fourteen years while the story percolated in my subconscious, I too was clueless. It took that long before I finally figured out what it meant—but I did so only for me, because this verse, this mysterious writing the story is built upon, was also the focal point of a real-life story recounted to me, but never solved. To honor the original seed of inspiration, and the reader, the verse must remain silent.
In my view, if you don’t leave anything for the reader to complete in a story, you lose the enchantment.
Your turn to share. Tell us about a moment when something one of your readers said or wrote gave you pause, inspired you to think about your work a different way, or made you change some element of your narrative.
Today, practice the fine art of receiving feedback. This practice has three steps:
- First, write something fresh, perhaps something about a memorable experience you’ve had this summer. Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, share your practice in the comments section below.
- Then, read a few practices by your fellow writers. Is there anything you think they should change?
- Last, come back to your post tomorrow. Reflect on the feedback you received. Is it time for a rewrite?
Have fun and happy writing!