I was talking to someone about writing the other day, and mentioned how vital a good First Reader was. He had no idea what I was talking about, so I explained – the first person I show a new piece of writing to, for honest (often “brutal”) feedback and comment.
I’d always assumed the term was in common use among writers, but when I did a quick Google it seems to be a term used mainly (online at least) to refer to the poor sods who do the initial reading through and culling of a publishers’ slush pile. Oh, and a “learn to read!” primer. And (bizarrely, according to Merriam-Webster Online) “a Christian Scientist chosen to conduct meetings for a specified time and specifically to read aloud from the writings of Mary Baker Eddy”.
I’m lucky – I have three or four people who I show my work to and who offer me useful feedback. But one friend in particular is my essential partner in editing. We’ve been swapping poems for … blimey, ten years now. We’re both of a roughly similar skill level (although she’s got a couple of books to her name, whereas I’m still pimping mine), and both enjoy many (but not all) of the same sorts of writing. But the most important thing of all is that she knows me really well. Insanely well. And I know her. And we are able to be completely honest with each other. (See “brutal”, above.) It saves so much time! If she praises a poem, I don’t have to wonder if she really means it or is just being nice because I’m having a lousy week. If I’m feeling fragile, she gives me a big hug first, and a tissue after.
There are times when we completely miss the point with each other’s work – misunderstand a line, or give one image the wrong interpretation. Which sucks, I have to admit – for a moment or two it feels like an abandonment, but because we’ve been doing this for each other for so long, that feeling only lasts a moment or two. We both can (and have, and do!) stamp our feet and say “you’re not paying attention! You’re missing the whole point!” And then we get back to it. Sometimes we disagree. Vehemently! And that’s fine too.
She knows my work intimately. She knows all of my bad poetry habits, all my “reflex phrases”, all the Joanna clichés. And points them out. It’s got to the point where we virtually know what the other will say before it gets said – very useful, to have internalized like that!
So, what to look for in a First Reader?
- Similar level of skill – if the person is too far ahead of you, it becomes a mentor-pupil thing. You need to be able to reciprocate – not only for fairness, but also because your work will improve if you play critic as well as recipient. An equal relationship aids you both.
- Similar tastes – if one of you is a passionate Post Modernist and the other a fervent Neo-Formalist, then you’re likely to experience some problems. You should at least be sympathetic to each others’ work.
- Honesty – No point picking someone who is always kind. It wastes too much time. You have to be able to divorce your comments from everything except the poem … not always easy, especially if the person you’re critiquing is Mother Theresa.
- Availability – you need to know that they will be able to look at your work reasonably regularly.
Anything I’ve missed?