Today, I’m on my way back from New England. I’ve rested; I’ve spent my days thinking about other things; and come Monday, I’ll be ready to get back to the page. Today, though, I’m still on break, and Stacy Barton is here to share what she’s learned about picking your readers.

Writing a novel has proven to need the right critique at the right time more than any other form I have tackled yet. My short stories are usually nearly finished when another person reads them; at least they have the heart of themselves spilled out onto the page. Plays require a read aloud with a cast of characters to hear the missteps. And animation? Well, you write it, they draw it and you hope to goodness it works! But with a novel, you are growing a thing that is bigger than you can hold in your hands and you need other readers to help you hear it, see it, taste it, touch it.

First of all let me say that the responsibility of gaining the critique we need or want is totally dependent on us – the writer, the creator, and crafter of the material. It is up to us to do our homework, to listen to ourselves, and to choose the right kind of reader for each point in a manuscript’s growth.

Unfortunately, the only way to learn this is by trial and error. Ouch.

The “First Readers”

I have learned the hard way who to ask to read my work first. “First Readers,” as my old mentor used to say, are people who believe in you, like your style, and trust you to wade through a mess of rewrites to make magic. They aren’t worried. And so they don’t try too hard to hurry you through your early draft’s flaws. They point out some problems and leave the others be. They sit beside you in the garden of words and allow time and space for the real piece to emerge.

The Tough Critique
But after a while I grow weary of waiting and so I call on another kind of reader. This reader is relentless and digs into your manuscript like a tough massage, pointing out the places that just don’t work. They tend to bring up more problems than solutions, but they get you thinking. Radical rewrites are often borne out of this reader’s comments.

Both of these readers are needed throughout the process; what is important to know is which one to call on when. I have chosen the wrong reader at the wrong time and ended up moving backwards, but that was not the fault of the critique or the giver of that critique, it was because I did not know what I needed. The responsibility is on me – and you – to know what we need and where to get it.

The Cheerleaders
I have at least one other kind of reader. These are friends and family that I torture with oral storytelling so that I can hear for myself what I think of a certain passage. They are patient and kind and love everything I do; they think I am brilliant. You know the group I am talking about; your mother – and mine – is in this group. Thus this group of people are not the ones you check with before sending your agent a final pass, they are the ones you gain encouragement from, excitement, the reminder that you went into this because you have some sort of gift for words. They are like a glass of white wine after a long day in the yard. Cool and refreshing.

So when you want someone to “read” your work. Ask yourself “Why?” Do you need a little encouragement, a shot of trust, a critical change? All of these are viable and necessary in the writing and editing process, but they are given by very different kinds of people. It is a very rare person – I cannot imagine who – that can offer all of these with their read. So know your readers, choose them wisely, seek them out and then use them well. It is a gift they offer us – the gift of their honest read.

Stacy Barton’s stories have appeared in a variety of literary journals including Gargoyle, Potomac Review, Southern Women’s Review, Relief and Ruminate. Her collection of short stories, Surviving Nashville, was released by WordFarm in 2007. In addition to short fiction, Stacy is the author of a picture book, several one-act plays, a Ringling Bros. Circus and an animated short film. Currently Stacy works as a free-lance scriptwriter for the Disney Company. You can visit her website, or find her at Facebook at Stacy Barton’s Stories or Twitter, @stacybarton.