Fiction Critiquing:
What To Ask Your First Reader To Look For

by Cheryl Rainfield, the award-winning author of STAINED, SCARS, and HUNTED, 2003

You want your manuscript to be the best it can be. You want it to move the people who read it, so they’ll read another of your books–and tell others how good your book is. But we can’t always see our writing clearly enough to make it the best it can be; we can be too close to it. That’s where a first reader comes in–someone you trust to give you honest, helpful feedback in a way that you’re comfortable with, and that actually helps. Feedback that doesn’t slam your writing, but that also doesn’t just praise it. But what do you ask your reader to look for?

The questions included here are questions you may want your reader to consider. Choose about 5-6 questions, the ones that are the most important for you, and ask your reader to watch out for them. It’s a good idea not to give your reader a list with hundreds of points, because it will overwhelm her, and you might not receive much feedback, or feedback on the things that are most important to you.

You can also include more general, overarching requests, such as that your reader give you her first-read reactions—her gut instinct and her emotional reactions—and that she be as specific as possible in her feedback. Telling you that a chapter didn’t work doesn’t help you much. Telling you that it didn’t feel believable when Sarah took so long in telling her mother that her father had left them is more helpful. You may also want to ask your first reader to begin the critique by telling you the things that she liked and that worked for her. Receiving positive feedback first often helps writers to be able to hear the rest of the feedback, especially if there’s work to be done–and there usually is. Written feedback also allows the writer to take her time in absorbing the information, and in not reacting personally to the comments.

Encourage your first reader to include feedback on anything else that goes through her mind as she reads; you may receive feedback about something you never would have thought of asking about. I also ask my first reader to make notes and comments right on the manuscript as she reads, so that I get her first reactions, and so that she doesn’t forget anything that comes up for her.

Once you’ve received feedback, you may want to ask additional questions—especially questions where the answer should be easy, questions that you didn’t need your reader to focus on throughout the whole manuscript (such as whether the first sentence grabbed the reader). And always remember to thank your first reader; she is doing you a favor and giving you a gift, by offering you her feedback.

Before you write up your list, think about what you’re looking for and what effect you’re hoping to achieve through your writing. Think about what you want your writing to do. Think about the books you’ve loved, and how they affected you. Then write up a list of indicators that will help your reader see whether you’re achieving your goal.

Questions to Ask Your First Reader:

    • Did the first few sentences, paragraphs, and pages capture your interest?
    • Were there places that bored you or you found your mind wandering? What were they?
    • Was there any place you had to read a passage over and over again to understand it?
    • Was there anything unbelievable or unrealistic in the manuscript, such as the way a character acted, spoke, or thought?
    • Was there any information missing? Was there too much information?
    • Was the main character present enough, or did she seem to disappear? Did you get a good feel of who the main character was, and did the vibrancy of that character remain throughout the book?
    • Was there any place where the dialogue seemed unbelievable or just didn’t work?
    • Was the setting clear enough that you could picture it in your mind? Was there too much description of setting?
    • Was there too little tension/emotional conflict? Was there too much?
    • Did the main character have enough internal conflict?
    • Did the main character have a problem to solve?
    • Was the main character consistent throughout the story (keeping in mind that the character must grow and experience internal change)?
    • Did the main character change by the end of the story?
    • Were the actions and reactions of the main character believable? What about for the other characters?
    • Did you get a good sense of the main character’s motivation?
    • Was there enough background information to help you understand the main character? Was there too much?
    • Was the story interesting? Did it grab your interest?
    • Did the story begin and end at the right place?
    • Did the end of the story leave you with a satisfied feeling? Or did it leave you dissatisfied, upset, angry, or confused?
    • Were the names of the characters hard to keep track of? (Such as two characters with similar sounding names, or even names starting with the same letter.)
    • Were your questions answered as you read? Did some answers seem to come too late, or too quickly?
    • Were there enough sensory details included for each of the senses–taste, touch, smell, sound, sight? (Often there is too much focus on sight and sound).
    • Did the antagonist (person trying to keep the main character from achieving her goal) seem believable? Was she too one-dimensional? Did she have enough humanity?
    • Was there enough dialogue? Too much? Were there enough physical actions that helped to break up long areas of dialogue–or too many?
    • Did the dialogue seem to fit the character who was speaking it? Would you know who was speaking if there were no names attached?
  • Was there telling instead of showing? (Did the main character say “I’m angry” instead of showing us by kicking the wall or clenching her teeth?)

Often the best feedback is feedback that comes from the gut. I like to know a reader’s immediate, gut reactions to the writing, not technique-based feedback that is devoid of an emotional reaction. What moves a first reader has a good chance of moving other readers–and what bores or turns off a first reader has a good chance of boring other readers. You can learn a lot from the reactions of your first reader.

However, it’s important to remember that your first reader is only one person, and is reading your work with all their baggage attached. While that is true for every reader, it also means that some reactions are going to be very personal ones, and may not be reactions that encompass a wider audience. Your first reader should be someone whose feedback you trust—ideally, someone whose feedback seems to coincide with other readers. But remember, no matter how much you trust your reader, you’re not going to agree with every point or want to use all their suggestions. Sit with the feedback for a while, then go with your own intuition.

A good first reader can give you feedback that can help make your story more compelling, strong, and clear. She can point out the things you’ve missed or assumed, and even suggest a new direction or ending, or suggest how to move chapters around for greater effect. A first reader can give you an indication of how other readers will respond, and what is working (and what isn’t) in your manuscript.

If you get a lot of detailed feedback about things that didn’t work for your reader, or suggestions for changes, don’t give up and don’t despair. Often those suggestions will make your writer better than you could have imagined. It’s a good idea to take time to mull over the feedback before you act on it–and to go with what your intuition tells you. Ultimately, you’re the one who has to decide what makes sense to you and what doesn’t, what changes you want to make in your writing and what ones you don’t, and what will make your story stronger.

So look to your first reader for feedback—and then bring the story back into your heart. Because the story lives inside you—and you’re the one who knows best of all what will work and what won’t.

©Cheryl Rainfield, 2003

Written by Cheryl Rainfield, award-winning author of SCARS, STAINED, and HUNTED

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