There’s this notion among writers that you shouldn’t let anyone read your work until it is completed. However, a work is never really complete until someone else reads it. It may seem frustrating and a little ego-pummeling to get opinions from others. But getting a second (or third or seventh) pair of eyes on a piece before submitting is only helpful. It’s like that old adage “two heads are better than one,” or, as Margaret Atwood put it:
You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
In the midst of your own writing, you can get caught up in your own process rather than focusing on the readability of the piece for an audience. This isn’t to say that you need to write to please an audience, but if you intend to submit your work to literary publications, you’ll want it to at least be readable and free from errors. Getting a second reader that you trust to give you good feedback, including constructive criticism, can open your eyes to things you may have missed or may never have been aware of.
Find someone, even multiple people, tell them to annotate or make notes as they read. It’s best to have another writer read your stuff if possible, as they’ll be able to give you more craft and technique-based feedback, but a general “reader” will give an insight on what is coming out on the surface.
First, just on the surface, a second reader can point out any grammar mistakes. They’ll catch typos you may have missed, or maybe even some syntax that seems a bit clunky. It’s amazing how your own brain will skip over something when it knows what it meant in the first place. You can miss extra the’s or use the wrong there without even thinking about it.
They can be your test audience to see what is coming through in the work. They might be able to tell you what the general theme of the story is, the voice, the tone, etc. You may want these things to be a bit ambiguous but if you meant for something to be written as humor and they only catch that it is bitter or (gasp!) maybe even unintelligent, you may want to rethink your language.
If you get a reader who is familiar with the technique of writing, they will be able to tell you if the work is consistent and congruent in all its elements.
If you don’t regularly have anyone in your circle that you think would be constructive readers, try finding a writer’s group or even a book group in the community (even an online community). If you still can’t find anyone you feel comfortable reading for you, consider putting the piece away for a while. Lock it up somewhere and step away from it for a few months. When you come back to it, you’ll have fresh eyes, and will probably be more open to seeing what progress needs to be made on the piece before it is ready to publish.
The best advice…is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision. — Neil Gaiman
Editors want your best; they don’t want a first draft. They want to do the least amount of editing on your piece as possible when it comes across their desk. They don’t want to have to change a lot of what is your work. So until it gets to them, let others take their turn.
Shanelle Galloway Calvert is a MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University and serves as a reader/editor for issue 43 of Oyez Review.