A Reader’s Report
Here’s a picture of my kitty Cholula. She’s interested in computers–especially the mouse. Today she’s watching the cursor. Placing the cursor is the first step in editing–knowing precisely where to make changes.
In December, I wrote about the substantive/structural edit of my self-published book–I’ll Be There to Write the Story. This week, I’ll talk about the benefits of The Reader’s Report–specifically the one I received from Susan J. Tweit.
I wanted my book to be as good as I could make it, so critiquing and editing were key. To learn more about writing and editing, I attended one of Susan’s writing workshops in Salida, Colorado. My book had a different title then, and it was in three parts: story, workbook, and poetry. Susan advised me to move the poetry into a separate volume and keep the other two together. After the workshop, I took her broad suggestions to heart and revised the manuscript again. Then I asked Susan if she could take a look at it. She suggested that I might have her do a “Reader’s Report.” A reader’s report is something that writing coaches commonly do, and editors who work with “big picture” editing do as well, she explained. She would read the manuscript, but not edit it, and tell me how I could improve it.
Susan mentors writers one-on-one according to their needs. First we met at a restaurant. I had written a list of questions I hoped she could answer, some having to do with permissions. I handed over my manuscript to her and within a week she had written a two-and-a-half page, single-spaced Reader’s Report. I visited her in person at her house to receive her comments. She spent an hour going over them with me, and began by saying, “Normally I’d write up a formal report, but I don’t think you need it, so I’m just going to say first you’ve done a fabulous job with this story. Congratulations! Some areas still need work, but let’s look at your questions before we get to that.”
Susan answered my questions regarding quotes and permissions, publishing, and a few other style issues. She recommended that I self publish, which I was beginning to think was best for my book. Then she said, “Next, strengths and weaknesses: Let’s do strengths first. Your writing is clear and straightforward, your voice is a lovely blend of personal, calm and composed and knowledgeable. . .” I was feeling pretty heady when I heard this. “All in all, I’d say you’ve got the perfect quietly assured voice for this story, and you tell it in a way that would draw anyone in. That’s huge.”
Then she brought up the weaknesses, which were what I was dreading, but knew I needed to hear. “The story moves along well until your mom lets you know that she has a message to give the world that you didn’t necessarily want to hear. It’s natural that the story would change pace there, and you do a good job of getting it over that hump, until the interview transcripts in Chapter 8 & 9. There the story begins to falter. . .” Susan advised me to paraphrase more and only quote directly when the words the person was saying were critical to the story. “Too many voices are confusing,” she said. The last three chapters needed lots more work. The interview material was bogging down the story. My voice was getting lost and I had to reinsert it. There was more to work on, but she assured me it was all fixable.
Susan showed me a way to create the annotations—how to escape using formal footnotes. She had used this system in her memoir, Walking Nature Home. Annotations were important because of the material I was dealing with. Some might call it “woo woo,” but I had done my research. My references would go in a section called “Notes,” and would be keyed to the specific page the note referred to. I love to read notes in other people’s books, and I hoped that people would find mine useful.
Lastly, Susan pleaded that I change the title from This Lively Dust, which would be the perfect title for a poetry chapbook, but not for a big story about death, healing relationships and afterlife communication. That’s when I re-titled the book to I’ll Be There to Write the Story: A Mother-Daughter Journey Beyond Death.
What I want to point out is that Susan’s Reader’s Report was extraordinarily kind and sensitive. Anytime we turn over our “babies” for critique, our egos are in a vulnerable place. She talked me through it in person so that I wouldn’t have my feelings hurt. If I had been working with her at a distance, this would have been done over the phone. In person was great. With her gentle manner and saying things like, “I know how you feel” and “I’ve been there too,” she made me see I was on track and had a story worth telling. This was the final benefit I gained from the Reader’s Report–confidence in my book.
Next week, I’ll talk about the last two professional editing jobs done on my book before I took it to the book designer.