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The Casual Reader and the Ugly Baby

The casual reader and the ugly baby: the importance of friends and family to the writing and editing process

I am still a little afraid of sharing my work, and I don’t think that will ever go away. Sharing work is a crucially important part of being a writer, but that doesn’t make it less of a terrifying experience. I am afraid that my work, shrouded in secret for up to years at a time, will not measure up to expectations.

But that begs the question—what expectations?

There is a huge difference between the reader who reads critically to catch mistakes, plot holes, and weaknesses, and the reader who reads for enjoyment. It’s important to include both of these people in the editing process, but they each have different expectations of a piece. The critical reader—also known as a beta reader or editor, depending on the stage of the process—is well-loved and praised in the writing world. But less attention goes to the casual readers: the friends and family.

When I received a proof copy of Sigma Radiant as a NaNoWriMo prize, I started to think about revamping it. I knew that this book was subpar. I’d written it when I was sixteen and had no idea how to write a novel, and although I’d made a couple passes at it to sew up some plot holes and do some line editing, it still needed so much work.

I gave Sigma Radiant to a beta reader, hoping to get some sort of positive reaction from a critical force. She couldn’t get past the first twenty pages because of all its issues.

I had known the book was not at its best. Her points were valid, the issues were significant, and her feedback helped me so much in figuring out what needed fixing, but still. Twenty pages! What a punch to the ego that was.

If I’d only had that feedback, it would have been so easy to doubt my book and my abilities—to begin to consider them both unsalvageable.

But then I sent an eBook proof of Sigma Radiant to my good friend and roommate, Maddy, who also happens to be a voracious reader of young adult novels. She did not read it from a writer’s perspective, but from a reader’s, and even though she is my friend, she is notorious among our acquaintances for her bluntness. I asked her to tell me if she found errors, weak plot points, underdeveloped characters, or anything else that ruined my book.

Over winter break, she texted me: “Okay, I’m about halfway through, and I have to admit I’ve teared up a few times.”

At the moment that I received that text, none of the criticism in the world could upset me. Someone liked my book—someone in my target audience, even! Someone besides me felt emotionally attached to my characters and invested in their well-being!

Part of being a writer and sharing our work is developing a thick skin for criticism. Taking criticism is important—it revolutionizes our work, destroys our blind spots, and makes us look at it from new angles. But our work is our baby, too, and even if it’s an ugly baby, we want to know that somebody besides us likes it. That’s what gets us through the critiques.

Surround yourself with the casual readers—the people who are willing to read and to love your ugly baby. Someday, when your baby grows up into a beautiful, well-developed book or story or whatever, you will thank the people who pointed out the ugly baby’s flaws so that you could fix them. But even more, you will thank the people who loved your baby when it was still an ugly little runt.

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