A lot of memoir writers ask friends and family to read their work along the way. And that's great. I'm all for getting audience feedback. But most of the memoirists I talk to say the comments aren't super helpful. Here's how to get better insights from the people reading your memoir (or any other kind of writing).
I know it's awkward to ask someone to read your most personal writing. You feel like you're imposing. You worry about being judged for your life or your writing or both. You don't want to lose a friend because things got weird. All valid. But maybe be more strategic about who you involve.
Here's what I mean.
Who should read your memoir?
Don't just choose people to give your work an early read who have a lot of time on their hands or are eager to do it. Yes, those are helpful criteria, but not deciding factors. The most important thing you want in a reader is honesty. You want somebody who will tell you the truth about the work. A lot of folks, because they love us, don't want to criticize, even constructively. And that makes them terrible early readers. Because now is when we need to hear the bad and the ugly so we have time to fix it. So your early audience input should come from individuals who understand that their role is to help you make the work better.
That's a non-trivial responsibility. Way more challenging than a willingness to take on a recreational read. So be honest about that when you're reaching out.
A quick story: When I was married, the hubs asked me to read the first few chapters of his new book. (He was already a published author.) It. was. bad. It didn't sound like him. It didn't align with the style and intent of other works in the series. I was going to have to tell the man I loved that his book wasn't up to snuff. #goodtimes I did it -- more on how below -- and after his ego recovered, he started over. The resulting tome earned several awards.
How to ask someone to read your memoir.
It's tempting to say, "let me know what you think" and then run away. Not effective. If you can't put more effort in requesting feedback, you can't expect others to invest in giving feedback. Around here, we developed a standard set of questions for reviewers that helps them get started. It's SOP here at The Word Factory and it's how I frame my comments with coaching and content marketing clients. After two decades of using it, I can promise you that it makes the review process better and more effective for everyone.
The 5 Big Questions is a terrific rubric that makes it easier for your peeps to give you meaningful feedback to improve the work -- not non-specific responses like "I liked it" or "It got slow in places". It's not their fault, by the way. We still don't teach how to give feedback (much less ask for it) in school, where the model is a horrible little black box.
1. What makes the writing good?
Which parts I liked and why (bonus points for highlighting or giving a page number). This insight helps you see what you're doing right so you don't undo it.
2. What would make this writing better?
Which parts I didn't think were as effective and why (same bonus points apply), and ideas for making it better if you have them. (Same bonus points apply.) These comments indicate parts that need improvement -- and might uncover strategies for making them better.
3. What’s the one most important thing the writer wants you to know?
The takeaway from this book is .... what? Asking readers what they think the big idea is helps you know it landed (or not).
4. Why did the writer write this piece?
You wrote this book because you wanted us to think, feel and do ... what?
Pro Tip: Questions 3 and 4 seek the same information from different perspectives, so I like asking both. But if you think they're redundant, it's OK to combine them or choose just one.
5. What does the audience need to know?
Other readers need X to enjoy and understand this piece, This is where your readers tell you a little about who they think the audience is and what kind of background information they need. Or if you need a glossary or something. Admittedly, I don't usually pose it thisway for myself. Instead, I ask "What's missing?" as a kind-of catch-all opportunity. It often yields insights about style or context that are super helpful and don't show up elsewhere.
Use these tips to get more actionable feedback from the folks kind enough to read early versions of your writing. And if you want some professional comments, email me about writing coaching.