First Readers

A First Reader is a person you go to first—before you send the story off to an editor, before you even know what it is you have on your hands.  This is a person you trust almost as much as yourself.  In a pinch, you might even trust him or her more than yourself.

A First Reader inhabits the inner circle of your creative space; he or she is separate enough from you to have a fresh perspective and honest enough to actually give it.  He or she knows your ticks, tricks, and hang-ups.  You have a history together—a history that is not all cheese puffs and roses—and you are still speaking to each other despite or even because of that history.

I have two First Readers—my wife who is a professor of religious studies at Wofford College and John Jeter who is a novelist, memoirist, and co-owner of a music venue in Greenville, SC.  Both of my First Readers have an uncanny ability to look at a tangled ball of prose and see the threads of meaning, to stare chaos in the eye and she what that chaos aspires to be some day.  Both are damn good editors, great writers, and even better friends.

John and I met a few years ago when I interviewed him about his then newly published novel, The Plunder Room.  Instead of a straight ahead interview, John and I sat at The Handlebar and talked about writing and writers, music and the music business, and indulged in our mutual fondness for moderately inappropriate humor.  I left with four and a half hours of tape for an 800-word column and a new friend.

The other morning, John and I found ourselves at our respective computers at the same time.  John was still buzzing from having just turned in the “final final draft” of his memoir Rockin’ a Hard Place and I was struggling with writing about First Readers.  So, I did what I do in a pinch—what journalists do when they have a topic and a deadline—I asked someone else some questions about the topic.

This is the first time John and I have talked about reading each others work.  It’s usually just something we do—something that starts with “Help!” in the subject line or “Hey, you got a minute to read something?”  But there’s more to it than that.

Why read someone else’s work?

John Jeter:  Because he asked. No, really. Like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World, I don’t often read what someone else asks me to read, but when I do, it’s usually because I either like the person who asks me (and I really like to help those folks I happen to like a lot) or I find that his subject or piece is compelling—preferably both. Generally, I find that the person who asks genuinely wants what I may have to say and seeks a perspective that he perhaps hadn’t considered during or after his writing.

What is your editorial approach when reading a friend’s writing?

John Jeter:  The first thing I do is try my hardest to keep from ripping the entire thing apart without first reading it all the way through, and then I try to keep from rewriting it the way I would have written it because, of course, I would have written it much better, though the story wasn’t mine to begin with and I may, in fact, have limited knowledge about the subject matter, even though the writer who asked me to read his piece suspected that perhaps I did.

In any event, I actually do read the piece all the way through first and try to take mental notes on the places where I stop or the places where I flinch or the places that I would just cut out all together. I also keep a sharp eye for the “babies,” those flashy bits (or stretches) of precious prose that scream out: “Look at what a brilliant writer I am!”

As soon as I’ve made those notes mentally, I then go back and try to give a lot of thought to the writer’s original intention and voice, and then try to guide him back to those things. In other words: The distance between the head (and/or heart) and the fingers is often as far apart as the Sun is from Pluto, which isn’t even a planet anymore. My job, then, is to figure out a way to close the gap. As an outside observer invited in, I can often see what the writer’s brain is doing and what his fingers did, and, again, with a more-objective perspective, I can determine where the artistic spaceship went adrift and try to act as Ground Control to get the damn thing pointed in the direction the pilot originally wanted to fly.

That said, once I read the piece, get a feel for voice and intent, and decide once and for all what the writer’s real message, theme and structure are, I work to show that a little nudge here, a little push there, a little extra boost here and there might make a difference in the power and quality of the project.

Is it easier or harder to read something written by someone you know?

John Jeter:  I prefer to read something by someone I know. I also prefer to read something by someone who knows me and knows me really well. If I wind up being too heavy-handed with a piece and have this sense that the entire thing should be rewritten top to bottom, I prefer to be working with someone I can say that to honestly. And if I do actually want to entirely rejigger the piece, but my friend would rather keep it the way it is—despite how bad I think it might be—I would rather that he has the freedom to tell me he appreciates my edits, etc., but doesn’t happen to agree with any of them. Honest friendship makes for honest editing. At least, that’s how I feel about it.

Would you rather get edits from a friend or an editor you don’t know?

John Jeter:  I tend to think of editors as friends, so I’m not sure that an editor who buys or wants to work on a project of mine isn’t already a friend, if that makes any sense.

Here’s where that comes from: I came up in newspapers. Writing one or two or even three stories a day on deadline required some fast thinking and quick writing, and then just turning all those words over to a city editor, who then turned them all over to a copy editor. These were all colleagues, people I respected, trusted and appreciated. Most of them were terribly smart, often a lot smarter and, usually, more accomplished, talented or experienced than I was. I worked to make them friends, too, as much as they were colleagues. That way, I could assure myself that they treated me and my output with discretion and some amount of generosity, because nobody wants to truly piss off a friend. Most editors, especially the best ones, the ones who also want to be a friend of the writer, prefer to be constructive, not paragraph-shredders.

All in all, what are the pros and cons of having a “first reader”? 

John Jeter:  My wife has almost always been my first reader; that is, outside the newspaper business and in my life as a professional writer. The pros are that she’s generous and honest, never mind that she’s immensely capable, talented and damned good at editing. The cons are that she’s right just about all the time, and that can be either humbling or humiliating, depending on my mood.

I prefer to have a first reader I know rather than one I don’t. I recently had a “first reader” that was given to me by an editor, a first reader I didn’t and still don’t know and have never met. I didn’t have any idea of the reader’s credibility, but since my editor was the one who decided on that person, well, I felt okay about the judgment(s) that went into my work. At the same time, I knew I could also simply disregard that person’s comments. But that kind of speaks to my point: If you’re sleeping with your first reader and she happens to be right all the time, you kind of understand that credibility’s already a given.

Lastly, what do you look for in a “first reader”?

John Jeter:  Great looks, a nice body . . . Actually, in some seriousness, I prefer a first reader who’s like the writer I would someday like to be: a reader/editor with a generosity of spirit whose purpose isn’t so much to serve the writer’s ego as it is to serve the story. Once the story is served, the writer’s ego gets served, too. The process usually doesn’t work so well when both parties – reader and writer – go at it the other way around. So my first reader needs to care about the story as much as she cares about me, but with the generosity of spirit that communicates this one truth: I care about you enough to make you want to produce the very best story you can, and if I (we) can do that, why, you’ll wind up feeling pretty good, too. That’s a good first reader.