Figure out how many people you will ask to read your book and what information you will want them to provide.
Are you thinking about asking someone to read your memoir manuscript? How many readers? How will you select them? How far into writing the manuscript will you wait before you start asking for feedback on your memoir?
This Story Will Not Go in My Memoir
Back in college, I had to make an oral presentation that would count for most of my grade in my “Myth Into Literature” class. Departing from the Greek, Roman and random other literary myths we were studying, me being me, I decided to focus on American figures—either totally mythical like Paul Bunyan or based in truth with mythical trimmings like Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett. It was very fun to research and write this, and I was happy to have settled on a topic that held my interest. I don’t know why I didn’t include a woman, but back then we didn’t put diversity into the equation, and that’s a whole other discussion.
I knew how to write a paper, but I was less confident that I could speak my way through a compelling presentation, so I was more concerned with the delivery than the content. I wanted to practice out loud to minimize my anxiety and avoid a shaky voice, and that would help most if I had a live audience. The night before my presentation, a friend agreed to watch me deliver it, and when I finished he proceeded to list all the problems with every aspect of the presentation. He addressed both the content and the delivery, and I don’t think he had a single positive comment about either one.
I was not going to stay up all night recreating it, and at that point I couldn’t take the emotional risk of trying again with a different friend, so I told myself all sorts of things to neutralize the bad review. My friend was a very smart guy who didn’t do college well; he was into at least year five of a four-year program and nowhere near graduating. I decided that this had to mean he didn’t intuitively understand what professors wanted. I, on the other hand, had good grades and especially did well on papers rather than tests. Or maybe he was lashing out for some reason—trying to undermine my success. He could have been tired, hungry, not feeling well, resentful at having to spend his evening on academics, whatever.
Be Confident in Yourself
Eventually I recovered enough to stop replaying his reaction in my mind. I read over my presentation one more time, and to me it sounded perfectly fine. Planning to trust in my own abilities, I just had to keep my nerves in check and deliver it, and the following day that’s what I did. I’m not sure what my grade was, but something like A minus rings a bell.
Now, it’s been a long time since college. Since I can barely remember what I did last week, this episode in college must have created a significant impact since it has stuck with me. My conclusion at the time: So much for second-guessing yourself after a trusted friend criticizes your work. I didn’t run my stuff by anyone after that. If I liked it, my own evaluation was good enough.
Do not learn that lesson from me. In time, I switched my conclusion to just the opposite—I had needed more feedback, not less. If I’d asked another five people to listen, I’m guessing that I would have received enough positive reaction to consider the first reviewer just an outlier.
I don’t know if that small episode in my life influenced the way I advise memoir authors today, but I do lean toward asking a lot of people to read through the book—especially the beginning of the book. By definition, people are the public, and the public is probably where you’ll be marketing your memoir if you’re not writing only for your family and friends. People have all different strengths and interests, and even if you discount some of the comments that come your way, I think a range of opinions will benefit you.
The people you’ll ask will not, or at least not necessarily, be formal editors. You’ve probably heard them referred to as “beta readers.” The major question you want them to answer is very simple: Does each page make you want to turn to the next? Does each chapter leave you with curiosity about what will happen?
People to Choose
Let’s say you decide against crowdsourcing strangers online, which is probably a good decision because you don’t know where your book’s words could end up. So instead, you look around your own circle. Who will make a good reader to give you feedback?
- People named in your memoir. I’m not talking about someone you document as doing great harm to you. Most authors hope that person will never see the book at all, much less ahead of publication. But people you mention just as playing a role in your life—parents, siblings, friends, colleagues—might describe an episode that will augment or differ from your memories. You’re better off knowing that before you publish your book. It could be a simple fact that you remembered wrong about the person or maybe details about an event that would add color to your narrative. If you interviewed someone for your book, I think that person should get a preview of how you wrote up the information, especially if you don’t want your book to harm your relationship with the person.
- People who love you—or at least like you! It’s risky to ask someone to read your book, because criticism is hard to hear. Readers who care about you will lovingly use a velvet hammer in sharing any negative opinions.
- Avid readers. People who read a lot can discern the difference between an amateurish book and one that sounds as if it were professionally written. They can identify holes in the narrative and spots that are repetitive. They can alert you to passages that sound forced or just unnatural. And they certainly can address the question about whether the read was compelling enough to make them want to finish the book.
- People with a writing, editing or English literature background. You’re not asking anyone to edit your work. But someone who has formal training in writing or book development can identify why a section doesn’t work that well. Maybe there’s a run-on sentence, a dangling modifier or too much passive voice.
If you hear the same problem from several readers, take it seriously. If one person you trust a lot mentions something, give it a lot of thought as well even if no one else brings that up. Then, ultimately, just as I learned with my oral presentation in college, you have to trust your gut. It’s your story, and you get to tell it however you like.