Somewhere during the height of my adolescent angst, I received a great piece of advice: “Stop caring so much about what other people think.”
It is, in fact, a tremendous life strategy.
Especially when you’re facing a school full of fellow teenagers riddled with hormones and penchants for drama. Yet, as many discover while winding their way through life, this guidance becomes ever harder to follow.
There is always someone to try to impress. Or at least, to avoid being judged by.
After the mean girls of high school come the university admissions officers and, if you make it past them, the much cooler and older college peers come along. Then, the professional world, saddled with its own intimidating assessments of your clothing, personality, and lunch contents. You keep growing up, but the opinions of others keep barreling at you.
Don’t even get me started on social media.
As writers, we open ourselves up to a particularly special brand of observation, wherein our innermost thoughts spring across screens and paper for all the world to see. Forever.
From the embarrassing social play-by-plays we wrote on Xanga blogs to college freelance articles to our personal websites, we have scads of written information tied to us. They aren’t even harmless tweets or status updates. They are full-blown stories, poems, essays, articles, and the like.
What if a simple Google search unearths the choose-your-own-adventure novel your high school self thought was super cool? What if a future employer comes across those sonnets you penned for your college significant other? What if your blog post on U.S. politics crops up during a controversial debate at the holiday dinner table?
What if everything you’ve ever written is crap, and that means everyone thinks YOU are crap?
If these seem extreme, know that the runaway train of professional writers’ fears can go to deep, dark places.
Meanwhile, those who write entirely for pleasure –– think your mom’s cooking blog, perhaps (unless your mom is Paula Deen) –– there is much less pressure to care what others think. Write, post, and relax. Akismet will catch a lot of the haters.
Why Writers Have to Give a Sh… Darn
Those who write for a living depend on an audience that continues to click and comment regularly, so it can be easy to fall into the trap of judging the quality of your own work by positive numbers. One might assume that persistent reader engagement with the content you make is the best way to measure one’s true linguistic clout.
If the writing weren’t great, people wouldn’t keep coming back, right?
I’ve ended up down enough Buzzfeed rabbit holes to know that this logic is just plain wrong.
For those who write frequently and professionally, it can be too easy to get lost in one’s own work. Sometimes it takes the distance of months, years, or a brief bout of amnesia to actually get a new perspective on your own work.
You have to rely on those whose opinions you were told to downplay: others’.
Now, am I saying you should base your own opinions about your writing on the loudest troll with a spelling deficiency and questionable username? Of course not.
Instead, you must learn how to evaluate the often squishy intangibles of people’s feelings in order to get a better sense of what you are offering to your readers, and if you are delivering it.
Now, before we go any further let me clarify one thing: I love data. Like Marshall Eriksen of How I Met Your Mother, I could make bars, graphs and charts from just about any information –– gladly.
Unfortunately, even the most beautiful visual representations of data do not tell a complete story. Freakonomics be damned, I just don’t believe that everything can be translated into numbers.
Not all (dare I say most?) writers have the budget, time, or know-how to do a lot of extensive market research on their own, other than some casual sleuthing on social media and forums or some playing in Google Analytics.
Of course, you should use whatever numbers are available to you, but consider them as guidelines, rather than strict rules (much like the “no texting” reminders to teens in a movie theater). Remember that subjective, anecdotal feedback about your writing can be just as helpful, if not more so.
So, how do you truly examine how well you are satisfying your audience, and in so doing, delivering quality, useful, moving, inspirational, [fill your target adjective in here] content?
It involves an exercise in empathy.
Envision your reader vividly.
Sure, you probably know some basic info about your target user: age, gender, interests, preferred ice cream toppings, etc.
But what do they look like? How do they act? What do they love? And perhaps more importantly, what do they hate?
What are they looking for in your work? Is it the romantic advice of a close friend? The musings of a jaded art professor? Explanations of why WebMD diagnoses are frequently incorrect (Is anyone already doing this? If not, can they start soon? I might have Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia*)?
Sketch out, visually or linguistically (I’m assuming you, a writer, will choose the latter, but hey, maybe you’re an illustrator, too. Go crazy!) this person, with lots of details written alongside them. It shouldn’t take more than five to ten minutes.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Hey, you’re back! Now onto step 2.
Read your work from their perspective.
You’ve got your character profile. Now imagine it’s a hat. Put on the hat. S/he is now you!
Then, choose several pieces from at least a few months ago and try to read them with the eyes of your target persona. Keep in mind the wants and preference of this person. Consider how you approach these pieces mentally, emotionally, and physically, and attempt to at least channel those elements.
Are you drained, bent over a tiny glowing screen on a metro ride home after a long day at work? Are you wide-eyed at 5AM, squeezing in some motivation before a morning jog?
Are you frazzled, managing to multitask with one hand on your tablet and another feeding a stubborn child?
Read your work not as you intended it, but how it is actually read. Take note of questions, misgivings, or points of confusion that pop up. What did you want that you didn’t get? Were you misled by the title? Was it too long/short? Was it too hot, too cold or just right (assuming you are writing porridge reviews)?
Now that you’ve got some manufactured praise and criticism, go ahead and …
Give some writing to someone who will tell you the truth.
Or in other words, try to find someone you know who a) nearly fits the bill of your target reader and b) will not just tell you: “Looks great!”
This is admittedly hard to find. If you your friends and family are not grammar teachers, beat poets, Laffy Taffy joke writers, or other champions of the English language, you might find yourself needing to enlist some help from people outside your inner circle.
Consider finding an online community of writers who regularly peer review, reach out to like-minded bloggers and authors you already engage with, or consider enlisting a professional editing service (wink wink).
Approach this kindly, willing reader and ask for some overall feedback with a couple of specific questions that have you wondering. Maybe even create a short little survey for them to fill out, with plenty of space to explain the why’s. Make it easy for them.
Afterward, talk to them and see, from a reader’s perspective, the reasons for their particular feedback. It might take some initial probing, but try your hardest to get to the crux of their comments.
However, keep in mind that unlike how an editor’s remarks should be, reader comments aren’t always chock full of good reasoning. Sometimes they just don’t like something. Or they absolutely love it. And that’s the way it is.
But What Now?
Now, you should have tons of –– you guessed it –– data. Sure, it’s your best attempt at drawing a soccer mom plus some scribbly notes in the margins and maybe a Google Doc full of green comments from your cousin Marge.
But hopefully, it should all point to some kind of pattern or theme that emerges as an…opportunity for growth, as spin master Carol Dweck of growth mindset fame encourages.
Whether or not you want to incorporate said feedback is up to you. Maybe you like that little annoying thing about your writing that everyone else hates (like all the asides in the parentheses…I mean enough, already).
However, at least now you know. You imagined your reader, tried to see through their eyes, and talked to their doppleganger. You gathered the bits and pieces and now the results are in.
All that’s left is to decide now is how much you care about what they think.
*More commonly known as brain freeze.