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First Readers vs. Software Testing

April 21, 2008

At my wife’s suggestion, I read “On Writing” (2000) by Stephen King this past week.  King makes several interesting points and observations about his writing career and the craft in general, but there was one in particular that really caught my attention – the use of “first readers”, a person or persons who are willing to read your early manuscripts and provide feedback on how the story is coming together.

King writes about soliciting feedback from first readers,

Plenty of writers resist this idea.  They feel that revising a story according to the likes and dislikes of an audience is somehow akin to prostitution. (p218 )

What struck me here is how showing your work to another person (or a group of people) ahead of when you formally release it is universally considered a GOOD thing in software development, but apparently not when writing fiction.

Now, I assume that what alienates most writers from using first readers is not grammatical or spelling errors (such as using “they’re” when you mean “their”), but rather stylistic and thematic errors (“Tom shouldn’t have said that” or “I don’t understand Sally, her motives don’t make sense”).  To translate that to software, the former category would be considered bugs – you click the Save button, and the application generates a wonderfully insightful message such as “An error has occurred”.  The latter category might be things like “I don’t think it makes sense to put the Save button there; it should go here”.  The latter type of feedback is commonly generated in a formal testing phase or what is a called a “usability” phase.

In a usability phase (or a usability study), the software developers put real users (those people who will be ultimately using the software day to day) and let them try the software out.  The general goal of this phase is to see to what extent real users can use the software to get their jobs done.  In other words it tries to answer the question “does the intended audience ‘get’ it?”

With writing, putting your manuscript in front of real readers would seem to serve the same general purpose.  As King points out, having several people give input can sometimes lead to conflicting points of view, but “…if everyone who reads your book says you have a problem … you’ve got a problem…” (p217).  The goal here is not to revise the book so suit the whim of everyone who reads it, but to see if the readers “get” the story you’re trying to tell. 

I view the craft of writing as the art of telling a good story.  For me to be a good storyteller, I need to connect with you in some way.  I want you (my audience) to laugh at the jokes my characters tell; I want you to cry when they get hurt; I want you to say “whoo-hoo!” when they overcome enormous odds to save the day.  I don’t think it’s fair for me to expect you to do all the work to “get” my story.

I may have a good piece of software in my head, but if it’s throwing errors at the wrong points, uses color schemes that can only be described as “screaming”, or the screen flow causes you to beat your fists against the desk in frustration, then I have some work to do.  Likewise I may have a good story to tell, but if my characters are stilted, my dialog is atrocious, or my themes are trite, then I have some work to do.

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