My mother is, right now, my only first reader. I think only a mom will put up with being asked to drop everything and read a book from start to finish because the writer is right up on top of a deadline.
Mama just finished reading my second Memphis book which I emailed to my agent Friday afternoon. Her technique is to print the manuscript out, read it, and put sticky flags on pages where she has questions or corrections. Then she calls me on the phone and goes through the corrections page by page.
She called me twice this time—once for the corrections for the first half of the book and once for the second half’s corrections.
During both phone calls she had at least one time where she said, “I didn’t understand what you were trying to say here. Were you trying to say…?” then she’d trail off.
Both times I read the paragraph. And read it again. “I meant…Well, I meant…” I’d pause and read it again. “Okay, I don’t know what I meant.”
I ended up ditching both paragraphs and rewriting them. Because, if I can’t even explain them, that’s not a good sign.
Usually these paragraphs are really awkward. Frequently this is because:
*It’s got a passive voice construction and is a big was/had past participle mess.
*It’s hard to tell who is talking.
*It’s hard to tell to whom they’re talking.
*The sentences are too long.
Usually I just chuck the whole thing and start over. But if there were a lot of paragraphs, that would get old, fast. Other ways to address it are to:
*Make it active.
*Include dialogue tags (keeping it simple…said or asked is fine)
*Divide long sentences into shorter ones.
*Consider a different way to deliver the info in the paragraph—like including it in dialogue, instead.
Catching these awkward constructions? If you’re doing the revision process solo, reading aloud would be the best solution (clearly I didn’t take my own advice and do that!) Otherwise…it is something that a first reader would probably catch.