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Reader Brain and Critic Brain

The writer’s brain has two parts — the Imaginer and the Editor. Similar to these are two different parts of the reading brain: the Listener and the Critic.

Both writing and reading are complex activities. There’s more to writing than following rules and more to reading than seeing words on a page or screen.

It may be that the only thing a piece of fiction needs to do in order to be a success is engage the Listener in the reader’s brain. Like a kid by the campfire, all it wants is a good story. Once the Listener is engaged, details that bother the Critic — lapses in grammar, spelling mistakes, or typos — don’t matter. Not even plodding prose, cardboard characters, or warmed-over plots. As long as the Listener part of the reading brain wants to know what happens next and how the story ends, the reader will keep on reading.

This may explain some of those five star rave reviews for what discerning, critical readers believe to be mediocre books.

Editors, agents, reviewers, beta readers, and critique group members must perforce read in Critic mode. People who aren’t writers and are simply looking for entertainment, amusement, or diversion read in Listener mode.

This is why many (maybe most) writers are unable to read purely for fun. Poor things, they’re stuck in Critic mode. Typos, errors, and lazy writing habits irritate them and break the reading experience. Even when reading a stellar piece of work, they end up comparing what they’re reading to their own writing, rather than allowing themselves to be swept along by the story.

This may also be why many readers don’t write reviews. If you’ve sailed through a book in Listener mode, it’s hard to marshal your thoughts about it to the point of expressing them in prose.

Most beta readers are also writers, and feel obligated to read critically. Perhaps another category (“alpha readers”) is needed — folks who read purely for entertainment but are willing to comment on their experience of a specific book.

Anything an alpha reader notes as problematic would need the writer’s urgent attention. Niggly details noted by the beta readers can be dealt with later. There’s no point in polishing your prose if no one cares where your story is going or what happens at the end.

Maybe all this applies mainly to genre fiction — stories with inciting incidents, arcs and climaxes, and chapters with cliffhanger endings. Literary fiction, with its emphasis on artful prose, symbolism, and underlying themes, is a different matter. Even so, literary writers may want to consider recruiting one or two alpha readers from among their acquaintances.

So, fellow writers, do any of you seek out alpha readers? Are you able to read uncritically, purely for enjoyment?

40 comments

  1. No, to the Alpha readers, very much yes to the beta readers. My ego is too easily crushed to survive an alpha reader finding the first draft of my story boring. Someone finding the finished story boring as well is…I don’t want to go there.

    As for reading, I’ve learned to ‘not finish’ a book if it irritates me. And I only write reviews of books that I’ve loved, because it hurts to crush someone else’s dreams, so the critic doesn’t get much of a chance to make life miserable. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m with you on the question of alpha readers. I don’t show anyone first drafts because they’re not anywhere near finished. I ask someone else to read the story for feedback when I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. High Five, Liz! That’s what I do too. There are a couple of people I trust completely. Only they get to see the almost-final version. I know they’ll be honest, and there have been times when I’ve gone back and taken things out, put things in or re-written stuff for greater clarity, for them. Best of luck with your writing!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. I can see it would be a killer to have someone say a piece of writing is boring when it’s still at an early stage. I was thinking of comments along the lines of plot holes and confusing bits. I can also relate to writing mainly positive reviews; if a reading experience is mainly negative, there isn’t much motivation to write a review (except for people who enjoy doing that, and they’re not the kind of reviewer anyone wants). Thanks for your thoughts on this!

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      1. Yes! Exactly. I have a couple of beta readers that I trust implicitly. What they say I listen to, and they’ve never been wrong. And yes, the kind of reviewer who enjoys writing scathing reviews…:/
        I’ve only ever had one review like that, the one star that every writer has to have, and boy did it hurt. Makes you realise just how fragile your ego can be.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pertinent points and very true, Audrey. As an ancient writer, although I still love reading as much as ever, I can’t help editing and analysing. I recently read a book I intended reviewing but cancelled the idea after finding too many annoying problems, like swinging povs and a dual, serious, somehow conflicting, sub plot. I wouldn’t criticise someone’s work to that extent; it’s not fair. After all, my own writing can’t possibly please everyone, as I am certainly not perfect and appreciate that we all have different taste, so have cancelled the review. (Re povs, I’m guilty too and it often works well, but has to be treated with care.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Joy! It’s true that some of us can set aside our critic brain’s input while reading, up to a point, anyway. And it’s good to know some readers are tolerant of small bumps in a reading journey.

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    1. It is easier to do that when reading a genre you don’t write in. And it could be not every writer has an alpha reader in their circle of acquaintances; has to be a keen reader but probably not a writer as well.

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    1. People who take a lot of literature or creative writing courses at an early age end up with well-developed inner critics. Those of us who read fiction for pleasure and started to write later in life can shove the critic aside more easily, perhaps.

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  3. Once I started writing in earnest, I could no longer read without being a critic. It is too bad, but if there are too many errors or too many POVs, I have to stop reading. I have alpha and beta readers look at my stories before publication. I do need people to tell me if there is a problem!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reading is one of my greatest joys.

    My critical mode is active when I read, but my mind seems to divide books into world, plot, characters, and technical aspects, each of which is a separate measure of enjoyment; thus, while, for example, typos and such will prevent me from enjoying a book as a technical or visual object, they don’t prevent me from enjoying an exciting story. Unless one aspect of a book, frequent use of unintelligible names/terms, for example, makes the book as a whole so difficult to read the other threads don’t have a chance to catch my attention.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “Writer’s Curse” — I like that, or rather, I hate that.

    Consumption vs production mode, that is, your “listeners” vs “critics” and the fact that those who can consume without the infiltration of being a producer might rank a book higher than a critic seems cogent and probably true. But the whole “star” rating nonsense, well, you know my opinion on that prickly topic.

    Expanding this topic, I think the situation bleeds into every aspect of life. If you’re a chocolatier and you go eat some See’s candies, you couldn’t help but judge them. A sommelier? Could you ever drink a glass of wine and not analyze it? An architect in a new home or building? A software designer and a new application? It’s there, everywhere, this consumer vs producer, “producer’s curse” concept.

    Excelling at any skill should come with warnings “Your future satisfaction will be attenuated by learning this skill.”

    I enjoyed your analysis of this topic that’s plagued me also.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An intelligent and incisive post Audrey which I would have reblogged if WP were not one of its ‘Ugh. Reblog too hard. Me no do,’ modes.

    It is impossible to refute any of the points you have raised. Of course this is the way things are and this is why there are Editors, agents, reviewers, beta readers, and critique group members.

    And why conversely there are irritating folk who ‘will not be told’, will have nothing to do any of them, (save for reviewers- reviewers read the finished product) and will forge ahead and should not complain if they don’t sell many books (which is what I tell myself, at least twice a week)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post, Audrey. If I’m choosing to learn something and pick up a nonfiction book, I tend to gloss over grammatical errors or a slightly awkward sentence, or even repetition. I’m pickier about my own genre, mysteries, but am still able to turn off the critic in me if I’m reading a classic novel. If it’s an independently published novel, my inner critic is more active, but I don’t let it take over the enjoyment of the story…unless I’m seeing a lot of typos within the first few pages. Still, after forty years of writing, I’m not sure I’m capable of completely shutting off my inner critic, but it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a wide variety of books.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I regularly read for the pure joy and enjoyment of it! I can even read ‘serous’ nonfiction works with joy and curiosity of learning something. One of my favorite sayings : “Stay close to whatever makes you glad to be alive.” My nightly reading hour (or two) is my practice of being glad…😁

    Liked by 1 person

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