The importance of the first reader

Eliza Hamilton

Every writer has, or ought to have, a more or less special first reader. For me it is my wife.

My wife is the first person to see every article I write for The Economist and every draft of my book manuscript. (I don’t show her my blog posts or emails, obviously, which may explain why those are so much worse.)

This is a very important and intimate relationship. The first reader is, in effect, the first editor, and also the sanity test, the acoustics check, the aesthetic focus group and the umpire of taste.

The first reader must be so confident of the underlying relationship as to be above flattery and fear of (lasting) repercussions.

Both writer and first reader must protect their credibility. My wife is probably most impressed with me when she gives a brutal but vague critique of something I have written … and I come back to her shortly after, having done even more brutal violence to my own words. This is known as “crucifying your darlings,” and it is what gives me credibility.

So it is fun to learn how the great writers of the past viewed that relationship.

Molière apparently tested his writings on his nurse to get her reaction. And Alexander Hamilton, my favorite Founding Father as well as by far the most prolific writer among them, had his wife, Eliza Hamilton. (Get ready for a new thread on Hamilton soon!)

On page 508 of this fantastic biography of Hamilton (recommended by Thomas Stazyk), Eliza recollects, 40 years after the fact, how her husband wrote George Washington’s famous farewell address. (Yes, most of “Washington’s” writings are in fact Hamilton’s.)

He was in the habit of calling me to sit with him that he might read to me as he wrote, in order, as he said, to discover how it sounded upon the ear and making the remark, “My dear Eliza, you must be to me what Moliere’s old nurse was to him.” The whole or nearly all the “Address” was read to me by him as he wrote it and a greater part, if not all, was written by him in my presence.

I probably appreciate more than most people how important Eliza Hamilton therefore was for American and world history.

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88 thoughts on “The importance of the first reader

  1. Andreas,

    Ah, the first reader, the first editor was and is my husband. In the beginning he made me mad and it’s when my writing was bad. In the middle he made me mad and my writing was still bad.

    I hate to think that I’m now in the end but I never get mad anymore (about editing let me be precise here) because his corrections have made me a better writer and oh yes, a better woman, too.

  2. … in order, as he said, to discover how it sounded upon the ear …

    When authorship of some of the Federalist Papers was unclear, statesticians performed word analysis on those whose authorship was certain, and found that Madison, on average, used upon twice per every 1,000 words—he generally preferred on—while Hamilton used it seven times. Then they simply counted the upon‘s in the remaining papers and determined who wrote which ones.

    Hence how it sounded upon the ear indeed sounds Hamiltonian upon my ear. Question is, did he get his upon fetish from his wife, or did she get it from him? Or was it this mutual predilection which brought them together in the first place?

  3. And here I thought Hamilton was just a springboard for Aaron Burr…. I honestly don’t know a whole lot about Hamilton. Did he really want to be the United States’ first king or is that just unhistorical hoohah?

    My girlfriend similarly reads everything I write before anyone else does. She, better than anyone, knows what my proclivities are and usually has a better sense of what I’m trying to accomplish versus when something falls flat. She even reads my blog posts and some of my longer comments on other blogs … I clearly don’t appreciate her enough. Though I do reciprocate with her writings when she asks.

    • Where to begin? Read the biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow–you will love it and it will change your view of early American history, especially with respect to people like Tommy Jefferson and James Madison.

      Short answer–there’s a good reason why he’s on the ten dollar bill!

    • Let me just endorse what Thomas said.

      And add to those about whom we must change our views after reading Chernow: James Monroe. Gawd.

      Lots more to come about all this, I promise. (From Thomas, too, I hope).

  4. There is a fun (and possibly true) story about Nabokov’s wife racing into their backyard in Cornell to pull the Lolita manuscript out of a raging bonfire. Can the Hamiltons match that for first-reader drama?

    I think now of a sweet moment in the movie Topsy-Turvy when Gilbert’s (or was it Sullivan’s?) wife wistfully remarks that in daily life there is no applause.

    • How about Tabitha King pulling the manuscript for “Carrie” out of the garbage can?

      Or for that matter, my dear wife badgering me until I quit messing with small presses and sent “A Death of Honor” to Del Rey back in late ’84…

    • Jenny, Jenny, … Always upping the ante.

      I will at once become more theatrical and threaten to burn my pieces, then wait for my wife to rescue those works of genius while begging me not to withhold them from posterity.

      I’ll let you know how that works for us….

  5. In my case I have a first reader for each language. When I write in English my husband is my first readers. For him is like learning something new about me with every posting. When I write in Spanish my mom is my first reader. She keeps me using my true writing style. She is a lot more critical than my husband. For her, the next article always has to be better than the previous. Therefore, when I do not feel like listening to criticism I write in English.

  6. Sometimes I’ll try running my blogs past the missus, but she doesn’t provide very helpful advice and doesn’t read my blog. However, my grandson and grandniece “guest blog” on my main blog, and I’ll try to give them some feedback (though I rarely edit their work. I never want to hinder their self-expression, which is marvellous).

    The Codger
    http://thecodger.wordpress.com/

  7. Many ‘first readers’ are spouses because it is, by nature, such an intimate relationship. Plus, it helps to have sanctimonious bonds strengthening the personal relationship, in case the writer/critic relationship strains to breaking.

  8. Couldn’t agree more about the importance of first readers, though for those of us without spouses dear friends must suffice. My first reader and I joke that we’ve been Platonic soulmates for over 10 years now.

  9. My first reader is my sister. She is the one that I tell my ideas and stories, the one I show the first drafts. She gives me confidence, if I don´t show things to her I get completely insecure. Sometimes she gives me new ideas and solve plot problems. Of course that other people read my stuff such as my fiancé, my father, and my mother but my sister is the first one and therefore, the most critic and at the same time most supportive reader.

  10. Great post, I toally agree with the importance of the first reader. But how much influence does the first reader has on the content and style of your writing? What if the first reader changes the core of how you write an article? Just some food for thought…

  11. I completely agree with the first reader concept. My husband is this and editor. In fact he demands it on a daily basis which helps since he knows me and my thinking. And it all comes with respect and no arguments.

  12. I find that a first reader often need not say much to communicate what I, as a writer, want to know. The sudden intake of breath or the hearty laugh often tell more than a careful critique.

  13. If only it were so easy to find a good “first reader”. My boyfriend is an engineer, and he doesn’t so much read… Where’s a good place to acquire a good “first reader”, besides the bedroom? 😉

  14. Given the mushrooming number of writers on account of the ever-increasing simplicity of the process (laptops vs. quill & parchment—there are, what, like 200 million blogs by now?), having a first reader is also important because it means that the fruits of one’s labor are read by one person at least.

    • I’d like to offer my help but my Portuguese is a bit rusty these days. My approach is this: Be your own first reader. But pause between the work bit and the first reading. The longer you pause the more you will be surprised. Then you wonder what the …. then get angry, and then back to the writing.

      Born out of a similar situation Katie was alluding to.

  15. i could totally relate to this. i know that the first reader is very important. my first reader read my blog yesterday, and I felt a bit more satisfied.

  16. The first reader… sometimes I find it very useful to have someone who does not know you too well… so they don’t come into the experience with too many pre-conceived notions…

    • But such a person would be in a tight spot: Could (s)he afford to criticize your writing? Would (s)he overcompensate with praise or criticism? Et cetera.

      You would never know whether (s)he gave you sincere feedback. It’s that credibility issue….

  17. Intriguing! Most of my writing thus far has been for college assignments and my boyfriend acts as my first reader for those, though I really need to find someone I trust who actually enjoys reading for this job. I have written quite a bit on my own (not school related), but have been too afraid to let anyone else read any of it. One of these days, though, I’ll have to find a good first reader if I ever want to publish anything.

  18. My husband is my “first reader.” Mostly he points out contradictions and misstatements in my writing. It is a love hate relationship I have with my “first reader.” Not so much emphasis on “muse” — more on “first tormentor.”

  19. What fabulous discourse. Much food for thought. Thanks, guys.

    (Or do I have to say “everyone”? Or include “gals”? The older I get the more I realize I am definitely Old School — and grateful for it. Life is much simpler.)

    BTW — Plato’s soulmate might have had a point. Once it’s written, and especially distributed, it’s a Done Deed. You can’t take it back. Much of conversation is temporary. Might be good; might not.

  20. My first readers tend to be members of a small internet writing forum, but I think it’s best not to let the first reader influence the writing too much – if you start writing ‘for’ someone, you’ll stop considering how to appeal to a wider audience.

  21. I am my Husbands first reader. He has atrocious grammar and spelling. However my cousin is my first reader. She can give me the brutal honesty I need. She also enhances my writing by making it funny. Always good to have a laugh!

  22. Great thought! And very true. This is important in other aspects of life as well. Sometimes you just need that first person, to tell you the real truth, for an honest reaction, because after that…no one else will.

  23. Wow, that was really good. I like the way you write a lot.
    I’m kind of having of not sure with my short story, do you mind looking it over and leaving some suggestions?

  24. This is a definite place to come back to and reflect and read what you have written. I read the first reader and stopped. You’re right. Everyone should have an editor. I do. My son writes fluently, and he often will glance over my work, and add a picture, or look at the grammar. It’s nice to have someone readily available like this, who will analyze, question and reflect.

  25. You’re lucky to have married someone willing to give you an honest assessment of your writing, and she’s lucky to have married someone who won’t take her criticism personally.

  26. RICHARD DAWKINS also has his wife as first reader and he thinks it’s more profitable that the first reader be an actor/actress, once she can give the sentences the right intonation, velocity and emotion, when required.

    I do not have a first reader, but I’m not properly what you could call a writer, so I think I won’t miss a first reader so much. To me, any reader for my texts will be a great thing anyway.

    And I could’n help to notice that the introduction “My dear Eliza,” in my own language sounds like a very funny cacophony, meaning something like “My face is slippery”.

  27. that is a very interesting point you are making here. personally, I have no first reader because when I write something I am usually the one who reads it first and cuts, and takes out and puts in, and stuff like that. but when I do that I need to be furious, angry and sleep deprived with a lot of coffee in my system. I hate the text and after I’ve managed to transform it I begin to like it. and then I give it to the others and that is kind of difficult because nobody in my family speaks English and I write in English…and my friends never have time for what I write so…
    anyways, brilliant post.
    rob.

  28. I’m glad I found this, the comments are as interesting as the post. First reader, first muse, is always an important thing. Some of my writing would never have been completed if it wasn’t for my friend and first reader, Isabelle, encouraging me, as she wanted to know what the ending was.

    One should write for them self, not just to give a reader what they might want, yet it’s undeniable that the reader impacts the writing.

    • Then you keep writing and editing yourself anyway, and sooner or later the first reader comes along.

      As the Zen (is it Zen?) saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Likewise, when the writer is ready, the reader appears. 😉

    • English was my first major many years ago before I switched to psychology as an undergrad and took English as a minor. So this student is ready if you’ll be the teacher, Cheri.

      I take the Buddha’s thinking allows me to move in any direction with a teacher/student meditation.

  29. “Crucifying your darlings”. Nicely put; I’ve heard many versions of that mantra, the one that comes to mind most prominently being Truman Capote’s “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” Nice post!

  30. Agreed. The first reader is imperative to good writing. My fiance reads everything of mine and edits for me, he is a writer also. It helps having a partner that can spell and knows the English language as well as yourself. Nice post, I enjoyed reading it and the comments as it helped me to appreciate the cleverness and importance of my “first reader”. Well done.
    I am a young writer and would love some feedback about my creative posts, if you are interested. http://wp.me/pVZEF-l
    Have a lovely day 🙂

  31. I never really think too much about it, so I enjoyed reading The importance of the first reader. It is my husband, who has infinite patience with me as I feel the need to read him many things that I write. After reading this, I’m going to show a bit more gratitude.
    Claire Perez

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