Pitching to Contact: Book Design by Committee

There is a term in baseball called “pitching to contact”. It essentially refers to people who don’t walk people but also don’t strike out many people. The thought is that a pitcher should try to make their pitches hittable enough that the batters get themselves out by hitting into double plays, popouts, etc. Some teams have this as an organizational philosophy and target pitchers who “don’t miss bats”. Apparently the idea for those teams is to try to get quick outs and keep pitch counts down.

There’s a problem with this philosophy: it’s wrong. There’s little to no evidence that sacrificing strikeouts in favor of quick ground-outs is effective in either keeping pitch counts down or in suppressing the pitcher’s Earned Run Average (ERA).

With Spring Training drawing to a close and quotes about pitching to contact coming back into vogue, I turned this concept over in my head this morning and realized that it also applies to the writing world…or artists in general. You could apply it to just about any artistic medium.

Let’s lay the groundwork here; it’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s one I’m willing to run with, so that should be enough. Assuming a writer is in the pitcher position (and that’s surprisingly apt, much like baseball the writer takes a one on one relationship with a reader, let’s say the editor is the catcher calling signs), the philosophy of “pitching to contact” would be doing just enough to both get something out quickly and put it somewhere that you think the reader (hitter) would want it.

The problem becomes readily apparent. Working quickly results in mistakes, and when you’re trying to target what you think the reader wants, those mistakes can become catastrophic. Say, for example, you’re writing a mystery according to a certain formula, hoping to woo mainstream readers. You want to get it out as quickly as possible because, hell, that’s what we do to earn full-time livings these days, right?

You miss something major, and the story falls apart in the third act. Bad reviews follow, and you have to dig your way out of the hole. Much like the pitcher who rushes and throws a meatball on the inside half of the plate and watches a dinger sail over the fence.

This is especially relevant to my situation. I became that writer. I became hellbent on responding to every beta readers’ issues, altering every angle of my story until it became something that was no longer entirely mine. Now don’t get me wrong, beta reader comments are incredibly important. Beta reader comments have added a couple of strong chapters to Room 3. But at some point you have to know when to say when and trust your instincts. It is, after all, your story – the readers aren’t as invested as you (which is also a blessing of their involvement).

In short, I’ve realized beta reader comments are kind of like that phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous: take what you need and leave the rest. That’s not a bad thing at all – it means that you’re incorporating feedback in an active, intelligent manner, instead of just scrambling and being reactive the whole time.

My breakthrough really came when I realized I was ready to own the decisions that I made on content and covers. Even if those decisions turn out to be bad ones, they’ll be mine – and I’ll probably learn something in the process. That’s part of the pitching process, too: learning a hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, true, but also knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. Often, you can only learn those by experience.

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  1. Oh I love this post.
    I think so many people get stuck being the generic versions of themselves. I always tell me son to make decisions based on what he thinks is right–and live with the consequences. And sometimes you know the results may be uncomfortable–but they are worth it.
    Wimping out makes me mad–it’s your life and you should go in swinging.
    OK–this post made me a little crazy–I will now get off my soapbox…

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Yes! “Generic versions” is a great description. A lot of writers fall into the trap of the writer stereotypes and feel they have to live up to them, that’s for sure.

  2. Yes! Exactly! When you start looking at critique comments as something you need to think about rather than something you need to act on, you open yourself to discovering the real heart of a problem. To use a fireplace analogy, if you run around stomping out little fires as they happen, you might overlook where the sparks are coming from.

  3. Excellent points, Jonathan. Might I make one suggestion? That writers not ask beta readers for suggestions. Beta readers are readers, not editors. Ask them to indicate if scenes lost their interest or confused them. Ask them to indicate if characters do something that doesn’t make sense (a big bold question mark or HUH? is enough). Ask them for their general impression of the overall story (if they say, “Fast paced, exciting, scary,” and that was your intent, then you can rest easy. If you meant, however, moody and creepy, then you have work to do). Ask them to look for problems, but not for suggestions on how to fix them. They probably won’t know, but will try to be helpful anyway and that will only serve to confuse the writer.

    If you have a really strong stomach, tell your beta readers this: “Pretend you hate my guts and you want to hate this story. Be brutal, find every nitpicky flaw.” Not too many people can take that kind of read, but if they could, the writing (though the writer might end up in a tailspin) would surely benefit.

    If the writer needs editorial help, then find an editor. Good editors do know how spot plot holes, character inconsistencies, weak motives, missed opportunities and structural flaws. A good editor will help you achieve what it is you’re trying to achieve and stay true to your vision without muddying it up with ill-formed suggestions.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Thanks, Jaye. Little confused on where you got me asking for editorial advice from beta readers though? Or are you just speaking in general, as advice to other writers? Because I think I understand that – the readers just organically make suggestions on their own, and I take them into account (used to heavily, now I weigh them a little more).

      Here’s what I sent to my readers, verbatim:

      Hi there!
      Okay, here you go. I guess the only question in my mind is whether the end of the story gives a satisfying enough conclusion – I mean, I want to entice readers a little to check out one or both of the books, but I also want to throw them some bone of conclusion. The last few paragraphs will be a little different in the version that gets incorporated into City, but otherwise everything will be the same.

      As always, thanks for the help!

      I think that fits in with what you’re describing, and I hire an editor for the other stuff. Again, if this is just general advice to other writers, that’s cool.

  4. All right; let’s play ball! 🙂

  5. I can see this. What helps me is coming from an ecommerce background and remembering a few rules of website design. The first is don’t change a site based on just one opinion. The next is don’t change a site on a just a few wishy washy opinions about the same area.

    I try to treat beta readers the same. I’m looking for either major errors (mostly continuity) or problem spots that multiple point out. However, in that latter part a lot depends on how big of a problem it is.

    Case in point, my current book. I had three beta readers all point to the same part of the book. That gave me a bit of pause as I thought they were some of the more interesting (non-story vital) aspects of the book. However, upon talking with them the general consensus seemed to be “didn’t get it at first, but it worked for the story in the end.” All of those opinions were soft enough, that in the end I didn’t take out those sections. Turned out to be a good choice because I’ve since gotten a few nice emails complimenting those parts from buyers.

  6. Cool post, Jonathan. You totally hooked me with the baseball lingo. Even though my beloved Cubbies are rebuilding/retooling/whatever, hope always springs eternal!
    You’re right though. You’ve got to be able to live with the choices. Own those decisions.


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