“The self edited author is as foolish as the self medicated patient.”
– Guy Kawasaki, APE (Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur)
For many writers, finding the right editor is the first real challenge they face in their journey toward publication. So far, your words have been entirely yours. But now it’s time to send those words out into the world. Are they ready? Are YOU ready?
To be sure, you’ll need an editor…probably more than one.
You should not be the only person who has seen your material when you start pitching or selling it. Getting good editorial feedback (and learning from it) is the most important thing you can do to make your book a success. Whether you are planning to self publish or find a literary agent and/or traditional publisher, the old cliché is true: you only have one chance to make a first impression.
Don’t blow it by missing something you could have fixed.
I’m not saying this to try to recruit business. I’ve got plenty on my plate. And in fact, there are plenty of ways to seek early editorial feedback without ever having to reach for the checkbook.
This is what self publishing superstar Andy Weir did, when he blogged the story that eventually became The Martian, bit by bit.
Your first step in editing doesn’t have to cost you anything. If you are smart, strategic, and patient, you can build a community of other writers or beta readers who will help you past the early bumps and big questions.
What Is a Beta Reader?
Beta readers are smart, dedicated, experienced readers who offer their time and their opinions, either in person or electronically.
Note those three important words: smart, dedicated, and experienced. Not to sound callous, but the feedback you get is only as good as the person who offers it. A good critique partner or beta reader offers impartial, clear advice and consistent feedback. They know something about the art and craft of writing. And they know how to explain themselves.
Here are 8 tips for working with beta readers:
1. Never trust your friends, family members, or anyone you share a holiday meal with to be your editor. Yes, Uncle Bob may have been an English teacher for twenty years, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to evaluate the plot and pacing of your romantic suspense novel. And your mom may volunteer to read your work and tell you how great it is, but remember, she also thought that self portrait you made from macaroni was worth framing and hanging on the wall.
Your family and friends bring their own baggage, positive or negative, to your work.
Instead, try to connect with people who have no preconceptions about you and can evaluate your work on its own merit. Your beta readers might be acquaintances, friends of friends, or people you meet at book- or writing-related events. (Because you are building your network within the community, right?) Connect with your local writing community to find or start a critique group, or get involved with an online community.
2. Find people who are widely read in your specific genre. If you’re writing horror fiction, a reader of cozy mysteries isn’t going to be able to give you the best feedback. While you’re at it, also make sure that your reader is interested in new releases. If your beta reader doesn’t like anything more modern than Hemingway, they’ll have a hard time giving you valid feedback on what a modern audience is looking for.
3. Ask specific questions. In my experience, beta readers and critique partners who are left to their own devices do one of two things: they either hesitate to offer any substantive criticism (focusing either on fixing a few errant typos or just showering the work in progress with praise it doesn’t yet deserve), or they feel like they need to be hyper-critical and start “solving” problems (“Maybe you should rewrite all of this in first person” or “I didn’t like the chapter about the French Revolution.”)
You can get past that by asking them to respond to specific, focused questions, like…
- Look at the first five pages. Is there anything there that seems unnecessary, or slows things down? Is there anything that moves too fast, and leaves you confused?
- Is there any point in the manuscript where you found your mind wandering, or it lost your attention?
- What was the idea/scene that most resonated with you?
What you ask specifically will depend on your work, and what your impression of it is. Try not to make your questions leading (i.e. “Did having Harriet pull out a magnifying glass make it too obvious that she was a spy?”)
4. Make it easy for them. Beta readers are doing YOU a favor, so go out of your way to make it a good experience. Send them a file that looks good—pay attention to formatting, fonts, spacing, and the rest. It should be easy to open and read (saved as either a Word document or a .pdf). And if you’ve been using “track changes” or sidebar comments, make sure all of those are accepted or deleted.
5. Give them a reasonable time frame, but also a deadline. Human beings put off tasks that don’t have deadlines. (Seriously.)
6. Consider all of the feedback, but then filter it through your own experience. I’ve worked with a lot of writers who made major changes that they disagreed with just because their critique group or beta reader thought they should. Those changes rarely work out. Remember that your reviewers (much like your paid editors) aren’t ALWAYS right. In the end, this is your book. (On the other hand, be gracious about how you accept feedback. Don’t argue with them, and swallow that natural desire to get defensive. Remember, you asked for their opinion.)
7. Thank them profusely. I’m lousy at remembering to write thank you notes, let alone come up with small, thoughtful gifts. But if there was ever a person who deserved a coffee shop gift card or box of treats, it’s the person who volunteered to read a work in progress, just for the love of reading.
8. Be prepared to accept that working with free editors is a fluid process and will take time, both to develop the contacts and also to get enough productive feedback to get to the next stage of your writing journey. Weir published bits of The Martian on his blog for YEARS.
If you want to shortcut the process, or if you’ve gotten as much as you can from the free resources around you, it might be time to hire an editor. We’ll cover that next, in Part 3.
Are you in a critique group, or have you enlisted beta readers? What was your experience?