One of the hardest things about writing is getting honest feedback you can use to improve your manuscript before you submit it to a publishing house. Because there is so much competition, you need to have your manuscript in the best shape possible prior to it reaching the submissions editor.
Most of the people I know in real life read casually, have their own sets of likes and dislikes, so as much as I love them, I can only go to a handful for honest advice regarding how to fix a given novel or short story. While I do like encouragement about having the perseverance to finish a novel, as a writer, I also need feedback that lets me know that the audience isn’t completely lost, bored, or wanting to throw the book across the room.
From my experience, it’s difficult to get useable feedback back from another person unless they’re discerning readers familiar with your genre. While the mechanics of writing remain essentially the same across most forms, and you can learn about say, novel length-writing when studying another form of prose (poetry, short stories, etc) I have found that those unfamiliar with science-fiction and fantasy usually make for the worst people to offer you feedback – they’re unfamiliar with the conventions, and while things like a good plot or characterization are essential regardless of genre and form, their comments can be somewhat lackluster because they only have a vague idea about that genre – I read a romantic regency novel written by a friend, and I wholly admitted to her I was largely unfamiliar with the norms and expectations of her specific novel. I had no issue reading and reviewing it and I enjoyed the novel, but I wasn’t the ideal person to give her usable feedback, either. The same would go if I was asked to give an opinion on a piece of music – I know I like or don’t like something, but I wouldn’t be able to specify why – beyond perhaps how that particular piece made me feel.
Your first line of defense is to get good at self-editing. This takes a lot of practice, and because you’re seeing everything from the writer’s perspective – for example, you might know way more then you’re putting on the page, or you know how the story ends so you don’t mind dragging out an important detail for three books – unless you’ve taken a break and are able to see you manuscript through fresh, objective eyes, odds are you’ll have a hard time finding the flaws of your work – that’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but there’s a reason everyone needs editors.
In my experience, the best way to recognize my flaws was to edit someone else’s work – and by editing them, I gained the skills necessary to self-edit. This, in turn, allows for me to be discerning as to what advice to heed – but we’ll get on with that later.
Where to go?
It might help to search online, but I recommend finding a writer’s guild or group in your local area, if at all possible. Don’t join the first group you see – do your research and figure out who specializes in what. You might find that there is a group of writers at your church or school, but they mostly specialize in children’s or non-fiction – it’s not best to join there unless you’re tapped for ideas (on the other hand, they might offer some workshops that do appeal to you, so keep an open mind). My main suggestions are universities and libraries, but if you frequent local arts scenes, you might be able to find what you are looking for. If you’re on a budget, ask if they have student or retiree discounts, or offer to do some sort of volunteer work to pay off your membership fee. They’re usually not that expensive, but I was a starving student once, so inquire.
Once you have found a writer’s group, ask them if they have a work-sharing program – or if there is anyone who writes your genre looking for a beta reader. Often times, writing groups will offer writing courses and if you’re lucky, a mentorship program, but I won’t discuss those at any detail here – a beta is essentially the first person who can read your work and give you some feedback. It’s fine if the other person only offers critiques, but you’ll probably find that a person who will be on time with their review of your work if you have something to offer them – and while I have no issue with you taking your work to an editor for a fee, editing gets expensive fast, and I’d rather you save your money for final editing stages, if you chose go the self-publishing route. Your friend or associate just might enjoy editing books, but odds are, if they’ve got credentials, they’ll be swamped. Offer to edit someone else’s work in exchange. Don’t expect anyone spectacular – all you’re looking for is a second set of eyes to look over your work and offer some honest feedback that isn’t going to be overly praiseworthy or insulting – they’re not there to sing your glories, they’re there to offer suggestions for improvement.
Come up with a schedule that works for swapping, and agree to length.
You never have to meet in person if you’re not comfortable – in fact, if you want to meet in person, try meeting in a place with a lot of people. I meet mine at a coffee shop and we exchange paper manuscripts most of the time. I’ve given my beta complete novels, but usually I give him between 20-80 pages per swap (double-spaced) and we meet about once a month – or a complete short story or two, depending on what contest I’m entering and when it’s due. If I find a contest I’d like to enter and I don’t have time for the full month swap, I email him and say, “I need this back ASAP” and accept that he has a life and might not get around to editing it in time for my deadline. If you like working with one another, great, if not – let them know. While I think it’s important to have for in general and not to call up every time you have a novel written, figure out what works for you.
But I don’t know anything about editing!
It’s not your job to be perfect. In fact, tell your beta you’ll do your best, and then: do your best. Read some books on style and editing, but don’t go in thinking that the other person is going to catch every mistake or refine your diamond in the rough: that’s your job. Ask your beta reader if there’s anything specific they’d like help on – you’re not going in as a professional editor, you’re going in as someone who’s reading a book with a fresh set of eyes, so do just that. Ask if it’s okay to mark their pages or if they want a written set of notes at the end – or both. I make my beta answer three pages worth of questions – but I answer the same amount back.
I suggest that rather then you going on and on about comma splices, you read for content – if you’re confused, even if your partner explained something earlier and you forgot – let them know. They’ll know that if you hadn’t seen the explaining clue in three months, you might have forgotten a detail. At the very least, they might think about dropping more hints or whatever.
We swapped manuscripts and they totally focused on the wrong thing! Aaah!
Did you ask them to focus on something, or were you like, “Here’s my book, tell me what you think!” If you don’t tell them, “Don’t focus on spelling and grammar.” They might focus on spelling and grammar – this is an objective thing (see below) and some people might be worried about making a mistake and will only correct what they know is wrong. If you say, “I know my grammar is awful – I’m working on it, recommend a book?” They might let you off easy (or not) – but tell them point blank what you really want to focus on – I print out my manuscripts for swaps, and I will write on the page, “I hate this – need idea to fix villain’s monologue.” If I don’t – maybe the beta won’t think it’s that bad and ignore it. Don’t go crazy – I let my beta decide for himself what he likes and doesn’t, but if I think something’s weak or sucks, I’ll ask him to pay more attention on a given page or scene.
Is it okay to have more then one Beta?
Depends on you – I find that one beta reader is enough for me to get it to a level where it can be submitted, and then if it finds a home, it goes into the editing process. I have given my stuff to other people to look over and offer feedback, but for the most part, my beta’s already done the hard work.
The only thing I’m not personally a fan of is writing groups – and this is only because I find it’s very rare to have a writing group where everyone’s interests are the same. One person might love your dialogue, another might hate it – who is right and wrong? Moving onto my favorite topic:
Objective Editing vs. Subjective Editing
The reason you shouldn’t worry too much about book reviews is that they can be very subjective – don’t get me wrong, if just about everyone found your last book offensively racist or something, you might want to notice the trend and avoid scandal for every book on, but most of the time, reviews are very subjective. Likewise, your feedback might be great… or not.
Subjective editing is making comments like, “I don’t like Bob’s character” – that’s fine. In fact, if the story is mostly through Bob and you want Bob to be likeable to most people, this might be helpful. If you want Bob to be the scum of the earth and despised by most readers, you might be patting yourself on the back at that comment. But, your beta reader might be wrong.
Objective editing is, “You said Bob was left handed on page 4, but on page 12, he’s broken his right thumb and can’t sign his name…” Things like incorrect word usage or outright mistakes, those are objective. Your hero might come across as a jerk to most of the population, but, in the back of your mind, you and your target demographic like controlling alphas.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever give a subjective opinion – in fact, most of my comments are highly subjective – I hope it helps my beta know if I found a scene hilarious when it wasn’t supposed to be. As you start to get feedback from another person, you’ll have to start making executive decisions about the feedback you’ve been given. Does the feedback make sense? Does the beta reader like a certain style, which runs contrary to what you intended? If all it does is highlight some ambiguity, this can allow for you not to change your vision, but the way it’s presented to the reader.
I don’t care what anyone says about editing – it is a fun part of the writing process. I’m improving on what’ there, and hopefully, it’s getting better. Getting advice from a beta reader and editor helps me look at my work from a reader’s perspective rather then a writer’s one. You might give bad advice and suck as a beta at first, but if you’re consistent, work at it, and learn what it is your beta wants in terms of feedback, you should be able to improve at editing someone else’s work, so when you get your marked-up manuscript back, you’re able to give yourself that distance to try to think about your work objectively, and improve the overall quality of your manuscript.