Let’s begin with the cardinal rule of manuscript marketing: Never, never, never, under any circumstances ever, shop around a first draft. Publishers can spot them from the beginning of the first page, and if you get a response from the publisher at all, it’s likely to be … unpleasant.
By “first draft,” I mean a version of your story that hasn’t yet been altered based on the thoughtful feedback of others who are competent to evaluate literary material. Significantly:
- A story might be your fifth or fiftieth revision, but if no one else has looked at it in detail before you pitch it, as far as publishers are concerned, it’s still a first draft. It’s absolutely necessary for authors to write and rewrite, but even the best authors are blind to many of the gaps or hobbyhorses that need addressing before a manuscript is ready for release. This point isn’t a dig at authors; rather, it’s a reflection of the truism that the closer you are to your work product, the less clearly you see its faults. If we were perfect judges of the things we love, divorce wouldn’t exist. And neither would rejection letters.
- It doesn’t count if you have friends and family review excerpts, especially if your friends and family are largely complimentary and they have no expertise in developmental editing or proofreading. Aunt Mildred telling you that your story reminds her of a Stephen King novel probably doesn’t level-set your expectations appropriately.
Manuscripts get better through the editing cycle. The default advice directed to inexperienced authors is: “Well, hire an editor.” Their default response is often: “I can’t hire an editor, they’re too expensive.”
My view: It’s probably not necessary for every author to hire an independent book editor and pay $500 to $2,000 for a comprehensive review. Most authors can get most of the heavy lifting done through a circle of beta readers. These beta readers look at the author’s final draft and provide observations about what does and doesn’t work — plot, character development, point of view, syntax, etc. Authors who are members of local writers’ tribes can often bounce work against each other at little or no cost if everyone participates in the work reviews.
A good beta reader will:
- Enjoy clear expertise in the genre and format that the manuscript follows. If you write Sci-Fi novellas, for example, look for beta readers who have been published in Sci-Fi or tend to write novellas. A writer of flash Romance fiction will be, correspondingly, less useful than a true peer author.
- Not shy away from offering negative feedback, or feedback that doesn’t point to a substantial rewrite opportunity. Superficial reads or reaffirming comments don’t improve manuscripts.
- Address linguistic slips or sloppy style, in detail — a good beta reader is a grammar coach as well as a story reviewer.
- Fact-check content, assess argument validity and identify continuity errors.
- Emphasize ways to make the manuscript better, instead of merely identifying problems.
- Possess some skill at editing. Editing and writing aren’t synonyms. Some really good authors are bad editors, and some really great editors couldn’t write their way out of jury duty.
- Edit in light of what the manuscript needs, instead of trying to conform the manuscript to what the reviewer would have written. Some of the best intentioned but dangerously misguided feedback comes from beta readers who privilege their personal preferences — for example, the person who thinks chapter three needs more scene description because the reviewer likes ornate scene descriptions.
- Commit to turning around a review within an agreed-upon window of time.
In a perfect world, you have recourse to several willing beta readers. It’s OK, if you get diverse feedback, to get a “voice of the reader” or slash-and-burn by a grammar Nazi, if they can only offer a niche or non-technical perspective. The goal, though, is to provide the author with a whole-piece evaluation. So pick your readers carefully — don’t just rely on fellow creative-writing students or displaced newspaper slots looking to make a quick buck between freelance assignments. Ensure you’ve got one or more readers who can address structure, plot, characterization, grammar, copy flow, etc.
In almost all cases, feedback from beta readers should result in a complete manuscript rewrite. If you can process the changes in an hour, then the changes weren’t substantial enough. And when your rewrite is done — send it back around for another round of beta reading.
As an author, you want a manuscript so polished that the publisher doesn’t read the first page and say: “Obviously a first draft.” You’ll be better equipped to pass that test if you have tough beta readers who make you sweat the small stuff.