How to choose readers for your manuscript
“All readers are not created equal.” – Rachelle Gardner, literary agent
When a writer finally gets to that coveted last page of a manuscript and arrives at what he or she considers to be a solid draft (whether it’s the seventh, eighth or twentieth draft!), it’s time to push that baby bird out of the nest to see if it flies. That means selecting a preferably small and carefully chosen group of people to review the manuscript and help make it as strong as it can be. That’s your goal, after all. But how do you determine who is going to give your unpublished work the attention and review that it needs before you send it off to agents and editors?
There are actual writing groups that do this for each other, so a good place to start is exploring your local writing community to see if any exist. Personally, I don’t belong to any, so I call on my own social network when choosing readers. This is where it gets tricky. A lot of friends, relatives and colleagues know very well that I’m a writer. They ask about my book. They say they’d love to read it. But when asking for a serious critique, just anybody won’t do.
There are five reader categories that I’ve come across during my experience with novel writing. Here they are:
The Target Audience Reader. I write contemporary YA fiction with gay themes and characters, so I won’t hand my manuscript over to a history buff who only reads non-fiction. Find people who read the genre for which you’re writing and are familiar with that style of story structure. These people are fans of your contemporaries. They know what they like to read, and if your novel doesn’t keep them turning the page, you have a problem! You want these folks. They’ll be the ones buying your book when it hits shelves.
The Nitpicky Reader. Being nitpicky isn’t always a bad thing. Along with the previous category, this is where you want to choose the bulk of your readers. They’ll nitpick the hell out of your book, telling you line-by-line what works for them and what doesn’t. They may even take more pleasure out of the “what doesn’t” stuff if they’re that type! Absorbing feedback from this kind of reader isn’t easy. For everything they love, you’ll get five things they want changed. You may begin to doubt your prowess as a writer. You may begin to doubt your friendship with this jerk who is giving you hell for word choice! But in the end it’s this brutally honest, anal feedback that will make your manuscript better. Listen to them, but keep in mind that, in the end, it’s your name on the page. If a suggestion isn’t one you can agree with, you don’t have to make the change.
The Casual Reader. Realize that not everyone will be thorough. If your readers are close friends, chances are they may not be as in-depth in their critique as you need them to be. Friends don’t like to hurt friends’ feelings. I’ve had readers in the past toss out the usual platitudes: “It’s really good!” “I really liked it!” That’s all fine and good – we do need that kind of basic encouragement to know we don’t totally suck. But is it really helping you improve the manuscript? No. And they aren’t always quick on the turnaround either. The trick is to whittle down your list of potential readers so that you aren’t just handing it over to the casual ones. They’re nice folks, but you don’t need them yet.
The “No Follow Through” Reader. I’ve had my share of these, and while I love them dearly, they’re of no use here. When people find out you’re writing a book, they’ll ask to read it because they love you or they’re just curious or maybe they want to write books themselves and enjoy seeing how others are doing it. Whatever the reason, you’ll send them the manuscript and wait for response. And wait. And wait. You begin asking yourself, “Why did they beg to read it if they aren’t going to read it!” Author Tim Sunderland shares some insight into how to handle this type of reader in his post, Choosing Readers for Your Novel.
The Self-Invite Reader. It’s important to be choosy when selecting people to review your drafts. Trust me, if I want you to be one of my readers, I’ll find you. My people will call your people. We writers are protective of our work, especially in its early, not-quite-ready-for-public-consumption phases. We won’t just hand it out willy-nilly. Or at least I won’t. So be mindful that, if you self-invite your way into someone’s draft, you may not become one of the chosen ones. I may love you to death, but let me make my choices. Granted, you may unearth some really awesome Target Audience Readers or Nitpicky Readers in the Self-Invite crowd, so don’t totally dismiss them, even if you want to. Give their self-invite some consideration. But there are plenty of “No Follow Through” Readers lurking in this zone as well. Approach with caution.
There you have it – the five types of manuscript readers! Over the course of writing my two books, I’ve crossed paths with each of these types. Believe it or not, they all have value in one way or another. (Well, maybe not the “No Follow Through” ones.)
In my experience, it’s best to keep your money on the first two types I discussed. Choose a small group of readers from those categories – and maybe toss in a Casual Reader if you just need to hear someone say it’s good – and provide clear direction about the type of critique you're looking for. Once the feedback rolls in, you’ll end up with some solid material for your next revision. Before long, your manuscript will be agent and editor ready!