Your first draft is done! It’s time to do some self-editing and then send out queries or self-publish, right?
Five types of people can help you with your manuscript before it gets into the hands of the reading public. Some of these are optional, but others are mandatory if you want to put out the best story you can.
1. An Alpha Reader
This one is optional, but it’s one of the most helpful steps for me. My alpha reader is a friend who won’t coddle me, but has the perfect balance of critique and hype. They’re also okay with reading mostly-unpolished drafts, which means they can point out big-picture issues before I get too far into revisions.
Some writers will send books to alphas in chunks as they complete them, but I prefer to complete a full draft with a quick cleanup pass first. But whichever system works for you best, alphas can be a huge help at an early stage.
2. The Cheerleader
This one is also optional, but can be a huge boost when you need it most. The cheerleader is a friend or relative who won’t give you any criticism. Pick someone who will be genuinely enthused about your work and not judgmental. Mine is my cousin. She is a frequent reader of the genres I write, and only gushes to me about her favorite parts.
When you’re feeling like your entire novel is a steaming garbage pile, a cheerleader can be that little power-up you need to keep you going.
3. Critique Partners (CPs)
These are not optional. Find at least one, preferably three or so. These are fellow writers who will give feedback on your novel in exchange for your critique of their work. They generally have a more critical eye than beta readers and can give more detailed or comprehensive feedback. My CPs and I annotate each other’s manuscripts with comments as we read, as well as providing a brief edit letter with overall questions and notes at the end.
If you’re looking for CPs, the Twitter writing community is a good place to look, particularly the hashtag #CPMatch, which holds regular CP-search days. Author Wendy Heard also has a free CP Matchmaking Service on her website.
I know writers who prefer to do the beta step first and then send to critique partners, but I go the other way around. Again, use whichever process works for you.
4. Beta Readers
Another mandatory step. These should ideally be non-writers. This is your reader test audience, so select people who would be picking up your book online or at the store. You don’t want to pass your young adult contemporary novel off to someone who only reads adult sci-fi. It’s unlikely their advice will be very useful.
I also use a questionnaire for my betas. I’ve found that providing specific questions is more helpful than just asking “what did you think?” Some examples: Did the characters feel realistic and three-dimensional, or did they seem flat? Were there any points where you felt lost or confused?
So how many beta readers do you need? That question will get you a dozen different answers from a dozen different writers. I like to beta in batches between revisions, so I tend to try for about 5-10 at a time. Others will do 20 or more. Not all of them will get back to you, and that’s okay. People have busy lives and you’re asking them for a big favor. Take the feedback you do get and look for those a-ha moments or repeating trends.
5. A Professional Editor
This is where things get fiddly. If your book will be traditionally published, you’ll work with an in-house editor at the publishing house that signed your book, after you query and find an agent. If you’re self-publishing, freelance editors are the way to go.
Prices vary, but I understand this service just may not be in the budget for some writers. In that case, an alternative is to enlist more critique partners. You’re paying them with your time and return feedback, so there’s no financial investment. It won’t be the expertise an editor can provide, but it will give your book extra eyes on it.
However, if you can at all afford an editor, this step is one you should not skip.
There are many types of editing: Developmental, Line Edits, Copy Edits… but that’s a list for another day. Suffice to say, the help of a professional editor can really make your manuscript shine.
Someday, your book will be in the hands of your readers, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least pass your book through most of these people first.
It can be hard to let other people critique your work, but it’s better to let a trusted CP or editor do it than get torn up by a reviewer on Goodreads. These people can really make your work as shiny as possible. Then once it’s as good as you and this support team can make it, submit that query or start on your self-publishing journey!