Who Should Read Your Unpublished Work?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

One of the most common pieces of advice writers are given is: Get outside feedback. Published or not, writers typically show their work to beta readers, critique partners, friends, family members or anyone who will read it, to get feedback before submitting to an editor, agent or publisher. I’m one of those who frequently gives this advice.

But here is a caveat:

All readers are not created equal.

Getting feedback from the wrong readers can be more than simply unhelpful — it can steer you in the wrong direction. Worse, you may not even realize the input you’re receiving is bad. I can’t tell you how many times authors have lamented about the contradictory, unhelpful or confusing feedback they’re getting from readers, only to unpack it and realize they’re simply not showing their work to the right people.

So how can you determine who should read your unpublished work prior to submission? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself, keeping in mind that qualified readers should probably fit at least one of these criteria:

1. Is the reader an experienced writer or editor who understands the requirements of your genre?

2. Is this reader a member of your target audience?

3. Is this person well-read in your genre?

4. If you’re writing non-fiction, is the reader an expert in the subject of your book, or does he/she at least have significant familiarity with it?

Recently an author told me that one of her readers suggested a major change in her memoir, but the change seemed completely wrong. Trying to figure out why the reader would have made that suggestion, we figured out that the reader never read memoirs and wasn’t in the target audience for whom the memoir was written. In other words, she didn’t get it. The suggestion she made would have been exactly wrong for the intended audience of the book. This led to a terrific conversation with the author about carefully choosing those beta readers.

A couple of notes:

• If your reader is related to you by blood or marriage, proceed with caution. Even if they fit one of the criteria above, their ability to give you valuable feedback may be compromised. Don’t allow them to be your only reader until their input has been proven reliable.

• If you’re contracted with a publisher and your habit is to use readers before delivering manuscripts to the publisher, ask your in-house editor if they want you to do this. Some editors would rather see your own original work rather than a workshopped manuscript.

 Do you use beta readers or critique partners? If so, how do you choose them? Do they fit the above criteria?

 
Imaage copyright: barabasa / 123RF Stock Photo

30 Responses

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  1. Teresa G says:

    How would you suggest finding a good critique partner?

  2. This is great, Rachelle, and so necessary!
    * I have never used relatives as beta readers. The one memorable comment I did get from a relation-by-marriage to BPH (I don’t have any blood relatives) was an inquiry as to whether I was still practicing necromancy. Took awhile to stop laughing about that one.
    * The only thing I can really add is that it takes time to build relationship with potential readers. My blog’s now fairly widely read, and there are readers that fit several of the criteria you mentioned, and whom I would feel comfortable in approaching. But there was no shortcut to this point.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    Finding readers is not hard. Finding the right ones is more challenging. I had several friends read the first draft of my just-released novel while it was still omniscient narrator. If they were willing, I enlisted them as readers. They all liked classic books, so the style didn’t bother them. Then I entered Genesis and learned I had to totally rewrite to 3rd person limited. One of my original readers read the new version, made great suggestions, and caught virtually every typo. She’s one of my 3 super betas now. Another is a friend from church who works with international students, so she is attuned to cross-cultural issues, which all my novels have. My 3rd super beta was essentially a gift from a best-selling CBA author who did my cover design and asked her own launch team for her last book if any of them would like to read and review mine. Several did, and one who beta reads for several well-known authors is now one of my super-betas. These three are all smart, wise, godly women who understand what message I want to embody in a dramatic plot that also includes a difficult love story, and they help me get there. They all know that I want the most negative comments they can possibly make, and they give me what I need to improve the work.
    *I found my critique partner through both of us participating in another writing blog. She’s a very gifted writer herself, and she flags the things a beta who doesn’t write wouldn’t notice.
    *I didn’t do anything special to get my team. God must have helped stitch together this great group of people who make everything I write better.

  4. Melinda Steele says:

    Finishing my first novel was a great accomplishment. Finally getting my world slowed down enough to continue a passion I started as a child. However, nothing was harder or more nail biting than waiting for
    feedback from my chosen group of readers. Thankfully they loved it. I
    even made mental notes about four
    parts that I questioned myself, and
    my group picked up two of them right
    of. Having outside opinion and
    feedback, suggested by one of your
    blogs, was perfect for me. I can move
    forward with confidence to finding
    my next group, (Agent and
    publishers). While patience becomes my new best friend, I am not idle.
    Book two is almost complete. So far in my journey, I believe this is the best advice to anyone with an idea that has leaked onto paper.

  5. Thank you, Rachelle, for raising this topic.
    * I’ve been in a couple on-line critique groups that didn’t last (although I gained a single friend and reader from each one). Others in the groups welcomed thorough critiques of their own work, but gave superficial reviews themselves.
    * I let my mother read my WIP. She loves everything I write, but she’s also my spelling and grammar queen. My husband does not read my work as I go–we learned that the hard way. I discuss concepts with him, especially the theology behind my words. He’s more comfortable waiting till it is published.
    * At various points, I’ve had different friends read my manuscript. Some have asked to, some I’ve asked. Some give me feedback, some don’t.
    * Since I write Christian Life non-fiction, I consider the faith walk of the person making the suggestions. I re-wrote the whole thing when I got the same advice from Andrew and another friend. I had a little conversation with God: “They’re right, aren’t they? It’s time for a do-over” (thank you, Andrew).

  6. CJ Myerly says:

    I use critique partners. My husband is my first editor because he has an amazing ability to remain unbiased–as much as a husband can. 🙂 But he has an eye for grammar. I ask him to focus on the grammar and let me know if he sees plot holes, but he doesn’t touch anything else. Then, I use the ACFW critique groups. I take what they say with a grain of salt and compare what they suggest with what I’ve read in writing books and on writing blogs. I have a couple of great critique partners that fit those criteria and they provide the most useful advice.

  7. I have one reader who’s read about everything I’ve ever written. She gives great, honest feedback about what does/doesn’t work. Often she can see ways to make my stories better that I haven’t considered. I have a couple of other readers who I shared short sections (i.e. a contest entry) at first. They shared honest, helpful feedback on shorter pieces. I asked one of them to read a manuscript, and her feedback was invaluable in improving said manuscript. My beta readers fit at least one of the criteria you mentioned.

  8. Kim Hackett says:

    I’m actually (awkwardly) on the flip side. I’m reading a ms for a fellow writer and realized after a few chapters that I can’t give helpful feedback because I am not his intended audience. I don’t get it. I’m not sure how to tell this person that I don’t think it would be beneficial for me to read the entire 400 pages when I can see after 40 that his vision for the story is lost on me. Is it a cop-out to excuse myself from reading the rest based on my interest level after a few chapters? Should i slog my way though the entire thing and then say my feedback is probably biased since this isn’t my genre? Lesson learned: as a reader, be careful what you agree to.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Kim, I’d bow out of this one, if I were you. Blame it on your familiarity with the writing & publishing world. Tell your friend exactly what you said, that you’re clearly not the intended audience, and you realize the only helpful feedback will come from someone who is at least close to being his target reader. You’re not his target reader, and your feedback won’t be helpful, and therefore you apologize but you’re not going to be able to help him out.
      *He actually needs to hear this. Hopefully he’s astute enough to realize that if you were enjoying the book, you’d keep going. “I lost interest by page 40” is an important piece of information. But you don’t need to tell him that unless he tries to convince you to keep reading and give feedback anyway.
      *My opinion is that life’s too short to read bad books. This book might not be “bad” but it’s not for you, so it’s okay to remove yourself.

  9. Katie Powner says:

    One time I was asking around for a male beta (had two females already, from target audience) and ended up with a friend’s uncle. My friend said the uncle had to do a lot of writing in his line of work so it should be a good match. It wasn’t. He gave up after the first chapter and wondered why my speculative novel didn’t have a thesis on the first page. Turns out the writing he does for his job is writing instructional manuals. No harm done, though. But I still haven’t found a male beta!

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Katie, I think the solution to your problem lies in the last line of your comment. No man wants to be a “beta.” You need to start looking for a male “Alpha,” then I’m sure they’ll be coming out of the woodwork!

  10. My husband would make The Worst Critique Partner Ever. He’d be the person red-lining an English name for a tree species and wonder why I don’t include the Latin name. Just to be a pest.
    He has one unrelenting request: he wants the phrase “a hail of bullets” somewhere in the book. He doesn’t know that I plan to dedicate the book to him and in that dedication, I’ll write “I love you. Here’s your hail of bullets”.
    Other than that, he has patron status.
    My favourite and most trusted beta reader, who I mentioned before, is a one pack a day, proud Acadienne hockey mom who can cuss better than a canoe full of drunken Voyageurs. She’s also appointed herself as Debbie Macomber’s biggest fan. Go ahead, tilt your head.
    But she, and her lawyer husband, do an excellent job at representing my target audience. She is a critical thinker who won’t shy away at politely pointing out what needs work, and what is good. She’ll return an MS with pages of detailed notes, but will send midnight texts about how cruel I am to the MCs and how I owe her sleep.
    How did I find her? She asked to read the WIP, which struck me as kind of odd, but I went with that whisper inside my head to let her read it. I know now that God brought her to me to help me in more ways than I could imagine.
    My crit partner, brilliant historical fiction author Amber Perry, is ridiculously astute and a master of tension. She knows my style, and I know hers. It helps that she’s got the same sense of humour as I do, because I lace my notes with snark. We’ve been CPs for years and I’m so very thankful for her.

  11. Trial and Error. That is how I’ve found the wonderful people who are willing to read for me now. They are readers and writers who are patient enough to wade through a story that isn’t quite ready. Sadly I have not had much success with readers in my target audience unless it is for romance mss. as when I write YA and MG and look for young beta readers they often do not get back to me and occasionally run away from home, inexplicably taking my ms. with them. I have had some of my most amazing moments as a writer when reading MG stories to my sons. I thought they wouldn’t like my stories, but the opposite is true. Although they are quite critical of my singing (my ears are hurting, Momma!) they love my stories and I’m afraid that more and more crazy dog moments have weaved their way into my stories to please my slap stick and animal loving boys.

  12. In answer to your questions, it is not an “or” question (for me) but rather an “and” question, because I do both beta-readers and critique partners. Critique partners help me hone my craft, while beta-readers address issues with the specific manuscript.
    I am very careful with my beta-reader selection. At the moment have four manuscript copies out, and of those selected for participation, three of them meet three of the four criteria above, and one meets all four.
    It can be brutal to endure the feedback, but it is always valuable, particularly when you hear the same criticism more than one time.

  13. Camille Eide says:

    😉

    And thank you for personally steering me off a similar ledge. Friends/family can be super insightful, brilliant people and yet if not the target audience, can miss the point and intended impact of the book.

  14. Thank you. I needed this piece of clarity. I’ve received conflicting views from my beta readers about one particular area in my current manuscript, which has left me somewhat confused. I had to step out of the picture and see their points and then adjust to what I thought would work. I could see gaps and weakness that needed beefing up. An editor might see it entirely different than any of us. This article is helpful and gives me guidance.

  15. I’ve been in various critique groups, and I’m in two now. They’re helpful, but meet monthly and carom each member a month. By the time we’ve critiqued a whole book it has been so long since we read the first chapter we may not remember important details.

  16. Very interesting post.
    I haven’t yet given my manuscript to a beta reader, but I have one who has agreed to take on the challenge when I’m finished (almost there!).
    I made my decision to ask this lady based on four things. She is a former school teacher (not mine) and has an excellent eye for grammar. She enjoys romantic suspense. She is a close enough friend for me to feel comfortable asking, but not close enough for our friendship to taint her view of the book. Lastly, she’s not afraid to (in her words) “bleed red ink all over the pages!”
    I do hope that isn’t necessary, but it’s good to know I’ll get an honest opinion.

  17. Robyn Hook says:

    Contests that provide detailed score sheets can also be a helpful way to have your work evaluated by professionals. However, I’ve found that organizations that are not specifically Christian often provide judges who are outside my target audience (not Christian and unfamiliar with the genre). I struggle with how much of their advice I should take.

  18. Terence Park says:

    If you haven’t got an agent or publisher you can be at a bit of a loss, especially if you live out in the sticks. Because that’s my situation, I will l travel up to 30 miles to get to a suitable writing group which is where I mostly trial stuff. Family and friends get to know what I’m writing but that’s it. What do writing groups deliver?
    Reading your work out loud to others forces you to focus. You spot glitches that may not have been apparent. Of course that presupposes a whole lot of things – you know your genre (plus the story you’re creating), you’re comfortable with your writing style, you’ve found the right kind of writing group… Some groups use the Milford Method – in effect members become alpha readers to each other’s works. Not all groups are suitable – I go to several in and around the Burnley area. I have a list! https://tparchie.wordpress.com/2016/11/12/writing-groups-near-burnley/
    I read out anything up to 1,000 words (approx. 10 mins) in a session. If this scares you, you have to think: ‘Preparation for my first book tour… preparation for my first book tour’ 🙂
    My first novels were professionally edited by Stephen Cashmore of SfEP. I learned a lot from the editing process.
    An agent would be a nice.
    I write Science Fiction.

  19. Jon Allen Rogers says:

    Rachelle, I appreciate the advice. I had, several years past, been a beta for a friend (now deceased, sadly) who was writing historical fiction. He picked me because I was editor/publisher/principle writer of a newsletter for my union. He had an editor but wanted a second set of eyes, especially for character and continuity. I think I learned as much as I taught from that experience.
    Now, I am retired and am (very erratically) working on a novel of my own, an action/adventure set in the near future. My problem is, I’ve kinda hit the wall and could use a beta myself. If you or anyone reading this blog has suggestions on how to find someone, I’d appreciate it. I have read the comments thread but would be looking for something a bit more concrete.
    Also, if anyone out there is looking for a beta with a small bit of experience, I’m available.