The Critical Readers – Tips for Writers

Trusted readers, alpha readers, beta readers, editors, first readers … call them what you like, they all serve much the same purpose in a writer’s life. They are the buffer between writers and the public, or writers and a publisher/agent. They read it to give various forms and levels of feedback so our pet project is as perfect as possible before we display it to the world. They are hard to find, hard to keep, and sometimes hard to work with but they are crucial to our editing process.

Readers can serve several functions and sometimes you’ll need different readers for different projects, or for different stages of the editorial process. For example I asked my father to edit a near-future piece I wrote because part of the story is revealed through new casts and he watches more national and international news than I do – he’s also an avid science fiction reader. I had the lovely Ashlyn Forge, fellow Nano writer and the author of the Toys and Soldiers series, edit another of my short stories because it dealt with possibly offensive sexual content. I know she could give it an honest read through because her novels contain sexual themes as well. When she told me it was too taboo, even for her, I knew I had to tone the scene in question down a few notches. 

With each of these examples I had already done extensive edits for continuity, fluidity, and the technical aspects. I needed hep with a specific piece of the story and I found readers who had experience in those areas. 

I sent a short story to some friends because I had written some scenes out of order and pieced them together. I needed someone to verify that I had a continuous, chronologically correct, story arc. I asked them because they are honest and extremely avid readers of multiple genres. Again, I had already done the technical edits.

There are four facets of the reading process you can seek help in: technical editing, continuity and consistency, general opinion, and author specific questions.

TECHNICAL: You are the first technical editor, as I discussed in my last blog entry in this series. You won’t catch everything and neither will the spell checker on your computer. Having a fresh set of eyes to catch typos, missed words, and tricky punctuation is important. Find someone with patience and a good working knowledge of the language you write in. My mother was my technical editor for everything from school papers to short stories and novels. Often you will ask someone to perform one of the other types of read-throughs and the manuscript will come back with one or two typos circled. That happens to me every time I send something out to be read.

CONTINUITY and CONSISTENCY: Unlike technical this requires nothing more than sharp eyes and a willingness to read. It will take the reader less time to read your work than it took you to write it. A minor character you encountered every few weeks during the writing process will appear in a span of days for the reader so they’ll notice if you changed the name halfway through. They should also look for timeline errors, especially in a piece that involves extensive travel. Another aspect is character consistency: are their actions consistent with the personality and motives you’ve given them? Are their responses natural? Is their growth and change believable?

GENERAL: This is more like the reviews you read on Amazon before buying a book. Was the story engaging or did the reader lose interest part way through? Were the characters strong and believable or did they feel flat? Did the prose flow well or was it difficult to read? Was it creative and original? Was the ending satisfying and unique? Ask for some details, some “why do you thing that?”, especially if you get a negative response somewhere. This is often the last task, and given after all the edits are believed to be done.

AUTHOR SPECIFIC: If you know you’re having trouble with a scene, detail, theme, idea, or image, ask for help and opinions from people with experience. Being part of a writer’s group is often good for this. You always see posts like this on the NaNoWriMo Facebook page. “Does anyone know ..?” “Can anyone tell me ..?” And they always get a multitude of replies. 

You may have a reader who does all this. You may have one technical editor and one who does the rest. More opinions will give you a better idea of how your book may be received by the general public. 

Now, after all the read throughs and edits are complete give it to anyone who will read it. Stephen King, in his book ON WRITING has god advice for how to tell when to listen and who to listen to. (I’m paraphrasing because my copy is still packed in a box somewhere) If 10 people read your book and give you different opinions on something, keep it or change it, the choice is yours. If 7 or 8 or 9 out of ten love it and a few hate it, keep it. Conversely, if most or all tell you there’s a problem then change it, no matter how much you love it.

Keep in mind, you’ve asked these people to critique you, and that’s just a pretty way of saying “criticize”. Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t like something you wrote. They are offering help, advice, comments, and their time, often for free. On the other hand critiques should be honest but polite and respectful. If someone is rude or cruel, take what you can from it and don’t ask them to read in the future.

My next article will be Tips for Readers, then I’ll look at how to take all these comments and notes and apply them to the manuscript, and finally we’ll look at the final Author reading and the extras needed for sending out the finished manuscript. 


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