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So how can you determine who should read your unpublished work prior to submission?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 (and this blog post).
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?
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