Posted by: Matt Q. McGovern | July 5, 2013

Testing out your manuscript

Whether you’re just starting out writing or you’re more experienced, you will eventually come to the point where you will need to have somebody review your manuscript.  This is a subject that has a lot of varied approaches to it from writer to writer.  Some of these approaches are based on hard earned experience, including some negative experiences, before a writer finds their comfort zone with this important step in the writing process. 

To start off, we need to establish what we mean by “reviewing” your manuscript.  This can mean just reading it and reporting back what the reader thought.  Or this could mean a writing critique which requires a writer to do it.  And you could also combine these two approaches and have someone do a more advanced version of a reading.  You won’t actually know what you will experience with any of these approaches unless you try them, and that means taking whatever experience (good or bad) that comes with it.

The reading critique, as simple as it sounds, can become difficult if you don’t set up some ground rules.  Often, a reader that’s asked to critique a writer’s work will assume they have to do a number of things above and beyond just reading it.  When I ask someone to read my manuscript, I tell them in advance that I just want them to read it and that’s it.  I’m not putting the task of editing on them (I would go to a professional editor for that) nor am I asking them to do a writer’s critique (a writer would have more experience and insight on that).

Also, since I want them to read it and not parse it (I want an honest reading, after all) I ask them to not write on it or use post-its, etc.  I explain to them that I just want them to read it, and if they like it or not.  Just as if it were any other book that they bought at the bookstore.  I think there’s a big difference between reading and parsing, and I really am looking for the honest reading appraisal.  If you write for a younger audience, you might consider having the parent of the reader be the middle party.  This way, you can get the honest answer by having the parent get it for you.  This takes the pressure off the young reader telling you directly what they did or didn’t like.

Pick someone that is going to be able to help you.  Don’t pick someone that will hesitate because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.  While it’s not necessarily a requirement to know the genre that you write, it sometimes is critical that they do.  You will have to decide on this point for each reader, and you might even decide to discuss this part of it so it’s out in the open.  For example, if you write paranormal romance and your reader is a romance reader, you might discuss how to handle the paranormal parts of the critique with the knowledge that it’s not generally their cup of tea, but you still might be able to get a valuable assessment from them.

The result of the reading review can be in whatever format the reader wants to give you.  Formal write-up or just discussion, etc.  As always, be sure to show your appreciation for them taking the time, whether it be buying them coffee or lunch, etc.

The writing critique (involving another writer) can be very wide ranging without even including grammar.  Quite simply, there are many topics to critique in a manuscript.  I’ve personally found that being in a really good writer’s group has provided the best writer’s critiques for me.  It’s also taught me to become better at doing critiques for others as well.  There’s an advantage that this has in the following way.  In the group I’ve been in, we’ve talked about all the steps and processes (and many other facets) of the writing business with accomplished and experienced professionals, and we all respect one another and really want each other to succeed.  So, when we do writing critiques for one another, we can discuss with one another exactly what we’re trying to find out about our own writing and how to make it better. 

Certainly, not all writing groups are created equal. I was blessed to find a great one. In short, if you’re in a group that you think might have the opposite of some of the respect and desire for everyone to succeed that I just mentioned, you might want to re-consider your membership in it.  At the very least, a good critique group shouldn’t be trying to pass off destructive criticism as constructive.  If you’re unsure of this, talk to another writer about it.  This is one area that is well covered in terms of writer’s experiences.

In doing the writer’s critique, some of the things we might do is go line by line, reading it out loud to one another.  This can be the writer reading or the one reviewing it.  Hearing the reviewer read your writing for a page, and then alternating so you read it, gives you both an opportunity to hear the difference in the intended voice.  You as the writer will read what you “meant”, and the reviewer will read the way anybody but the writer will have read.  This will get varied results, but it’s a good observational exercise.

Hearing the voice through your writing, recognizing where tension needs to be added, having too much expository instead of just letting the characters do the acting, etc.  These are only a few of the many things that are to be discussed between you and the writer that you’ve chosen to review your work. 

You won’t always have the option of being able to interact openly with the writer doing the critique.  Sometimes, you’ll discuss through email what you’re interested in, and they’ll tell you what they usually concentrate on during a critique.  After they review it, they’ll give you a write-up on what they found.  There are paid professional services for this as well, where you might have the option of having them critique either a portion of your manuscript, or the whole thing, for varying prices.  This gives you a chance to read their review on the portion to give you an idea of what to do for the rest of your manuscript.  If you like what they found and think you’re better off with them reviewing your whole manuscript, you have that option.  All of the available services have varying degrees of analysis, so be sure to find out all you can about what they’re going to do for you before you choose one.

All in all, choosing someone to review your manuscript is a critical one, and the experience can have a lasting effect on you.  Many writers have been put off by a negative experience, and many have good experiences where they’ve walked away more enthusiastic than before.  This latter one is worth waiting for, as you patiently go through the process of dealing with finding the right reviewer for your writing.

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