Unless you wrote your book exclusively for your own satisfaction, once your creative vision is on the page, it’s time to zoom in on how the book works for readers. The key is getting the right kind of feedback for where you are in the revision and editing process—and dodging the kind that will pull you off track.
Much of this choice hinges on your editorial budget. You could do most or all these steps for yourself at no cost, but the quality of your book will reflect the quality of the production behind it. Most writers end up drawing on both free and paid feedback options.
Let’s make sure you’re leaning on the right options at the right time.
Writing Feedback: Stage by Stage
With a newly complete manuscript
Volunteer feedback is perfect at this stage of your book’s development. One or two alpha readers (often a spouse, critique partner, or close friend) provide that initial gut check on what’s hitting home and what’s missing the target.
During second and later drafts
As you continue working through early drafts, crowdsourced feedback continues to be your best bet. Lean on your peers in critique partners and groups, collecting enough opinions to sort out which point to genuine issues and which simply refer to personal taste.
Active drafting can be an opportunity for coaching or mentoring on story problems identified by critique buddies—a character arc that refuses to gel, saggy pacing, a general lack of zing—if your budget and time comfortably allow it. A little one-on-one help from a pro now could prevent you from filling your manuscript with pernicious errors that will inflate your editing rate down the line. (Incorrect use of dialogue tags and action beats, I’m looking at you!)
Once you sense you’re nearing the limits of your ability to improve your book on your own, it’s time to bring in beta readers. Beta readers provide high-level, subjective, personal feedback such as “the pacing felt slow in the middle” or “I just didn’t like that character at all.”
Although paying for beta reading ensures the readers will finish the book and return feedback, it’s not necessary to hire a pro. In fact (unpopular opinion ahead), an editor is the wrong choice for beta reading. The reason is simple: Beta reading is not Editing Lite™. It’s designed to generate genuine reader reaction, not analysis from a trained professional.
When you’re ready for professional editing
When you’re ready for professional editing, marching in with a request for a particular type or level of editing puts you at risk of getting precisely what you ask for—whether your manuscript needs it or not. It would be like relying on Dr. Google to diagnose a physical ailment, then convincing a local doctor to prescribe strictly the medications and treatments you’ve decided you need.
Choose your editor with care. You deserve a specialist who resonates with you and your work, not whoever offers the lowest rates and immediate availability.
Once you’ve found the perfect editorial collaborator, let them recommend what your manuscript needs. Their recommendations should be based on what will best support your story, your writing, and your publishing goals. If your editor hasn’t reviewed all those points, you can’t be sure you’ll get what you need.
Another popular point for beta reading is in between edits. For example, betas can check whether the revisions you made after a developmental edit satisfy the needs the edit identified.
Don’t use beta readers beyond the point at which you’re willing to make big-picture changes. Once the story is settled, it’s time to move forward into editing.
Before you query
Raw talent shouldn’t mean raw material, and having your manuscript edited before you query agents and publishers helps you get your foot in the door.
“Our agency consistently see proposals that are okay, but simply not written at a level that is needed to break into the market,” writes literary agent Steve Laube. “Agents are not freelance editors so there is only so much we are willing to do to fix a project. I have said it this way, ‘If I get something that is 90% ready, I can take it the rest of the way. But if it is only 80% ready I will kick it back to the writer with a rejection. We are looking for the best of the best.’”
Agents are not there to provide you with free editing. In The Shit No One Tells You About Writing (season 2, episode 1), literary agent Cece Lyra advises writers not to expect feedback from an agent until “your writing is so, so good to the point that your agent is actually ready to sell it, then he’ll give you editorial feedback. … Your agent’s job is to sell your work. You need to have other sources of feedback too.”
Authors like Bianca Marais (The Witches of Moonshine Manor) seek out professional help before sending their manuscripts to agents. “I think as writers, we need to get into the habit of seeking out the expertise that we want, and that means paying for it,” she notes in The Shit No One Tells You About Writing (season 2, episode 1), “but it makes the agent’s job that much easier to be able to sell the work because the work is so much more polished and professional at that time.”
Before you self-publish
Self-publishing your work means assuming the responsibility for producing a professional-quality product—and that means paying for professional-caliber editing.
A developmental editor will help you master and refine the principles of story structure, genre, and storytelling technique. Your need for this level of editing may diminish as you master the craft, but you can’t afford to launch your writing career with limp storytelling.
And when it’s time for line editing and copyediting, your friend the English teacher can tell you if you have a problem with dangling participles, but they probably haven’t the foggiest about publishing industry standards for fiction style and punctuation. Get a professional copyedit.
Proofreading could be a suitable time to loop in friends and family who’ve promised to help. Vet their recommendations carefully—their knowledge of current grammar and usage or publishing industry standards will not always be on target—and be clear that you’re asking for help identifying typos and objective errors. Collate and compare volunteer findings, then get a professional editor or proofreader to review the results. You may be able to get this done as part of your editing follow-up or at an extremely low rate.
Keep Hold of the Creative Reins
Finally, follow these three guidelines for incorporating feedback into your work at any stage.
1. Don’t seek creative feedback from anyone you wouldn’t entrust with molding your book’s creative vision.
2. Take responsibility for learning your craft. “The conscious writer listens to everyone, tries everything, but follows no one; they are their own guru,” advises story development consultant Jeff Lyons. “(The conscious writer) takes responsibility for their failures as well as their successes and knows that they, not some fortune cookie, are the only ones who can solve their writing problems—and they love that responsibility.”
3. Don’t get sucked into an endless feedback loop. Gather constructive input, make your decisions and revisions, and move on to the next novel. You want a writing career filled with books, don’t you?
Lisa Poisso specializes in helping new and emerging querying and self-publishing writers. A classically trained dancer, her approach to writing is grounded in structure, form, and technique as doorways to freedom of movement on the page. Lisa and her industrious team of #45mphcouchpotato greyhounds can be found at LisaPoisso.com. Visit her Linktree for help with your early steps as a writer, join the Clarity for Writers community at Substack, and download a free Manuscript Prep guide. Find out more about our RWC team here and connect with Lisa below.