Writing for the Masses 8: Finding Test Readers

You’ve spent months on this manuscript, discovering your characters and putting their personalities on the page. Just one issue: you forgot to introduce one character in the first chapter.

After all the time invested, we often lose the ability to objectively evaluate and inspect our writing. Any gaps in information are automatically filled in by our mind, which has all the backstories and plot-points catalogued. That’s all well and good if you plan on only writing for yourself, but most of us want to see a return on our investment.

Enter the reader. Our unpublished comrades may not have writing expertise, but their populist perspective will help you gauge how the public may react to your book. More importantly, test readers are great for pointing out errors and slow moments. For that, they’re worth their weight in gold.

Testing the Waters

To find a good reader, you don’t have to look as far as you think. I’ve sampled from my pool of close to semi-close friends. Ideally, you want someone that your social bonds are strong enough with to motivate them to keep reading, but you don’t want such deep bonds that he or she hesitates to point out errors.

I’ve found this winning combination in a variety of people, from a workplace cohort to the boyfriend of a good friend to my childhood best friend. All three offered different levels of feedback during different stages of my first novel, including the sage advice “Do less” and, later, chapter-by-chapter edits and suggestions (thank you, Cullen). The depth of feedback depends on the readers’ time constraints and investment in your writing, but remember: they’re doing this for you. Anything they offer is invaluable.

Setting the Stage

I’ve read many different books on writing and publishing, and so far no two authors have agreed on when others should view your work. Some say that you should show your first draft to outside eyes to find out how to proceed with revisions. Others say you should torch your first draft and completely rewrite the entire book before it ever sees the light of day.

I don’t have nearly as strong opinions, but I will add this: your readers are there to give general reactions and feedback, not serve as free proofreaders and editors. Things will slip by us, but it’s a slight to your volunteer to waste their time correcting simple typos and grammar errors. Dedicate the time to ensure the mechanics and syntax are in order. Anything less just distracts the reader from the true heart of the novel.

Recruiting the Reader

Often, the simplest methods are the best. Instead of questionnaires or surveys, just float the idea of your novel among your friends. Describe the genre, premise, plot, and characters of your manuscript in casual conversation and watch your comrades’ reactions. If anyone expresses great interest, ask if they would be willing to read the story for you. In my experience, these individuals are the ones with enough curiosity to endure the subpar moments and to truly appreciate the great plot points that kept you writing all those hours.

If the readers agree in conversation, send them the manuscript with an accompanying email note thanking them profusely. Again, this is their time and thought they are freely giving to your project for no immediate reward. In addition, the email is the perfect time to list out any concerns you have about the plot or characters to focus their feedback. However, anything they notice is fair game, as I make an equal point of stressing.

Close your email with an additional thank you (there is no such thing as too many) and suggest a month that you would like to receive feedback by. Be reasonable; reading takes time, but a loose deadline helps to focus their reading and provide a more concrete goal to reach.

Give Them Time

This seems like a strange piece of advice to include, but the unfortunate truth is that not all readers will follow through. Life will get in the way, and it behooves you to act professionally as opposed to personally when time conflicts arise. In the same vein, you won’t gain any progress by hounding your readers. Give them breathing room, and check in every so often.

Wrapping Up

Once the reader has completed the novel, they will likely send you an email with their general reactions to the book and any critiques or errors they observed. From there, I recommend meeting with them in person to allow them to elaborate on areas for further insight. I also use this opportunity to ask for reactions to aspects I have concerns about but they may not have addressed directly in the email. As always, use their time wisely.

Sometimes, geography may not allow you to meet with your reader at Starbucks, but phones and video-calling services can bridge that divide. Other times, their written feedback may be enough to direct your next round of revisions. Like the manuscript itself, the process is ultimately guided by your hand.

The Final Note

I’ve spoken a lot about the value of outside readers for an objective and fresh perspective, but I will add one caveat. Every suggestion your reader makes is not the final word. Often times, one reader may want an edit that many others would disagree with. Weigh every critique in the frame of your entire narrative to determine if the change would improve the flow, plot, tone, and so forth before diving in blindly.

However, if more than one reader wants the same revision, despite your attachment to the scene, you should set aside your artistic pride and determine why it isn’t working. Always save old drafts so that these changes aren’t permanent.

At the end of the day, all readers want to read a good book, and all writers want to write a good story. One needs the other for entertainment, the other needs one for validation. We’re all on the same side, comrades.

Soundtrack of the Revolution

With that message of unity, I turn to leftist-sympathizers Pink Floyd to remind us that this series is about “us,” the oppressed unpublished masses versus “them,” the published elite. So until the uprising comes, enjoy the newest song of the Soundtrack of the Revolution:

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