Use a questionnaire
When finishing my manuscript, I asked eight people to read it. I didn’t send it to writers, but to those who would only look at the work from a reader’s perspective. Instead of asking for critiques or general feedback, I gave them a brief questionnaire:
1. Did the beginning of the story capture your attention?
2. Did you feel emotionally connected to the story and/or the characters?
3. Did you lose interest at any point?
4. Were there any questions or loose ends left hanging?
5. What was your overall impression of the story?
6. Is there anything you would have changed?
7. Honestly include any comments, criticism, or errors found.
Very few people were willing to give details in question 7. Friends and family didn’t want to criticize my work, and don’t feel qualified. Yet I still got a few tidbits of information to use. The other six questions were invaluable. Areas I thought were clear actually lost some of my readers. This gave me the opportunity to fix the story before going on to the critique phase.
Your friends won’t criticize your novel, but they will answer the question, “Did you lose interest at any point?” They may tiptoe around direct criticism, but will say what part bored them a little. They will tell you which characters they couldn’t connect with. Readers may not know why they don’t like something, but probing questions can give you enough information to figure it out.
Grinding through critiques can help you find the rough spots that need smoothing. They may send you back to the roughing-out phase and force you into each step again, but this is necessary. Unless you are a big-name author, a publishing house editor will not be willing to do these steps for you. Going through this process is a MUST, even if you plan to self-publish. The reader doesn’t want to dodge around the jagged parts of a book.
5. Engaging an editor
At one time I thought I could skip this step, but found out otherwise. After spending a year and a half editing, getting critiqued, listening to the—ahem—polished manuscript from beginning to end, I still found many glaring problems. Grammar checking didn’t uncover the errors, and neither did self-editing or critique partners. My manuscript in mint condition was embarrassingly flawed. It wasn’t just a simple error here and there – many significant problems surfaced. Once someone with proper editing skills pointed them out, the mistakes were obvious.
When engaging an editor, we must choose someone who understands the genre in which we are writing. A professor may be skilled in editing a thesis, but inept with fiction. An editor experienced in fiction understands character development, engaging the reader emotionally, ensuring descriptions are consistent throughout the story, and other important areas.
The amount of work you put into your manuscript will determine the effectiveness of professional editing. A poorly- written manuscript will need to be edited for the basics first, and then re-edited to look for ‘big picture’ problems. Your cost will be higher for a sloppy manuscript since it takes longer to smooth the rough edges.
Even a professional editor can’t successfully polish a rough manuscript. You should be at the polishing phase before you ask for help. All your previous steps prepare your manuscript for polishing. Whether seeking traditional publishing or self-publishing, your every effort is very important. Editors won’t treat independent authors as valid writers unless their work reflects the same professionalism as traditional authors.
Even if you hear only positive feedback, don’t skip professional editing. The problems are there, and your readers and critics will find them. Though the untrained eye may not see your errors, many readers are skilled in the language and will feel unsettled and irritated.
As you follow these steps in polishing your creative work, may the story you dug out of the rock of your imagination shine like the gem it truly is.