Tips on Working with a Manuscript Reader

By Alissa Johnson

Alissa JohnsonWhen I finish a book I love, I turn past the last page. I look for anything I can read so I don’t have to set it down. I want to stay immersed in the feeling of the book. Inevitably, my search takes me to the author’s Acknowledgements Page.

I’ve come to believe this page would be better called the Gratitude Page because it’s so often more than a list of names. It’s a tribute to the people who helped bring the book to life, and it’s a reminder to writers: writing may be an individual act but the process of creating a good book is never solitary.

Chief among those listed on the Acknowledgements Page are trusted and insightful readers—people who identified where the story flowed and where it needed some work. Theirs is one of the most important steps in writing, and one of the most vulnerable for the writer (I imagine it’s like parent teacher conferences, waiting to hear if your kid is a pro or a total slacker).

I’ve seen it go incredibly right, inspiring a writer to move forward with her story, and I’ve seen it go incredibly wrong—literally stopping a writer in her tracks because she didn’t pick the right reader.

Here are a few ways to make sure that you and your reader get it right:

1. Select readers with the skill sets you need. My two most trusted readers brought opposite (and equally important) skills to the table. One responded to the big picture—did the plot make sense? Were the characters clear? Where was it confusing? The other favored a black pen and editing a sentence like his life depended on it.

2. Ask for sample feedback. Send five to ten pages or a chapter and ask what he or she would suggest so you can get a sense for the input you’d receive.

3. Choose readers you like. If the communication flows easily it’s going to be a lot easier to take the good and the bad when they send you feedback on your manuscript.

4. Let your reader know if there are specific questions you want addressed, but trust that he’ll be seeing it with fresh eyes. Leave room for him to tell you what he sees.

5. After you send the manuscript, do something fun. Go for a hike, a ski, a run, or out with friends. Celebrate the fact that you care enough about your story to get someone’s input on how to make it better.

6. Resist the urge to edit before you get feedback. It’s difficult to work with feedback based on an earlier draft, and the time away from your work will let you see it with fresh eyes.

7. Set your own expectations before you get feedback. You’ve been living and breathing this story, which means that you are too close to see it clearly. You’ll hear some good stuff, but you’ll also learn where it’s not working. That’s not a failure—it’s the point of getting feedback.

8. When you get the feedback, read it and digest it. But before you start making each and every change, look at your manuscript for yourself. What do you see that needs work?

9. Once you’ve made all your revisions, read the feedback one more time. You don’t need to make every suggested change but make sure you’ve carefully considered each one.

10. Remember that revision is where the magic happens in writing—where prose comes alive and the storyline comes into its own.

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Alissa Johnson is an award winning writer and writing coach in Crested Butte, CO. She helps clients find peace with their writing process so they can get the most out of life and feel productive as writers. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Dirt Rag Magazine and Green Woman Magazine among other publications, and she holds an MFA from Western Connecticut State University. You’ll find her at her personal website and blog, and at the Writing Strides website.

6 thoughts on “Tips on Working with a Manuscript Reader

  1. Patricia Stoltey

    Thanks for an excellent post, Alissa.

    After all the critiquing from my writing buddies, I like to get a full read from someone who reads a lot in my genre but is not a writer. The feedback is very different and very helpful because it’s usually all about plot and character and rarely about the details of word choice, sentence construction or where the commas go.

    Reply
    1. Alissa Johnson

      Such a great point! I remember a well-published writer who sat in on a book club–he couldn’t believe how much the discussion focused on characters and why they made the choices they did. A good reminder of what our final audience cares about.

      Reply
  2. Dean K Miller

    Let’s see, I’ve violated #’s 6 & 8, but so far without to much collateral damage. #2 is a great idea. Why not kick the tires and take it for a spin around the block be committing our precious work to someone? #10 is spot on and one I believe wholly. Creating the manuscript is fun and adventurous, often fraught with errors we know we’ll correct. But working through it on revisions, and it is work, it where the story is brought to life. Thanks RMFW and Alissa for great ideas.

    Reply
    1. Alissa Johnson

      Glad it was helpful… I agree, #6 won’t make or break it but as the one doing the editing, I’ve had some clients that could never rest!

      Reply

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