In Praise of Friends Who’ll Read Your Manuscripts

girl with bookWhen students ask me what my “one piece of advice” is for aspiring writers, it’s usually: Read. But my second piece of advice — something people rarely ask for — is almost as important. That piece of advice: Cultivate a group of friends willing to read your stuff before it’s published.

I recently taught a workshop about writing book proposals, and a professional copyeditor was among my students. This was his advice, too: Don’t turn anything in ever without having at least one other person read it first. Other people can see holes in your work that you can’t. They can point out places where your knowledge and research is overwhelming your ability to see that others won’t understand something. They can tell you, whether you like it or not, when you’re not making a lot of sense to anyone who does not have your brain. (One of the other students asked, “What if I’m not ready to show my friends?” I will tell you the same thing I told him: If you’re not ready to show your friends, you’re definitely not ready to send it to a potential agent or publisher. I understand the sentiment — it sometimes feels easier to send something off to a faceless stranger, as if you’re sending something into an abyss. But it will be an abyss if you don’t edit your manuscript carefully and work out all its kinks before it ends up in front of someone who matters. You’ll never get anywhere that way.)

I’m going through this process with my Seinfeld manuscript now, having three friends of varying knowledge about the show read my manuscript draft. It’s my favorite part of writing a book, actually. First of all, this means I’m in the home stretch. Second, finally someone else is reading all of this stuff I’ve been researching for the past year and a half, and it’s fun to be able to talk about it to others at last. Third, it’s like a writing video game. Every day I open the shared Google Doc and see what little “bugs” in the manuscript I can eliminate. It’s so satisfying, like shooting Space Invaders.

It’s good to start cultivating this group of people as early as possible in your career. You can, of course, hire outside help — this is a service I offer! — but you can also have a little team you go to again and again. Given that “again and again” part, and presuming you will not be paying all of these people, here are a few specific recommendations for finding them:

1. Make friends in writing classes you take. Stay in touch so you can read each other’s work as your careers progress. What’s good about these people is they often automatically comply with my second tip …

2. Pick people at a relatively similar phase in their career to your own. Mentors and teachers can be great — and often are the types you might want to pay for their extra level of expertise. But if you have friends with whom you can regularly exchange work, you’ll be able to pay your readers back in future reading chores for them. Most of my go-to people are like this. It’s a huge favor to ask, specifically when it’s a book-length work, and you want to be able to reciprocate as much as possible. (Interesting alternative: The woman who has served as my research assistant on the Seinfeld book offered to do so in exchange for me reading her book proposal. Bartering can work!)

3. Screen potential mates for editing skills. Okay, maybe this is going too far. But my best editor is my domestic partner, Jesse. He’s a computer programmer by profession, but it turns out he’s a grammar and style stickler. He’s more honest in his comments to me than anyone else is. (Others: “You might want to consider …” Jesse: “NO. Never write this phrase again.” Others: “Maybe a little unclear?” Jesse: “Huh? I have no idea what you’re saying.”) He’s often editing while I’m sitting in the same room, and I’m often addressing his notes while he’s in the same room. A quick chat resolves a lot. And luckily I don’t have to worry about the reciprocation; I figure he financially benefits from my book being great, so he’s more invested than most. (Also, he loves me, so there’s that.)

4. Tell your “editors” what you want from them. Is this a final, final draft, about which you must know every tiny flaw? Or are you concerned about specific structural issues they can look for? Or is this early in the process, when you need encouragement more than anything else?

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76 comments

  1. This is very good advice. I’ve shown my work to friends who have given me great advice about my stories before I got them published. The result has been much better reviews and a lot more sales. I’m really grateful that there are people who have been people who’ve helped me with my writing and given me some good advice as well.

  2. Very useful pieces of advice here. I have a quesfion, if you would be so kind to help me. For the longest time, I have been wondering – I am from the Philippines and have been trying to write a childlren’s novel in English. The chances for this genre/type of writing in the Philippines to be successful is slim to none and I dream for my work to be published in the US. How do I go about it?

    1. I wish I had some great advice for you, but I’m afraid I don’t know much about children’s book publishing here or anywhere else. I suggest seeking out those who have been successful at this and either getting their advice or emulating what they have done. Good luck!

  3. I really like this. I set up my WordPress blog because I want fellow poets see the stuff I’ve been working on while it’s still malleable…and I find it’s a lot better than leaving drafts in my favorite notebook where neither I nor anyone else will ever see them again. It’s really motivating to have someone else look at your ideas and views while they are still forming—maybe some better idea or full project will emerge—and it can be paralyzingly to feel that you always have to put your BEST foot forward. Great post.

    1. Exactly, and thanks! I love being able to talk ideas through with other humans before they are set in stone, as in a published book. A while ago, I stopped seeing it as “criticism” and started seeing it as “discussion,” and that made all the difference.

  4. Thanks Jennifer. Pleased to have found your intelligent and pragmatic blog. Looking forward to more reading here. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (
    Give it a spin!)

  5. I’m working on this process right now, and everything you said here is so helpful! Do you recommended a certain number of beta reader friends? When does it get to be too many?

    1. A good point … I feel like 5 is the max in some ways. On a super-practical note, I like to use something like Google Drive, where all of my “editors” can comment and interact with each other. This allows for such things as disagreement among your readers. One says, “Delete this,” another can say, “Actually, I love this part.”

  6. This is so true. I agree with the whole thing about if you’re not ready to show your friends, then most likely you’re not ready to show the world. From personal experience, sometimes we get a little shy and sensitive about our work, its tough to have others see you in that light, pointing out your mistakes and so forth. Good article!

  7. What if your just writing for fun, and someone still stumbles across your work, that you didn’t expect? I have a habit of writing public rough drafts on purpose. Your write, mistakes are meant to be noticed, would your offer your assistance?

  8. Good advice. I never ask my friends to read anything I write because they just are not on par with my writing level but I’ll definitely ask people I know that do write. Thanks.

  9. Reblogged this on raichyn21 and commented:
    I just realized that if you really want to get somewhere…you have to start now. Its better to start in small baby steps rather than a big giant step. Just be practical. Those people that could help might just be a sit away from you.

  10. Excellent advice. I have been taking the easy way out. Rather than sending my short pieces to friends before I publish, I instead “share” the finished piece and look forward to their likes/comments on Facebook and/or word press. I have one true friend who is brutal in critiquing my work and will always confide that it was “not one of my best.” The only problem I find is in this world of not enough time, asking a friend to read before hand is a challenge as they often don’t have time to read once it is published.

  11. Great piece-very poignant. I’m finishing my third book and couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the importance of friends who will read your work.

  12. good advice, my only problem is finding friends who’re also immersed in my field of past time. They’re all gone trekking their own destiny in life. For now I’ll be on the look out for friends ready to commit their time reading my works. Thanks and I’ll say you’ve got a good post. I enjoy reading it and will be enjoying for your future works.

  13. Personally I know that my friends will generally not give me impartial opinions, so I see this medium and the reactions to my words as a true indicator of their worth (my words, not my friends!)
    I would consider, and have been considering, asking a fellow blogger to preview posts for me before I let them out, but somehow that doesn’t sit quite right with me either. If I build a rapport of sorts then I think that there’s still going to be a degree of partiality and any criticism would potentially be influenced by that.
    However, I think critique that has been requested impersonally, and therefore is given more freely without obligation, is more valuable.
    I guess I’m just not driven to really achieve anything here except excising thoughts, but I’m also a fledgeling blogger so maybe that will come.

  14. This is great advice. Good job on a well written post, Jennifer. Now, when will programs like Grammarly become so robust that they can take care of normal everyday edits? Not trying to replace editors, but this would be a nice way to cut down on editing time. Beta readers and editors won’t go out of business. 😉

  15. I agree with a bartering arrangement where possible. I’ve also been wondering if I should pay someone who is more of an acquaintance than a friend to read my manuscript. This person has given me sound advice and guidance in the past. Of course I could always give them a gift card to Amazon but don’t know if I should contract payment up front. What do you think?

  16. “Screen potential mates for editing skills,” is not a bad idea. I’d also suggest looking to family for siblings, cousins and their mates who also show skill and interest in editing. I have several close and distant relatives that have exchanged editing services with me.

  17. Excellent advice. I have two writerly friends with whom I share my work for review after completing my first draft and then again, once I’ve completed my final draft. Having people you can turn to who are willing to critique your work is always one of the most crucial aspects of writing. And as you mentioned, if you cannot share it with a friend, you cannot possibly send it off to a publisher.

  18. Do you ever have trouble with waiting to hear back from your readers? This is a problem I have when I give my friends things. They tend to be busy, so I’m never sure when I’ll hear back from them. Also I am rather insecure and usually spend the whole time going back and forth between. “Did they read it?” and “They probably hated it and don’t want to tell me!” XD

  19. This is awesome post. Good ideas for young and future writers. I learned that writting is more complex than speaking. To write in the manner of catching and maintaing the reader’s attention through-out the whole book. Your post has good points. Looking forward to reading for more good tips.

    Oh yes, please do visit me toos at http://www.twentyfirstcenturymomma.wordpress.com

  20. Reblogged this on DeAnna Ross and commented:
    Fantastic advice. I was recently blessed by being able to take part in the Virtual Writer’s Workshop and joining a writing group called Writing Wenches. Both have afforded me some fantastic new friends and contacts who have unabashedly offered their reading/editing help as I progress in my journey. I can not support the idea of a writing group enough to anyone looking towards a career in Writing.

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