When 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?