If you plan on publishing your writing, early readers are essential. Often, these readers are called “beta readers” (I called mine “first readers” since that’s what they were). You need other eyes, minds, and hearts to read and respond to what you have created or wild darlings might turn your fantastic vision and hard-hitting prose into a tangled, forbidding jungle. For example, major chunks of the Lord’s Prayer were missing from a recent spiritual guide (in a section cherishing traditional prayer). An intelligent and informed early reader would have averted that disaster. In another recent work, landmarks appear in the wrong cities. These are published works; how many other stories and novels never made it that far because of obvious plot, character, and other problems?
Don’t be that writer.
Before you venture out into the world with manuscript clutched in trembling hands, run it past someone else. Make it more than a single person — and it’s best if you choose someone who doesn’t live with you or a family member inclined to love everything you write because they don’t want to break your heart — and you know where they sleep.
Identify five or so reliable, trusted writers and avid readers. You want more than one or two people to determine if a reaction is an outlier or if you’ve got a serious problem.
Extend a clear request with ample time for an intelligent response; four to six weeks is reasonable for a novel.
Acknowledge the gift of their time and attention. You can offer a mention in acknowledgements, a reciprocal early read for a writer, a bottle of wine or gift, something that conveys your appreciation. Avid readers might enjoy a new book.
Guide the response — and be prepared for whatever is given. Explain why you want feedback on your work and what you intend to do with it; do you want an overall reaction or nitty gritty details? Direct your early readers to read like readers. Hire an editor for spelling, grammar, and technical help.
Following is a guide that I created for my own first readers.
First Reader Report
Thank you so much for being a first reader. Your gift of energy, unique perspective, and talent means a great deal to me. Anything that you are able to share is appreciated.
Please provide your feedback in the way that works best for you: body of an email or separate text file in Word.
To paraphrase Ed Catmull of Pixar: “[My goal is to go] from suck to not-suck…Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process — reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”
· This is a first, unedited draft. It is lumpy, uneven, and raw. All the typos, grammatical errors, and inconsistencies in tense and voice will be ironed out in the next edit. Your big picture/ forest vs. trees view is most valuable, because then I can address strengths and weaknesses.
· Following is an optional guideline for your feedback. Please feel free to pick and choose how you present your feedback to me, using these questions as a starting place.
· Be honest. Be blunt. It’s kinder and faster. I would far rather hear it from you now than from 27 one-star reviews. If you have any suggestions for solutions, please share it. Tell me about the strengths to cherish and the weaknesses to address. I am well-stocked with chocolate and wrapped in an afghan anticipating a Gilmore Girls marathon, so write what comes first, fast, and feels right.
· If you’d be willing to provide a comment of one or two sentences that I can use in marketing, I would be forever grateful.
· I would greatly appreciate your feedback by December 29, 2016. I plan to rewrite/redraft the story in the first months of 2017. By March 30, I plan to submit to those who have expressed interest in publishing it. If this timing presents an issue for you, please contact me.
Author: Louise Foerster
First Reader Questions
1. Overall, did you enjoy reading this story?
2. What were the main strengths of the story? What parts of the story resonated for you? Why?
3. What were the main weaknesses of the story? What parts did you dislike or not like as much — and why? Did anything confuse, frustrate, annoy, or bore you?
4. Did you relate to the main character? Did you feel that you came to know her? How would you describe her in terms of personality, motivation, and goals?
5. Were the other characters strong enough? Did they act in logical and realistic ways? Were there characters that got in the way? Were relationships believable? Did the dialogue sound natural?
6. Did the story make sense? Did events, actions, and reactions flow in a logical manner? Was anything unclear? Who might be the ideal reader for this story?
7. Could you see the characters, the action, and the setting? Were descriptions vivid and useful?
8. Did the story hold your interest from the beginning and hold it throughout? Were there holes or digressions?
9. Do you think the writing style fit the story? Was the voice unique, fresh, or interesting? Why or why not?
10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you again for reading my manuscript! It is a glorious pleasure and tremendous relief to share the story that’s been banging around in my head for a long, long time.
I sent a personal note to each reader with customized attachments and forms. My readers responded generously, on time, exactly as they promised. Each first reader provided critical insights — and several offered fantastic ideas that solved tricky problems.