Improving my book: manuscript critique vs beta readers


I wrote last week that I’d finished the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, and that my next priority to get some outside input – people who can help me clarify what’s good about it (hopefully something), what could be improved … and what stinks. For me, this step is absolutely critical.

For one thing, I’m reading the book aloud to my two sons. The other thing I’m doing is getting another adult to review the manuscript. I know of two common ways to accomplish this. First, find someone (or more than one person) to be a beta reader. Or, second, to pay for a manuscript critique. I’ve chosen the second option. Why?

Well, there are several reasons:

  1. By choosing an established, reputable literary consultancy (I’m using The Writer’s Workshop) you know you’re getting someone who knows that they’re doing, an experienced editor and/or author who’s been there, done that. WW use a pool of published authors, from which they select the most suitable to review your manuscript.
  2. I’ve used WW before and I’ve always been impressed with the results. You get a pretty detailed report (typically about 8-10 pages) which identifies problem areas, along with suggestions for improvement. There’s always some very perceptive stuff in there. There is usually also some encouraging feedback about those things that do seem to be working.
  3. The report can also give advice on where to go next with the book, post-revisions. My first two books are self-published, and I totally buy in to the ideals of indy publishing. But it’s unavoidably true that most books sell very few copies – and most of the biggest success stories there have tended to be in certain genres. DCFS is a children’s book, and I believe that’s an especially difficult market to succeed in with self-publishing. (If anyone has any views or experience about that, I’d be very interested to hear it.)

I have no doubt whatsoever that Falling Girl and BASIC Boy were much the better for having been critiqued in this way, and for me then implementing the majority of the reports’ recommendations.

Just to clarify one point, however: the critique is not a line-by-line edit, nor a proofread. The WW report is an assessment of the books a whole, including the plot, characterisation, dialogue and general writing quality. If you need a copy-edit or a proofread, that’s a separate thing – and, in my view, a second draft is much too early for that. There’s no point in proofreading something that’s bound to be at least partially, if not extensively re-written.

The most obvious drawback of the critique is the cost, which is dependent on the length of the manuscript. Fortunately DCFS, being a children’s book, is relatively short – the second draft is just under 27,000 words. For that, the WW critique cost just under £300 (i.e. around $500).

For some, of course, spending that might not be an option. You might also take the approach that, if you view self-publishing as a business, how likely are you to earn back the money? Well, if my first two books are anything to go by … probably not.

But then, I don’t view my writing as a business. I’d love it to be, but so far at least I haven’t had the sales to make that a reality. Instead, I see it more as my hobby. Some people have fairly expensive hobbies. They might renovate old cars, play golf or tennis or join a gym; I do less expensive things like running and cycling, and spend the money on improving my writing instead. That way I can justify spending money on things like this.

Of course, I don’t want to waste money, and apart from the critique my costs are minimal. I publish on Amazon, doing layout and design myself. I also do my own proofreading (wisely or not, I’m not completely sure). So manuscript critiques, so far at least, have been my only major expense. I see improving my writing as the area where paying for outside help adds the most value.

Asking for beta readers to review the book would, of course, avoid this expense. But I haven’t gone down that route, at least not this time, for three reasons:

  1. Finding the right beta reader might not be quick or straightforward. Anyone’s opinions are valuable – but some probably more so than others for this purpose. I’d want an experienced editor who knows a lot about about writing for children. In reality, it’s hard to avoid having to pay for that kind of expertise, along with the time and effort involved.
  2. Time. People are busy, writers certainly not excepted. It might take a beta reader some considerable time to get round to doing their review.
  3. If you don’t pay money, there’s bound to be a reciprocal element – i.e. someone reviews your manuscript, and you review theirs. That’s fine, and in many ways I’d like to be able to do that. But at the moment, I’d find it very hard to find the time.

If you can live with and/or mitigate the above drawbacks, then I can see that beta readers would be a good option. Especially if you already have one or two that you know and trust. But for now, for me, for this particular project, the paid critique seemed the better way to go.

Now the question is – will I be brave enough to reveal the feedback (warts and all) on this blog? Of course I will! [crosses fingers …]



    • I certainly think it’s worth looking in to. The bottom line is, you definitely need a fresh, honest and reasonably detailed critique from someone or somewhere that you can trust, and that is knowledgeable about good writing technique and ideally also the genre / market the book is aimed at. If that happens to be someone you know, then great. Otherwise, if you can spare the money, a paid critique from a reputable company should do the trick.

  1. Christopher, Thanks for sharing your thought process. I’ve been toying with the idea of a paid critique for my next manuscript, which his nearing completion; but I’ve also got a few trusted, experienced critique partners lined up to read it, too.

  2. I would love to be able to get a real critique, but I just don’t have the money. I’ve asked for tons of beta readers, and after I got two people’d feedback I went ahead and published, then I gave out tons of free copies of my novel for reviewers, and so far like 4 have reviewed it. I guess I just need to up the number of people I send it to :p

    • Were you happy with the feedback from those two people? i.e. did you think it was detailed and helpful? And did they review the book after publication? Getting reviews, of course, is another hurdle. I wish I had more answers to that one.

      • Their feedback wasn’t as detailed as I would’ve liked, but they did point out some problem areas that I fixed. I think I’ve gotten like 5 reviews from handing out free copies so far, and they’ve all been three star or above, even for the person who said they didn’t like my genre and had multiple issues with the story. Basically, to get reviews you just have to give away a shitton of free copies, and so any of my free time is going to be searching book review blogs and asking them to review my book.

  3. I have been told that have my manuscript assessed, and adding this to my query- will help in landing an agent as well. But then I noticed on Scholastic’s submission website for Autsralia that they sepcifally say – this will not help with your submission. I guess if you get value out of it for yourself, then it’s not wasted money. I’m seriously considering it. I wonder if anyone can do the same for queries and synopses..

  4. Agents I think are primarily interested in the quality and potential marketability of the submission; a critique should help to make a better manuscript (provided you implement the advice of course) so should help in that sense. But as for actually stating in your query that you’ve had one done … no, I wouldn’t have thought that would help (or hinder for that matter). The Writers’ Workshop do also offer advice on query letters etc; some of the advice is freely available on their website, or there are paid services.

  5. I hope you get some valuable insight, and if you need another opinion I’m more than happy to take a look. Though i can’t say I’ll be quick as I’m a little busy, but if you can wait i will give you my honest feedback.

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