Self-Editing 6: Your Self-Editing Team

Self-Editing: 6: Your Self-Editing Team
By Norma J Hill (aka Pen and Paper Mama) © 2021

In our previous series for writers, we discussed and provided worksheets for “Self Exploration For Writers,” “Your Writing Life,” “Author Considerations Beyond Just Writing,”  “Planning Your Writing,” and “Editing Levels.”  In this new series, “Self-Editing,” we will explore:

  1. Self-Editing Your First Draft
  2. Some Practical Self-Editing Tips
  3. Overcoming Fear of Self-Editing
  4. Self-Edit with Fresh Eyes, Mind, and Body
  5. Writing and Self-Editing Tools and Resources
  6. Your Self-Editing Team
  7. Do I Really Need a Self-Editing Team?

At the end of each post in the series, there is a link to a downloadable and printable PDF copy on which you can write your responses. Put them in a binder or Duotang-type report folder (you can continue to add to your binder from the previous series). Then, periodically along your writing journey, return to your answers, read what you noted previously, and add new thoughts and experiences. Through this process, you’ll end up with a wonderful record of your writer’s journey.

6. Your Self-Editing Team

Once you self-edit your original draft (which might now be, in reality, your second or third or fourth or more self-edited draft, depending on how many times you go through it), it’s time to ask alpha and beta readers and writing or critique/feedback group members to read some or all of your manuscript and give you suggestions on how you can improve your writing. Develop a team of helpers who read widely in your genre or format, who you can trust to be both honest and encouraging, and at least some of whom write well themselves. (You will find details about these helpers below).

Based on your own self-editing to this point, get out the help-needed list you’ve been compiling, and let your team members know what you are especially looking for in the way of feedback. Listen carefully to the advice they offer and consider especially those items you hear repeated by several of your team members. Prepare to do lots more self-editing.

Working with your team:  Before we get into the specifics of the members of your team, here are some tips for working with your self-editing team:  

– There is no “general reading public.” While you have chosen mostly team members who enjoy the genre or format you are writing in, the variety of responses you receive may surprise you. Listen to the reactions and advice from your group and compare their thoughts to the target audience you have in mind and the purpose for your writing. Does some of their input surprise you? Remember, each of the readers’ education, culture, personal experience, age, gender, and more will color their reactions. How can you adjust your writing to make it understandable and enjoyable to the group of readers you want to reach?  
– How many helpers do you need? Think of it this way: No one editor, no matter how skilled, can help a writer create the “perfect book.” Neither can any writer, no matter how experienced or famous, create that perfect book on his or her own. Your willingness to seek out critiquing and editorial help and guidance, and your openness to learn and improve as a writer will help develop your skills (and your helpers’ skills—and even your professional editor’s skills). Insights from many perspectives contribute to a successful product and will help you in future projects, too.  
– Should you pay your self-editing team members? Remember that your self-editing/feedback team, even if they are not professional editors, are generously sharing their knowledge and time. When an alpha reader or beta readers are going through a book-length manuscript, they are putting a lot of effort into helping you. You should definitely think about how to show your appreciation. If they do an especially large and complex job for you, you could consider paying them a reasonable amount of money. They might, on the other hand, be happy to have you beta read or do other critique jobs for them in return, when that stage comes in the self-editing process of their own writing. Other ways you might show your appreciation include presenting them with a signed copy of your published book, or perhaps taking them out for a meal at a restaurant or finding or making a personal gift suited to the individual. Don’t forget a thank-you card or letter. If you have a critique group or group of beta readers you would like to thank together, perhaps invite them over for a special home-cooked meal or appies and dessert. If it seems suitable at that time, you could have a group conversation about the book, and learn from each other.
 
Details about your team members:   This next section will introduce you to a variety of team members who can assist you with your self-editing. Beta readers receive the greatest amount of detail, as they’ll be doing a lot of work with you, and you’ll probably be working with them for at least a couple of months. But just because there is less information on other team members doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Each of them has a specific way to help you, so accept all the input you can get if you want a really superior product.
 
Alpha reader:   Your alpha reader is a person close to you—your spouse or partner, a critique partner, or another trusted person you can rely on to read and offer constructive feedback on your manuscript once you have gone through it yourself and completed your first self-editing draft process. After you have discussed the book with your alpha reader, do a second self-editing draft based on that person’s input. Choose a person who will be honest—yet kind!  
Broadening your team’s circle:   Next, broaden your circle of readers. Avoid relying on friends and family members you know who may be tempted to tell you what they think you want to hear. This new group of readers should be people who read regularly in your genre and/or style of book, will be interested in the story itself, and can be objective. These readers can include writers’ group or critique/ feedback group members, workshop and blue-pencil or red-pencil readers you meet with at writers’ conferences, and beta readers. Most of these readers will read representative selections (for example, a scene or a chapter) from your manuscript, while beta readers usually read the entire manuscript or major sections of it.
 
Writers’ groups:   A writers’ group provides you with helpful critiques/feedback, supports you over the ongoing time period when you are writing and self-editing, and offers you training and suggestions based on their own knowledge and experience. They can lift you out from a tendency to be an introvert and help you become a team worker with your writing. They provide accountability and motivation to become a better writer. Together, you will be inspired, celebrate your successes, encourage each other, and assist each other get through frustrating times.  

These groups may be a general gathering of writers or may be specialty groups that focus on a particular genre (such as sci-fi or romance writing) or a particular format of writing (such as children’s writing or nonfiction writing or poetry). Program-based groups may bring in guest speakers on topics related to writing, editing, and publishing. Discussion-based groups encourage writers to discuss their successes and struggles and help and support each other. Some groups focus on writing lessons and workshops while others focus on providing feedback to readings of your work. All the groups provide opportunity to network with other writers—and even editors, illustrators, designers, publishers, agents and other members of the writing industry.  

To find a suitable group, you can research online; local gatherings often have web pages, Facebook pages, or email groups. You can also check with your local library, arts society, school or college English departments, or ask any writers you know of in your area. There are also regional groups; you can often learn about these at writers’ conferences or festivals. Find out what the group you are interested in offers and attend a couple of meetings to get an overall feel for it. If you decide to continue with a group, commit to at least a year of attendance, or to all the sessions offered over a given time period, in order to build relationships. This is especially important if you are interested in attending a feedback/critique gathering that focuses deeply on each member’s writing. Once you know several members, ask some of them if they might be part of your personal writing team.
 
Accountability partner:   This is a writer who you get along with well, and with whom you can meet regularly, perhaps weekly or at least bi-weekly, to encourage and help each other with your writing projects and keep you on track with your plans. While meeting face to face is ideal so you can sit and look at your writing together, you can also meet by phone, live video, or online chat, sending samples of your writing along ahead of time by email.  
Workshops, seminars, courses, personal conference sessions:   Attend learning sessions—ideally hands-on workshops or at least informational meetings which provide an opportunity for personal Q’s and A’s. Many of these gatherings encourage you to take along a sample of your work and get direction and feedback from writing and editing experts. If the workshop includes exercises, participate in and learn from them. Be a team member, providing advice and feedback for others rather than just focusing on yourself. At a conference, besides attending workshops, you can sign up for blue-pencil sessions at which you get personal advice from a writing industry professional, or a red-pencil session which requires you to submit a sample of your work ahead of time.  
Experts:   If you are writing either fiction or nonfiction that includes topics you are unsure about, you may need to find an expert in that topic area who can advise you on the parts of your manuscript which require their expertise. For example, if you include a court case in your crime novel, but you have spent little or no time in real courtroom situations or there are special points of law you aren’t sure about, you might need to engage a lawyer who specializes in that area of law and court procedures. Unless this person is a close friend who offers to help you out, or a fellow writer for whom you can beta read in return, you may need to pay for this kind of advice.  
Research:   With the internet and excellent libraries, there is no reason for a writer to not research their subject thoroughly. Choose high-quality websites and libraries—for example, those run by universities or professional organizations. Understand the difference between primary and secondary research.  Make sure your story or topic is accurate and the details in the story fit with aspects such as the time and culture in which it takes place. You may also interview knowledgeable people.  
Beta readers:   Based on the input you receive from your alpha reader, writers’ or critique group members, seminar leaders, and other helpers, plus your own detailed self-editing, you by now will recognize your personal writing concerns. List a half-dozen key points for which you really want guidance. These will be ideal questions to ask your beta readers to help you with.  

When you have incorporated into your manuscript the improvements your helpers have suggested (and which you agree with—after all, you are the author and that is your privilege), you will probably feel you are almost ready to work with an editor. But before you do, this is a good time to reach out to three or four beta readers. These helpers read your entire manuscript (or possibly major sections of it) and indicate to you how they think the average reader will respond to your book. You may choose two kinds of beta readers: one group who deals with substantive (big picture) and stylistic issues, and another group who points out copyedit issues such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues.  

Beta readers are people who read widely, especially in your genre or topic. Ideally, they are experienced writers themselves, possibly published, who can give you honest, useful feedback. They look past minor errors to see what really matters in your story. They may also help fill gaps in your knowledge of your book’s topic or genre. When finding beta readers, avoid people-pleasers who will sugar-coat their responses so much that their advice is minimal. Beta readers should be supportive and encouraging while being honest with you about how you can improve your writing.  

A good-quality fiction beta reader understands the fiction basics such as setting, characterization, plot, and theme. A nonfiction beta reader understands how information is organized and unfolds across a book length text. A poetry beta reader has a sense of poetic language, content, and rhythm, and is familiar with the poetic forms used in your poetry. Likewise, beta readers of specialized writing formats (academic, drama, journalistic, etc.) should know the requirements of those formats.  

You can often find quality beta readers from your writing and critique/feedback groups. When attending these groups, listen for those whose input and comments reflect critical thinking skills and understanding of writing. There are also beta reader groups online, but be sure to have a detailed conversation with potential readers you don’t know personally before you engage them.  

If you are writing for a particular age group or other special audience, try to find beta readers who are familiar with that target group—and ideally are part of it. For example, if you are writing a children’s book, have children of the appropriate age group read it—or read it to them if they can’t yet read. Their parents, grandparents, and teachers may also be helpful. Or if you are writing a book for home learners, have an experienced homeschool parent read through it.  

Other sources for beta readers include book club members or potential readers you meet when you’re networking at writers’ conferences or workshops.  

Let your beta readers know that while you appreciate their input, all their feedback is to be considered “suggestions” and you may or may not include all of it in the book as you self-edit after the beta read. It is wise to provide your readers with a list of about a half-dozen key points for which you really want guidance. You can give all readers the same list or you can provide different lists for different readers, depending on their skills and expertise.  

Beta readers mostly provide input on the “big picture” writing issues, at the substantive and stylistic editing levels, and maybe even at the developmental level if you still need help with that. They may also comment briefly on copyedit level issues they notice which occur frequently, but be sure to emphasize to your readers that they need not mark every single little mistake—you will take care of that at the end of the editing process. Explain how you’d like them to submit their responses—for example, in a list by email or placed right in the document’s text.  

Multiple insights, from the varied perspectives of several readers, are very helpful. Look for themes in the beta reader responses; also compare your intentions for your book and the actual responses you get. Do your readers notice anything you hadn’t thought of?  You do not have to use every piece of advice they offer, but do seriously consider advice you hear repeatedly from different readers. Be wary, however, of extreme critiques, whether positive or negative.  

When you send your manuscript to your beta readers, include an introductory email reminding them about where you met them and the discussion you had with them about beta reading, and thank them for agreeing to beta read. Assure them that if they cannot beta read now, that is fine, but to please let you know immediately so you can find another reader.  

Provide overview information about the book: working title, genre, word count, how far along you are in the editing process, your target audience, your purpose/vision for the book, and a one- or two-paragraph summary of the book. You may also send along a copy of your style sheet or nonfiction proposal if you think it will be helpful to them. Tell your readers how long they have to do the beta read (usually between 3 to 6 weeks). List about 5 to 10 specific questions you would like them to answer but assure them they can make any other comments they like and tell them they don’t have to answer every question you ask. DON’T OVERLOAD YOUR BETA READERS!  

If there is anything in your manuscript your beta readers might find traumatic or offensive (e.g. explicit sex, violence, strong religious or political themes), warn them in case they would prefer not to read it.

Suggest a variety of methods your readers can choose from to provide their comments (in the body of an email; in “Track Changes” and “Editor Comments” in Word; handwritten notes directly on a print-out of the manuscript, and so on). Remind them that while you appreciate their input, in the end you are the author and must make up your own mind about what input to accept and use.  
Questions to ask your beta readers:   Below are many questions you could ask your beta readers to comment on. (You can also query yourself as you continue to self-edit your manuscript. You can even present these inquiries when you do a reading for your feedback/critique group.)

The questions below are divided into sets, based on different editing levels and topics, but you won’t ask every inquiry in a set. Choose those which are most suitable for specific beta readers and remember to limit your questions to between a half dozen up to ten which are most suitable for the reader and will be most helpful to you as writer. You may also ask your beta readers to highlight really well-written sentences or make a note of especially effective scenes in order to give you a sense of what readers will consider the most impactful parts of your work. Then analyze those sections and use them to optimize other areas of the story.  

Personal responses/general questions:
– How did the writing make you feel? How did you respond personally to the material? What parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?
– Please give examples of what you liked or disliked.
– What did you think about as you read? Where did your mind travel?
– Was there a point where you wanted to put down the book? Were there sections you wished you could skip? Please indicate them specifically by page number or chapter.
– Is there anything you have questions about? Please be specific.
– What do you think needs changing? Removing? Adding?
– How did this book compare to other similar books you’ve read? Were there parts that you felt were too violent, overly romantic, or otherwise made you cringe or feel frustrated, offended, or annoyed? Did anything puzzle you or not make sense? Were there any cultural, language, or other references you didn’t understand?
– Based on the information I provided to you about my intended target audience, purpose, theme(s) or thesis, do you think I achieved my intentions?
– Would you be willing to write a short testimonial I can use in marketing my book? Would you be willing to check out the book when it is published and provide an honest review?

Themes and/or thesis questions:
– What do you think are the most important themes? Do the themes or thesis avoid clichés and/or bring a fresh perspective to similar ideas you’ve encountered in other reading?
– Does the story deliver on the promise of its premise and opening scenes?

Genre and/or Subject Matter:
– Did you think the writing style is a good fit for the genre or subject? If not, why not? What about the format?

Opening:
– Did the opening paragraph “hook” you? Did you want to read more? Why or why not? What do you think could work better?
– Does the manuscript begin in the right place? Is there another part of the storyline that would create a better opening?

Ending:
– Was the ending satisfying and believable? Was its length suitable or do you think it dragged out too long?  

Backstory or Flashbacks:
– Was the story free from information dumps or backstory that slow the plot’s pace?
– Was there too much backstory at the beginning which could make readers lose interest in continuing on with the book? Was enough backstory provided to make the story understandable?
– What backstory could be left out or moved?    

Setting and/or world building:
– Did the descriptions give a clear sense of time and place? Could you picture the locations—and the action that takes place in them?
– Were all the details helpful to see and/or understand the story? What could be deleted?
– Were there important details missing? Please suggest what should be added.
– Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning regarding where and when the story takes place and who the major characters are? If not, why not?

Scenes/Plot:
– When you finished reading, what scenes did you remember best? Why do they stand out in your memory?
– What events (and the characters in them) did you want to know more about?
– Do you think there should be more or less violence, romance, mystery, dialogue, etc. in the story line? What exactly?
– Are there any scenes or chapters that need more development?
– Do the scenes progress in a realistic, interesting manner and flow effectively?
– Does the story move along at an appropriate pace?
– Does every scene add to the story? Were there any that seemed distracting or off-topic to you when you read?
– Were there any parts you thought should be condensed or even deleted? Which ones? Why?
– Did each chapter or scene end with a hook or cliffhanger that made you want to read more? If not, which chapters need stronger transitions?
– Was there any point where you felt the story lagged and you began to lose interest? Where, exactly?
– Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in details like a character’s appearance or time sequences or other details? (Please give specifics).

Conflict and tension:
– What parts were most exciting, intriguing, or interesting for you?
– Was there enough conflict and tension to keep you interested?
– Were there parts you found boring or too slow? Please name specific pages or chapters.
– Did you feel there was an emotional payoff at the end? Were the internal and external conflict(s) for each character clear? Were they natural and believable, not contrived or forced?
– Are there enough stakes and tension to keep the reader turning the pages?
– Are the plot twists surprising yet also believable?
– Did you have to reread any of the action sequences to understand who was doing what? If so, which ones?  

Characterization:
– Were any characters particularly memorable? Which individuals, and why?
– Did you feel empathy for and relate to the protagonist and other important characters? Did you find you wanted to cheer them on? Were the protagonist’s goals clear and strong enough to keep the plot moving well to where he or she finally reaches them?
– How did you feel about the antagonist? Relatable? Interesting and realistic enough? A suitable adversary? What else? If the antagonist was not a person, did you recognize what it was? (e.g. animal, weather, supernatural being or event, the protagonist’s internal alter-ego, etc.)
– Do the primary (main) personalities feel real and well developed? Do they have distinct voices? A realistic balance of virtues and flaws? Realistic emotions?
– Are the secondary (minor) characters important to the plot? Are they well-rounded enough? Were there any that just seemed to take up plot space for no good reason?
– Were there any personas that didn’t seem believable? Which ones? Why?
– Which character(s) did you like the most? Why?
– Were there cast members you did not like? Please name them and suggest how they could be more interesting or likeable. Were any personalities too cliché or stereotypical? Which ones? In what way?
– Was there any one character you especially identified with? Which one? In what way?
– Are the relationships between individuals believable?
– Do the people in the story react to events in a realistic and/or believable way?
– Did you get mixed up about any of the characters? Were there too many to keep track of? Were there too few to make the story believable? Were any of the names of the characters (or other details about them) too similar or otherwise confusing?

Organization and logic:
– Were there any confusing sections that should be clarified? (Please be specific).
– Were there unclear ideas or events?
– How did you respond to the development of ideas and the pace of the story? 

Style:
– Does the writing illustrate the scenes by using the five senses plus emotion—showing rather than just telling?
– Does the writing allow the storyline to shine through and draw the reader in? Is there anything about the writing that interferes with the story?
– Is the tone appropriate and consistent for the story?
– Is the point of view handled appropriately and consistently? If there are changes in point of view, are they handled correctly? Did you find any instances of head hopping (a sudden change in the viewpoint character and/or when first person narration suddenly flips to third person—or vice versa)? Please be specific.
– Is the narrative voice (the voice telling the story) unique, fresh, and interesting?
– Do you feel the author’s personality and voice were reflected in the story adequately?
– Did you feel the main tense I have used works well for this book? Why or why not?

Dialogue:
– Did you find the dialogue interesting and natural? If not, why? How could it be improved?
– Are there any dialogue sections that seem stilted or involve too much “telling” instead of “showing”?
– Does the dialogue move the plot forward and/or develop the characters?
– Are the characters’ voices distinct?
– Is there an appropriate mix of narrative (storytelling) and dialogue?
– Are there too many “tags,” especially ones other than “said” or “ask”? Do the action and the characters’ voices show who is speaking without using too many tags?
– If there is any regional dialect, or slang appropriate to a particular character, is it easy enough to understand and is not overused?

Frequent issues and errors:
– Did you find issues the writer made repeatedly? What kind were they (e.g. factual errors, style issues, poor transitions, etc.)?
– Did you notice any obvious and/or frequently repeated grammar, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? What kind?

Specific questions for memoir writing:
– Have I (the author and narrator) revealed too much or too little of myself?
– Is there anything that might adversely affect my relationship with people I’ve mentioned in the story?
– Is there anything which you think might be libelous?- Did the story fulfill the requirements of memoir, or did it appear to be more autobiography?

Specific questions for nonfiction:
– Does this book have a strong focus on structure, purpose, clarity, length, and uniqueness?
 
Analyzing your beta readers’ responses:   Consider the responses from your beta readers. Ideally, wait until all beta readers have submitted their feedback, then read through it all over two or three days. Wait another few days, then read it again. Carefully consider the input. What dominant ideas are coming through?  

Here are some tips and questions to apply your readers’ responses as you carry on with your self-editing based on their thoughts:  
– Don’t allow one or two extreme comments to overwhelm you; instead, look for themes and patterns among all the responses you receive. Remember, you don’t have to change everything your readers suggest.
– Look beyond the superficial meaning of the comments to what might be underneath. Some beta readers find it uncomfortable to express their thoughts clearly, especially if they are concerned you might be offended. If a certain set of answers seems overly polite, what might they be hinting at?
– Don’t take critiques personally. The readers, through their critiques, are trying to provide guidance for your writing. They are not criticizing you personally.
– It might be helpful to get your beta readers together (over a meal or luncheon, perhaps) for a discussion based on the themes/patterns you discovered in their feedback. However, don’t debate with your readers yourself (just listen and/or ask for clarification if required). And don’t allow the conversation to devolve into a heated argument. Compare your intentions for the work to the readers’ experiences.
– Ask yourself: Did the readers’ responses line up with what I expected? If not, what changes shall I make? Did they spot issues I had not even considered? How can I learn from them and improve my current manuscript—and my future writing?
– What impact did my writing have on my beta readers? Was it what I hoped for?
– How can I use the beta reader responses to revise/self-edit my manuscript?
– Is there anything for which I require more detailed insights or information? Who would be the best person to ask—one of my beta readers, or perhaps an expert on the issue or topic?
– Again, be sure to thank your readers. Send a thank-you card or letter and consider providing a suitable gift. Offer to beta read for them. Provide each reader with a copy of the book when it’s published. Consider including their names in the book’s acknowledgments.  

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