You’ve just completed your first novel. You’re convinced it’s the next great American classic, your Catcher in the Rye, the book that is so big and important you’ll never have to write another, content to spend the rest of your days as an eccentric recluse instead. Better yet, you’re certain that as soon as news of its publication hits the wires, some big Hollywood studio is going to snap it up, and Brad Pitt is going to be cast in the lead role.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? I have just have question for you: Has anyone other than you actually read this masterpiece?
And by anyone, I don’t mean your mom, your roommate, or the woman who takes care of your cat on weekends. I’m not even talking about a critique partner or writing group. I’m talking about a true beta reader, a qualified, professional editor, someone who is as obsessed with eliminating plot holes and character inconsistencies as he or she is with ensuring you get your plural possessives correct, that you don’t inadvertently mix up there/their, hear/here, or, perish the thought, that you don’t begin a chapter—much less your novel—by talking about the weather.
Sure, you’ve heard of these people—money-grubbing wannabes who couldn’t make it on their own as writers, so now they bilk naïve newbies out of their hard-earned cash by promising them fame and fortune in exchange for their “expert opinion.”
I’ll be the first to admit such “preditors” exist, but don’t let a few bad apples put you off. Plenty of high-quality editors (a.k.a. beta readers) are available to help you assess your work and hone your manuscript. I should know; I’m one of them.
How do you tell the good from the bad? Treat your search for a beta reader the same way you would approach hiring any employee. Ask for a resume and references. Interview him or her. How many of the editor’s clients have gone on to be published? Is the editor part of some sort of professional network or association? Does he or she have experience and/or connections in the publishing industry? Even better, ask for a brief sample edit (3-5 pages). Then you can see how he or she actually works.
Even J. D. Salinger needed an editor. And even though you think you can fill his shoes, you’re probably not quite there yet. So do yourself a favor and find a qualified beta reader for your manuscript. Not only will it give you a more accurate assessment of your work, it will save you countless hours of confusion and frustration as you wonder why publisher after publisher refuses to recognize your genius.
And who knows? With help from the right beta reader, perhaps you really might produce the next American classic, or an Amazon or NY Times bestseller.
David A. Cathcart is an experienced book editor.