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Why Good Friends Make Bad Reviewers

November 30, 2009 by Susan Wenger, Designer

"I had some friends read my book, and they thought it was good."

We've heard this refrain at Wheatmark many times, usually when the subject of copyediting comes up. Whether the author hasn't budgeted for an edit or simply believes it's unnecessary, his first line of defense is often the opinions of the friends and family members who have seen his manuscript.

When an editorial analysis comes back with suggestions for improvement, the reaction may include a dash of defensiveness. "I had some friends read my book, and THEY thought it was GOOD!"

Despite said praise, these unedited works generally aren't ready for prime time. Some contain a lot of spelling errors, some aren't organized clearly, some are difficult to follow, etc.

Whenever an author's friends have given a manuscript high marks despite what I would consider obvious problems, I've wondered why.

Maybe they didn't want to hurt the author's feelings.

But a recent experience gave me new insight into the friends-and-family bias. While visiting my parents for Thanksgiving, a close friend asked me to read the novel he'd started and tell him what I thought. My friend is a good writer, so I was happy to do it.

Sure enough, it was brilliant. The unique premise! The well-worded descriptions! The clever turns of phrase!

Then came the aha moment.

I wasn't evaluating his work in the same way I would if I picked it up in a bookstore.

Instead, my thought processes went something like, I couldn't write fiction in a million years. How does he come up with these ideas for his plot and his characters? It's like magic.

So I took a step back and forced myself to read the pages again. I pretended I was in a bookstore, scanning the content to see if it was worth my time and money, expecting a certain level of quality.

I still found the story highly entertaining. But I also realized it wasn't ready for print yet. After a great, hooky first sentence, many paragraphs of description and backstory followed. They were very well-written paragraphs—which is why I didn't notice a problem at first—but if I were skimming the first chapter in a bookstore, I'm not sure I'd have enough patience to wade through all the telling to get to the action.

The lesson? Even your most brutally honest friends and family members aren't the best people to screen your work. They may be too dazzled by the fact that you could write a book at all to notice its flaws.

Where, then, should you go for unbiased feedback? Here are a few ideas.

  • Get a Wheatmark Editorial Analysis
    We always recommend the Wheatmark Editorial Analysis, which evaluates your manuscript in terms of mechanical issues (spelling, grammar, punctuation), organization, clarity, and style. However, you should be looking for critiques elsewhere as well.

  • Take a writing class
    Are you new to the publishing biz? Try a writing class at your local community college. Your teacher will be willing to provide real constructive criticism. Even better, she will be able to articulate it more clearly than the average reader.

  • Join a writing group
    The quality of feedback in writing groups may vary, but the potential rewards are great. In the right group, you'll get reactions from writers who want to help you improve. Just as importantly, you can learn a great deal by critiquing other people's work. When you discover what bores you, confuses you, or compels you to read further, you can apply this knowledge to your own writing.

Eventually you will get your book into print. At that point, your target audience will decide whether it's worth a read. If you've done your homework, sought out criticism from people outside your immediate circle, and eliminated the flaws based on that criticism, the rest of the world will be much more likely to judge it favorably.

Tags: editing, editorial analysis
Filed Under: Marketing,




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