Waxing Lyrical : The First Cut is the Deepest

We know it hurts, you’ve put love and time into this manuscript and now people are going to come along and start picking fault, before it even gets to the reading public! We feel your pain and we recommend a tub of ice cream, a weepy movie and that you suck it up cupcake, you need to put your book through this process before it goes into the cruel cruel world!

Ok let’s start by clearing this up. Beta readers, proof readers and editors are not the same things. Which is not to say the same people can’t be all of those at various points, but when you ask someone to review your manuscript you need to know what you are asking for and who you are asking.

'No, go ahead and critique my mss. I'm always ok ... after the initial reaction.'
‘No, go ahead and critique my mss. I’m always ok … after the initial reaction.’

Beta readers. These are often friends, hopefully ones not afraid to criticise you, or other writers doing a beta swap. The job of a beta reader is to come back with ‘so yeah were you going for a mash up of Noddy and Austen? Coz that’s what this feels like. Also Brad is a massive douche bag oooh and this bit makes no sense, did I miss it or is it a gaping plot hole?’ That’s all really. They are there for the every day reader, looking for things that throw them out of the story, or mess it up totally, the plot holes the inconsistent characters, the overall tone. They are not there to edit your writing, correct your grammar (if they have a good eye and pick up tense slips and typos bonus). They are there to feed back to you what your baby looks like to the rest of the world.


Editors are there to make you look better. A good editor will not only pick up on mistakes in spelling and grammar, plot holes and inconsistencies but they will guide you. You can expect notes telling you that your whole first chapter is exposition, you don’t need it, bin the lot. An editor will tell you that you’ve used the same phrase 638 times in 400 pages and that’s at least 600 times too many, you’ll get notes to move this paragraph and cut that one, rewrite a section entirely, drop Brad not only is he a douche but he serves no actual purpose, cut him out entirely. A good editor will tell you that the book will be even better if it’s 100 pages shorter and that if you are setting it in medieval England you can’t have people saying ‘whassup brominator’. A good editor won’t rewrite you, put things into their words or make any changes for you, but they will steer and discuss and help you make the book tighter and better before it goes into the world. Beta readers are the mirror held up to your baby, Editors will show you how to photoshop it before you submit it for the local cutest baby contest.


Proof readers on the other hand will just give your baby a thorough scrub and iron its best onesie. The job of a proofer is simple, but requires a sharp eye and patience. They find mistakes. Spelling mistakes, typos, they tell you when your two should be too or your their belongs there.  Proofers are the last line of defence against the fact that spellcheck doesn’t know you meant knackered not naked (seriously my brother wrote he was always nakerd and I was worried till someone pointed out the ‘r’)or that toad is a perfectly acceptable word, although toad works in the highway seem unlikely (I sent a lot of documents out with toad works in my time).

Be clear when you send your MS off. You can expect to pay a decent rate for a good line edit, likewise a decent proofer, it’s normal enough for beta reading to be trading favours or begged from friends. That does mean though that if they don’t work to your timetable or get back to you at all, or they take it upon themselves to rename your characters, I’m afraid that is what comes of trading favours sometimes. Shrug it off and use someone else next time.  If you are paying then you can expect the service you are paying for so be clear on what you want, find out the rates and see if this is someone you feel good about working with, if it’s up to you who edits your book (which it won’t be if you are with a publisher) then it’s a relationship, work out if this is someone you can work well with.

If you are issued with an editor, you may get lucky, you may not, but however frustrating you find them, be respectful, it’s a small industry. If it really isn’t workable talk to whoever is handling your book and see if they can switch you out to someone else, but be a grown up about it, you may hate the process but you need editing, you need proofing and it’s smart to get a beta if you can.

As an aside on beta readers. Don’t have too many, it’s tempting to get everyone you know who reads to go over the book but you’ll get so many opinions it can be overload. Ideally find two or three people who like the sort of fiction you are trying to write to read it and see if it hits the target audience.

So to summarise, you need beta readers when you finish your MS if you can get them. Then for heaven’s sake get it edited and proofed before you send it anywhere, to self pub or to query and agent. Give your baby its best chance. Give it a detached look over, clean it up, then wipe the snot off before you send it into the world. (Wow I’ve really squeezed everything I can from that analogy).

And check out #tentweetsabouteditors for some neat notes by @joannechocolat on the subject.

Waxing Lyrical : Shark Infested Custard

In this series I want to address in more detail some of the things that I get asked at events and never have time to address as fully as I would wish.

Shark infested custard

Writing/Critiquing Groups

Writing is hard and it’s solitary and people want feedback. Many writers seek out others and form writing groups to provide the essential service of mutual critiquing. There are a lot of benefits to be gained from this but there are a few things that need to be kept in mind to get the most of them.


How experienced are the other writers in your group?
A mix of experience is great, new writers can bring a freshness that is good for everyone, a disregard of protocol that can make you think ‘actually….’ And that is exciting. It’s also useful to have some more seasoned writers, people who have worked on their craft, bought all of the how to books etc. Everyone has something to contribute, no one is 100% right. First and foremost you have to be happy with what you are writing!

Have they successfully sold into any market, be it self pub, traditional or small press?
Again, most writers do lots of writing without actually making a career of it. If you have anyone in your group who has some real experience, especially if they have been through the process of professional editing etc then their view can be really helpful. Remember though, everyone has an individual experience of the process, some good, some bad, some downright ugly. You need to sift the personal from the business side of it, but there is a lot that can be gained. Also keep in mind different types of publishing have different norms. Paid competition to be featured is not at all unusual in poetry, it’s frowned upon in most prose fiction markets. If someone has a heap of experience writing non fic articles they no doubt have useful and applicable experience but there are probably differences to trying to place short stories in a magazine too.

Do they have very obvious preferences and bias in terms of style and content?
As long as they don’t get stuck in ‘I don’t like X genre’ then there is still plenty of useful feedback to be had, but be aware of who is in your group, what their personal writing ticks are. I have a writer friend who used a particular phrase a second time in a book, just to wind me up because I reacted so amusingly the first time.  I as a reader have my own ticks and it’s hard not to bring them to the listening.


Are they telling you how they would write the story?
The biggest problem with other writers is that they are writers. It’s very hard for a writer to critique or copy edit without trying to fix. It’s not their story, remember that when you note their comments. ‘I would have x do y thing’ isn’t them telling you how to improve your story, it’s telling you how to write the one they would do. On the other hand, no one knows the difficulty of writing better than another writer and they are likely to have a better eye or ear for things going clunk in your prose than many readers.

Are they hearing your work in small chunks rather than consuming it the way a reader would?
Take feedback in context. If they are hearing the story in chunks they will respond to the chunk, don’t worry overly about feedback on tone etc in terms of the whole story. That’s what beta readers are for and we will cover them another day.

In short, feedback from other writers is fraught with issues and needs to be taken in context. It’s also often invaluable. Get it if you can and work through the murk to find the bits of advice and support worth having.

I would always support joining a writing group, writers spend a lot of time alone with their work and the social element, as well as hearing perspectives from other writers are really valuable assets.

Foxtips session 2

fox icon - test pirate

  • Read the submission guidelines. Carefully. Then follow them.
  • Treat your submission as a CV and your query like a cover letter, this is a professional interaction.
  • No, you are not an exception to the submission rules, no matter how good your book is.
  • If you submit to multiple publishers/agents it is polite to be upfront about it.
  • Be open to the editing process, they are trying to make you look better!
  • Rejection is a fact of life, not a personal attack. Make peace with it.
  • No one likes those auto DM’s asking us to check out your book. We don’t check out your book.
  • If you want to become a writer for the money you should become an accountant.
  • Spellchecker is your friend.
  • Never send your first draft. Rest it a few days and revisit it with a critical eye.