Test Readers to Improve Your Novel
Making Your Story The
Best It Can Be:
Using Test Readers
We have written our
story, reread and redrafted it over and over. We believe it to be good but
feel that maybe it is not quite "there" yet, and wonder if is the
best that it can be.
We have read it so
many times that we almost know it by heart. We have our favorite passages,
our favorite characters, and we have carefully crafted the plot, dialogue,
and pace. We have probably let our husband, wife, or others close to us read
the manuscript and they have said that they like it. So we set the
manuscript down—we are ready to send it to our grammarian for "polish
and finish." When our grammar is critiqued and corrected we will send
it to our editor, if we have a publisher. If not, then we will query
literary agents and publishers.
But are we really
ready? We think it is
good, but what will the professionals think? We want them to be
pleased with our work, just like we are, but something keeps nagging at us, What’s
wrong with the story? We just don’t know, as we have lived with it so
long and perhaps become too close. We are reluctant to change it for fear of
overwriting it, and yet we worry, is the story as good as it can be?
We, as the author, wish some form of vindication that we have woven an
entertaining and engrossing story. Where do we turn for answers?
Ask yourself, how many
good books have you read that you really enjoyed? Of those, were
there any elements about the stories that you didn’t like? Was it a
character—was some character too "thin?" Was it the dialogue—was
it flat and washed out? Maybe you didn’t like the pace, or the ending.
When I wrote my first
novel, SmokeFire!, I had redrafted it nineteen times over a period of
one year. As an unpublished author at that time, I knew I needed my
manuscript to be the very best that I could make it if I was ever to get it
accepted by a Literary Agent or be recommended by an Acquisition’s Editor
at a publishing house. But how do I make this novel better, I asked
myself, is there anything I can
do to strengthen it?
After some careful
thought, I came up with an idea; what if I could get readers to read the
manuscript just as if it were a book—to give it a "trial run?"
They could tell me what they liked and didn’t like about my story. If a
lot of them made similar critical comments regarding certain aspects or
elements, I thought, then maybe I could do another rewrite and improve it.
From this I developed the concept of Test Readers.
I didn’t want them
to be grammarians, editors, or copyeditors. I didn’t want them to fix typo’s,
comma splices and dangling participles—I wanted, needed, them to be
readers! I needed them to tell me what was good (and bad) about the
story, the characters, the plot, or anything else. I needed to know what
they liked, and what they didn’t.
Okay, I thought, this
seems like a good idea, but I needed some guidelines for my Test Readers. I
didn’t want to use my friends as Test Readers as some might be reluctant
to criticize the manuscript for fear of "hurting my feelings." I
needed absolute honesty without bias.
I decided that I would
contact several people whom I knew well, and whose judgment I trusted. I
asked them to contact people whom they knew but who did not know me
personally, and who might be interested in playing an important role in the
development of a novel. I set forth only two guidelines; first, they must
read the genre of my novel. SmokeFire! is a mystery/thriller, so I
didn’t want persons who read romance novels to critique it, I wanted
people who were avid readers of my genre. Secondly, they must be brutally
honest in their assessment of it. I encouraged them to be critical and
objective, not compare my story to any other work, but just to read it just
like they would any other book.
Over a period of a
month I selected twenty Test Readers. Some of which I knew—and trusted to
be honest in their assessment—and many of which I had never met.
I typed an
introductory letter stating what I wanted, with a final paragraph which
Please read the
enclosed manuscript. Tell me what you like and don’t like about the
story, characters, or anything else.
absolutely no restrictions as to the extent of criticisms and suggestions
which you may take in your critique.
Feel free to mark up
the manuscript in any fashion and attach extra comments as necessary. It
is my hope that this novel will be published at some future time. Help me
to make it the very best that it can be by telling me what you like and
don’t like about the story so that it will be entertaining to my
I printed off twenty
copies of the manuscript and introductory letter, sent them to the Test
Readers, then sat back and waited. After a few of weeks they were returned
and I could see where the pages had been marked upon, and was anxious to
read their comments.
I performed a quick
review of all twenty, and eliminated about four which said things like,
"Don’t change a thing—it’s perfect!" or "I’ve read
better, and worse." These Test Readers hadn’t bothered to even tell
me what they liked or didn’t like, and made minimal or no comments, either
positive or negative.
I went through the
remaining manuscripts and cataloged their comments. I organized my catalog
based upon their comments regarding characters, dialogue, and the general
story itself. I reviewed the catalog looking for similar suggestions made by
more than one reader. I then reread the manuscript while referring back to
I was absolutely
amazed at how valuable this was! I saw comments like, "Why is he
talking this way?" or "That scene doesn’t work well," and I
would think, why is he talking that way? or, That scene doesn’t
work too well, I didn’t much like it either when I wrote it. I went
through the manuscript and marked it up with my notes, then sat down for yet
another rewrite. I constantly referred back to my catalog, and redrafted
certain elements based upon their comments and suggestions. When I was
through I read the manuscript again, and it was considerably improved. My
idea had worked!
I have never taken all
of any one Test Reader’s comments, but it is rare that I don’t take at
least a few of their suggestions and incorporate it into the manuscript.
Their suggestions, based upon that of a reader and not of an author
or editor, are absolutely invaluable. In my next novel, CrossFire!,
which is in progress, I am "trying out" about ten new Test Readers
to add to my current organization. Of those ten, I hope that at least three
or four—as a good Test Reader is rare—will be able to give me the
perspective and honest criticism which I need to make this story the best
that it can be.
In summary, I cannot
emphasize enough how useful good Test Readers can be. They read our stories
from the perspective of a reader, and if they are serious about their role,
give us authors a fresh and new way of looking at our work. So when you
think you’ve done all which you can with your story, send it to your Test
Readers. Choose them carefully and listen to what they have to say, rewrite
it one or two more times, then submit the final proof to your grammarian.
After that, you are ready to "send it off!"
By T. Judson Kennedy,
ABP author Copyright 2006 American Book
Publishing™ *All other trademarks used by permission. All rights