I’ve heard this refrain many times, usually when the subject of editing comes up. Whether the author hasn’t budgeted for it or believes she doesn’t need any help beyond basic proofreading, her first line of defense is often friends-and-family feedback.
If anyone pushes the issue, the author may become irritated. “I had some friends read my book, and THEY thought it was GOOD!”
It used to baffle me. How could an author’s friends give a manuscript high marks in the face of what I considered obvious problems? Despite the praise, these works weren’t ready for prime time. Some contained a lot of spelling errors, some weren’t organized clearly, some were difficult to follow, etc.
Maybe the friends didn’t want to hurt the author’s feelings?
But a turn of the tables provided some needed insight. While visiting my parents one 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 process went something like, I couldn’t write science 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 needed work. After a great, hooky first sentence, many paragraphs of description and backstory followed. They were 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.
It isn’t their fault.
It isn’t your fault.
You just need to go outside the circle of people who love you best if you’re looking for unbiased reviews.
Because here’s the thing. Eventually you’ll want individuals other than your friends to read your book. You’ll send it to agents in the hope of getting it published, or you’ll skip that step and make it available to the masses yourself. And they’ll decide whether they think it’s worth their time.
If you’ve done your homework, sought out objective criticism, and eliminated the flaws based on that criticism, you’ll have a much better shot of convincing those total strangers that the answer is yes.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the Wheatmark blog.