Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Peer Editing: Maximizing the Input You Receive

Okay, you have a manuscript, and you think you’ve honed it as much as you can. Before you think about sending it off to agents or editors, you need some peer edits—and yes, for those of you who hadn’t considered it, this is a friendly command.

Finding a Peer Editor
So now it’s your job to seek out a friend, family member, acquaintance, or a fellow writer to peer edit your book. If the first three options are not possible, then your job is to look online for fellow writers who are willing to partner up with you for a critique. There are many great sites to find other interested writers, but I always reference Agent Query Connect. There’s a forum titled “Wanted Ads” where writers seek out beta readers and critique partners.

Assessing Your Manuscript
Once you’ve found a partner, the true work begins. A fair number of writers have told me that the edits they’ve received from friends, family, acquaintances, and/or fellow writers were largely useless. The true problem here is that you don’t know necessarily know the preconceptions your peer editor has regarding writing and editing. This doesn’t mean that this is an exercise in futility, but you should reduce the risk of wasting your time and their time. How do you do this? Write up a questionnaire.

Write up a Questionnaire
A questionnaire in this case is a series of questions that you want to know regarding your book. These focus on big content questions, and ideally a peer editor will answer this questionnaire at the end of every chapter. If that is a hard sell, then at least have them fill it out once, at the end of the critique.

Examples of Questions to Ask
You will want to tailor the questions you insert to answer any specific worries you may have. Below I listed some questions I have for the book I’m working on as an example.

Chapter Questionnaire

  • Was there anything you’d like to see more of or know more about?
  • Was anything confusing?
  • Can you think of any lines or scenes that sounded unnatural?
  • Did anything seem irrelevant?
  • Did I talk about anything for too long? Not long enough?
  • What was your overall impression of this chapter?
  • What were some of the chapter’s weaknesses?
  • What can I do to make this chapter stronger?
  • Was there anything you haven’t mentioned that you’d like to?

Because this is a long list, I’d suggest you let your readers, whoever they are, know that they can feel free to leave any questions blank. Otherwise, you run the risk of asking too much of them. After all, they aren’t getting a paycheck for their work.

Why Write Up a Questionnaire?
Generally the most meaningful edits I give as an independent editor are the few pages of feedback I give at the end of every book I edit, and the feedback I give at the end of every chapter I edit. Creating a questionnaire will encourage your editing partner to zoom out from the little tweaks he or she may be making line by line, to the bigger problems your book may have.

Critique partners are not necessarily thinking about the big picture—in fact, you and he/she are going into this arrangement largely unaware of the other’s talent at editing. Supplying a list of questions will get your peer editor to answer the questions you think are most pertinent.

Problems that May Arise
Your questions must be brutal and honest for this to work. Not only should you ask the questions that will likely hurt the most, but you should also prepare yourself mentally for another in-depth round of edits. These may not be fixes you can do in a week. It may take longer. However, be honest with yourself; if making these changes will significantly increase the quality of your book, take it upon yourself to fix them to the best of your ability. Otherwise, this is a wasted exercise.

Another potential problem is that your critique partner may not be interested in this type of arrangement. My suggestion is to be flexible, and if you have paired up with another writer, expect to put in a similar amount of work for your partner’s book. If he or she is not interested in answering a sheet of questions at the end of every chapter or at the end of the book, then there are many other potential critique partners who’d happily take you up on the offer in return for the same.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. Some great advice, Laura. I know I have gained a ton from working with other writers. Not only is the feedback from them invaluable, critting someone else's work often shines a light on issues in my own writing. I'll be making a note on their manuscript and I'll think, "Hey, I do that, too!"

    I haven't tried the questionnaire approach; it seems pretty sensible, but I'd make sure not to ask leading questions, or say things like, "I think Fred might be too passive - what do you think?" as it might predispose your partner to seeing things that aren't necessarily there.

    1. You bring up great two great points. One, learning from your critique partner’s strengths and weaknesses, and two, making sure that you keep your questions as open ended as possible. Thanks for the feedback!

  2. This is also great advice in terms of self-editing. Of course, as the person who wrote the entire thing, you're bound to be biased. But I think that keeping those question in mind or even filling the questionnaire after each chapter while editing would be very very useful. Thanks laura!


    1. That’s a great point! And it’s definitely much less of a hassle to self-edit than it is to recruit someone else to do it!