Contrary to popular belief, writing is a team sport. While the creation of a rough draft and the following self-edits are indeed a lonely task, what follows is a gauntlet of friendly and professional criticism. And every manuscript needs it.
Beta-readers are the first people to hit up once a writer is convinced he’s taken a story as far as he can on his own. There really is only one good rule for beta-readers: the more brutal, the better.
Constructive criticism is essential to polishing a piece of writing, and all yes-men are going to do is stroke an author’s ego. Tough, honest critiques are the only way to go. While it’s not a bad idea to include some laypeople in the group, at least a few writers should be included as they’re more likely to pick up on issues with story and structure than the average person. Unlike editors, beta-readers should never be paid, so it’s a good rule of thumb to have several available to both add new perspectives and get a consensus on a suggestion the writer might be uncertain about.
A good editor is the next step in the process. There are many excellent editors specializing in any number of genres, and it shouldn’t be overly difficult to find one suited for a book. A Google search or perusal of an editor’s website can usually reveal what he or she has worked on in the past, as well as feedback from clients and details about pricing. Should any of this information not be easily accessible, a simple e-mail can usually clear up any uncertainties.
Once hired, a good editor will help identify plot holes, inconsistencies, overused words and phrases, in addition to correcting mistakes made regarding structure, grammar, and punctuation. While they’re often pricey, the services editors provide are invaluable, and there’s no excuse for skipping on one (unless, of course, a writer is going through traditional channels, in which case one should always be provided free of charge by the publisher).
The final person to involve is a proofreader. While an editor usually catches the majority of typos and punctuation/grammatical errors, having a set of eyes with these issues solely in mind can be a major boon. Since the manuscript should already be quite polished by this point, a proofreader is able to focus on the minutiae that can so easily escape notice. Even minor errors can irritate readers, let alone reviewers, so this last perusal of the work can boost the chances of a positive reception considerably.
These people are not only helpful in producing quality work; they’re essential. One of the most common complaints regarding self-published books is shoddy (or non-existent) editing. Not only does cutting corners on these services shortchange the story, they scam the reader into thinking he or she has purchased a book that’s had professional care put into it. Finding out it’s not there can result in a damaging review. Worse, it will turn a potential fan into someone who will never pick up a book by that author again. Guaranteed.