In Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages – a book aimed at aspiring novelists – the author refers to what he calls the “paranoid writer”. This writer thinks agents and publishers are desperate to steal his/her ideas, when really they are desperate for a pretext to reject his/her manuscript.
Accepting Lukeman’s premise that people aren’t out to steal your ideas, who then should read your work once the manuscript is finished?
I tend to give early drafts of my work to people whose advice has proved invaluable in the past, but really I tend to ask for different advice from different people depending what stage of the rewriting process I am in.
For a first draft, I simply want a sense of whether the book is generally engaging enough to be read from start to finish.
For a subsequent drafts, I ask opinions on specific areas – character, plot, prose style, grammar, factual accuracy (if applicable) and so on. I often ask them to pay attention to specific areas I have rewritten.
I have often heard it said you should never give family members drafts to read, as they will be much less critical for fear of hurting your feelings. But there are exceptions to this rule, especially if family members have English degrees.
A circle of fellow writers can be useful, but I actually find there is nothing like using the target audience as guinea pigs for really discovering if a piece of writing works. Many of my novels are aimed at children or “young adults” to quote the slightly silly industry term (Young adults? As opposed to what exactly? Elderly children?).
Therefore I often test my books on children. The results have proved illuminating and instructive.
Conversely, it is occasionally good to test a book on someone who emphatically isn’t the target audience. One good (if somewhat cruel example) is when I gave the first draft of a horror novel I wrote to a certain person I knew absolutely hated horror. If I’d done my job properly this person would find the book extremely upsetting and absolutely hate it.