One question I get a lot during conference seminars is "How do I know when my work is done and ready to send out?" Obviously, there is no magic answer for this, but the question itself touches on something very important: self-editing. Writers know they have to write the book, and they know they have to submit it to agents - but what happens in the middle there? How much editing do you do and what's the best way to do it?
All this brings me to a nice post on The Kill Zone website, a site where successful thriller and mystery writers talk writing. Michelle Gagnon had this to say in a Q&A.
Q) At what point do you seek formal
feedback, rather than just cranking it out?
A) I don't show my work to anyone until I've
completed two drafts. And then I send it
to my "Beta readers," 5-7 people whose
opinion I trust. What I've discovered, however,
is that they'll all like different aspects of the
story, and they'll all criticize different aspects.
I always take that feedback with a grain of
salt. If more than one person is saying the
same thing, I know it's time to go back and
figure out where I went wrong.
I like this answer because it addresses two very big things that any writer can take away. First, she mentions "beta readers." This is the payoff of joining writers' groups and networking and posting on message boards. You make writer friends. And if you don't like these new friends or value their opinions, then you look for other new friends, and so forth and so on. When you have a small core group of writer friends that you trust, they will be your first test readers who will give you advice. Personally, right now, I just finished Draft No. 2 of my middle grade novel and went to the local SCBWI group, asking if people had time to read and critique my manuscript. In exchange, I offered to read whatever they wanted either now or later (as a raincheck). That's beta readers.
Second, Michelle brings up the "Where there's smoke, there's fire" concept - meaning that if two people have the same issue with something in your book, you need to make some changes. I totally agree with this.