Once I’ve tucked myself into bed for the night, I often pick up a book. Recently, the one I reached for was by a friend in New York—let’s call her Lucy. Like a horse whisperer, Lucy is a book whisperer, coaching would-be authors through the process of transforming their idea for a book into a copyrighted, edited, and attractively bound self-published work. I have met several of her author-clients in the past and they were all proud of, and pleased with, the books they had produced under Lucy’s guidance. So, it was with pleasure that I opened Lucy’s latest how-to volume about writing, curious to know what new nuggets of wisdom she might share with her readers.
I had read several pages when the text instructed me to go from Chapter Two to a sub-titled section in Chapter Six for more information about a particular topic. Because I was interested in that topic, I flipped through the first three-quarters of the book, located Chapter Six, and searched for the subtitled section. I couldn’t find it.
Hmmm? My Nancy Drew instincts were on high alert. I backtracked and looked for a table of contents, hoping it would direct me to the appropriate page. It was easy enough to find but there, too, was another surprise. Though a title for each of the eight chapters was listed, none of the titles had a corresponding chapter number—the table of contents amounted to simply a list of titles. As a result, I had to count my way down the list until I recognized the title that had been assigned to Chapter Six.
I made Lucy aware of these oversights and because she had only released a few POD copies, she was able to correct the subtitle reference–the section did exist but it had been moved to another chapter–and added chapter numbers to the table of contents.
This was an experience Lucy and I both felt should be relayed to other self-publishers, but with what advice? After all, Lucy had used an experienced editor, advice she hammers home with every client. But what we soon realized was that the editor had concentrated on grammar, spelling, paragraph structure and typos. What the editor and Lucy had both failed to do was to take the manuscript out for a test drive.
Let’s suppose you’re buying a used car. You might find the model and color of the convertible you’ve always wanted, but do the brakes work? Does the automatic transmission move smoothly through the gears? Does the odometer continue to accumulate miles? There’s only one way to find out—you’ve got to test-drive the car.
The final draft of any manuscript also benefits from a test-drive. Relevant bits of data placed throughout your book should match the map provided in your table of contents. If the table of contents says that the title of chapter three is “ABC,” go to chapter three and make sure that chapter title is “ABC.” If chapter five instructs the reader to go to chapter ten or page 125 for additional information, go to chapter ten or page 125 and verify the information is where it should be. If you are using both numbered chapters and chapter titles, do your reader a favor and include these together in the table of contents.
Just as you want your car to respond easily to every turn of the wheel, you want your reader to easily navigate your manuscript. The reader’s use of your book should not amount to a test of their patience, especially when being patient is not the subject of the book.
Even when you’re confident that anyone could successfully take your book for a spin, don’t think you’re done. Shift your manuscript into neutral and ask a second editor, your spouse or a trusted writing group who hasn’t yet read the book take one more test-drive. Only then do you publish and let the reader take the driver’s seat.