15 min read

How to Crowdsource Editing (and Early Reviews of My Book)

A lot of writers have George McFly syndrome: “Oh, I never let anyone read my stories… What if they didn’t like them? What if they told me I was no good?” I struggle with this myself sometimes.
How to Crowdsource Editing (and Early Reviews of My Book)
Photo by Josh Eckstein / Unsplash

A lot of writers have George McFly syndrome:

“Oh, I never let anyone read my stories… What if they didn’t like them? What if they told me I was no good?”

I struggle with this myself sometimes. For the career book I was working on (an extension of Recession Proof Graduate), I didn’t let anyone see an early draft for several months. The problem with doing this is that I was in my own head for so long that I could no longer recognize when my work was garbage. My writing was just a bunch of words I’d rearranged, expanded upon, chopped up, and cut into one big unstructured mess. It was ugly, and I was pretty underwhelmed with my work for a long time.

I could have avoided this if I’d actually, you know, shown it to a few people and talked to them about it. Instead, I did about a dozen major re-writes by myself, for a book that was 120,000 words long. If you don’t know or can’t imagine what that’s like, then I truly envy you. It’s not fun.

I didn’t want to make that mistake with my book on how I got over my anxiety. That’s the first book I’ll be releasing, and it will be coming out soon.

Instead of having a single professional editor at a publishing house offer their feedback and make edits, I wanted to do something different:

I wanted to crowdsource my edits.

This isn’t a common thing, and as far as I know, no author has entrusted the responsibility of editing to a large group of their own readers. I wasn’t totally sure if it would work…

I don’t have a massive audience like some of the guys I’ve worked with in the past, but I do have a few thousand readers (that’s you!) who have gotten to know me very well over the last five years. But more importantly, I knew that a lot of my readers were sharp go-getters. Most of you guys have read the Recession-Proof Graduate guide, and are very familiar with the benefits of doing free work. So when I asked you all to help me in my last post, I was thrilled to hear from 90 readers who were eager to give me feedback.

First, I had to see who was qualified as a great Beta Reader. I asked my readers to fill out an application if they wanted to be considered, which asked them for the following information:

  1. Full Name
  2. Email Address
  3. Phone Number
  4. Do you have any experience in editing other people’s writing? If so, please describe.
  5. Why does this project interest you? Why do you want to help? [Optional: Make a brief video (no more than 3-minutes) explaining your answer. Post to Youtube or Vimeo, mark it unlisted, and send me the link.]
  6. How long have you been reading my content? Has it impacted you in any way?

I asked them these specific questions for the following reasons:

  • I needed to be able to get in touch with them.
  • I needed proof that they were smart, and knew a thing or two about professional writing/editing.
  • I wanted to know their backstory to see if they fit the profile of an ideal reader for this book.
  • I wanted to reward people who’d been reading my content for years, so I could put their names in the acknowledgments section of the book.

The application did a great job of accomplishing all of these things, and I was blown away by the quality of the applicants. These weren’t just average people; they were highly qualified for the exact job I was asking them to do. The group of 90 applicants consisted of world-class journalists, professional authors, freelance copywriters and editors, ghostwriters, bloggers, legal professionals, teachers, tutors, grad students, research assistants, Redditors… It was the perfect mix of smart people who read a lot.

Far superior to relying on a single editor at a publishing house!

[Note: Even though professional editors who do this stuff for a living can be great, they can also be pretty underwhelming. In my experience, they tend to focus on legal issues and fairly trivial minutiae, which is useful for the publishing house (prevents mishaps, makes them professional) but doesn’t do much in terms of making a better book for the reader. That’s an important distinction, and I’ll choose the group that wants to make a better book for themselves every time.]

I emailed a PDF of my book to 35 (roughly one-third) of the applicants — most of whom I’d never interacted with. Here’s what I requested from them in my email:

If you’d like to send me your feedback (which I hope you will), please keep the following in mind:
  • Above all, BE OPEN AND BRUTALLY HONEST. If something sucks and needs to be cut or rewritten, say it. Don’t be afraid of offending me. I want to know if you read something and mentally disagree with me, or if you start to get bored and go to check Facebook, or if you skip ahead. I want to know when you’re deeply engrossed with the copy, or when you want to tell a friend to read it. I want to know any extremes you felt after reading specific sections (was it empowering? disappointing? boring?)
  • Pointing out parts that are confusing or need clarification, along with any questions you have, is REALLY helpful.
  • Suggesting fixes. If you spot a problem with the writing and can think of an easy way to fix it, let me know.
  • Don’t focus too much on little grammatical errors (unless they’re truly glaring). I’m mostly looking for broad stroke feedback that will really help the reader.

Basically, I gave the beta readers permission to let me have it. I wanted to spot all the things that repeatedly tripped them up, confused them, or turned them off.

And it worked. Really, really well.

I only expected about 20% of the beta readers to send me notes, but more than half of them ended up doing it. And their notes were consistently fantastic. They were open and honest, intelligent, and highly detailed. And because the group was fairly diverse, they all brought a fresh perspective to the table. Almost every person who gave me feedback pointed out something useful that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own.

The biggest benefit of crowdsourcing edits was in spotting patterns. Instead of wondering whether a single complaint about my writing was legitimate or not, I could just take note on how many other people brought up the same issue. The worst parts of the book were all brought up repeatedly, and I’m happy to say I’ve fixed (or I’m in the process of fixing) every major problem.

I can’t really talk about the specific notes I was given without giving away details in the book, but I will share one of the most valuable notes I received…

The award for “Best Edit” goes to Alex McClafferty (co-founder of WPCurve), who sent me this:

I think you should lead with Chapter 2 and follow it up with Chapter 1. I’ve talked to you before and know you are a very genuine guy, but the way Chapter 1 is framed (with no context to your anxiety issues)… you sound like a spoiled brat. Chapter 2, on the other hand is the real deal. It actually moved me, which was sort of weird after a day of grinding on my biz.

I got chills when I read that. I knew he was 100% right. That first chapter made me sound like a whiner, and everyone — including me — had missed it. I switched the two chapters, and it instantly read three times better.

This was such a critical edit, because it completely changed the flow of the book. It hooks the reader much faster now, which will dramatically boost sales over the long run (the conversion rate of the people who preview-then-buy it on Amazon should increase substantially). Being able to spot big picture edits like that is extremely helpful, and I only know a handful of people who are great at it. So thank you again Alex!

# # #

Having a group of beta readers was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a writer. I can’t tell you how much better this book is because I showed an incomplete version to a ton of supportive people I’ve never met. Instead of focusing on fixing all the minor details (which is easy to get caught up in), I was able to spot the biggest weaknesses in my book. And as a result of fixing them, the book has probably been saved from several 1-star reviews on Amazon. The aggregate ratings of my book are going to be higher, guaranteed, because of the beta readers.

And I can tell you from firsthand experience: No publishing house will ever be able to trump a crowd of smart and enthusiastic readers editing an author’s work. These were real people who gave me pages and pages of their thoughts and notes, with line-by-line feedback. They didn’t put in all of this effort because they were getting paid to do it as a job, but because they genuinely wanted to help and it was fun for them. As anyone who’s done free work knows, that’s usually where the best work comes from.

If I was an author who was in the editing stages (I am, but also hypothetically speaking), I would do everything in my power to get an early draft into as many of my ideal readers’ hands as possible. Not your friends and family (their notes are too kind and forgiving), or even people you know (they’re biased) — just a group of people who all fit the profile of your ideal reader!

Find at least a dozen people that you think would love your book. If you can’t find them in real life (e.g. guest speaking on your expertise at schools, book clubs, local meet ups), use your audience online. If you don’t have an audience online, you can find them in specific forums on Reddit, or in the highly active GoodReads community (look for people reading books that are similar to yours). Do some digging on each person’s online history, just to make sure they’d make a good beta reader. Ideally you want people who are highly active, intelligent, thoughtful, and have integrity (you can tell by the quantity and quality of the posts they’ve done).

Reach out to those people, sell them on who you are (say you’re a humble first-time author), tell them what your book is about and why you think they’d enjoy it, then ask if they’d be interested in a free unfinished copy in exchange for their thoughts. Offer them a shout out in the Acknowledgments section, a free consultation call, or something that you can give each of them that will be valuable and fun (free brownies!)

Rinse, repeat, and get yourself a big group of people who are giving you their notes. The more people providing feedback on your writing, the better. Don’t be outraged or nervous reading their critiques — far better to see harsh reviews now, rather than on Amazon!

You need a great book in order for it to sell, and beta readers helped me reach that point in record time. They made my writing stronger, provided me with a group of enthusiasts who want to see the book succeed (they’re now baked into the writing), and ultimately increased future sales.

Thank you again to all of my beta readers. You’ve helped me create something special.

[Note: There are three things I would have changed about this whole process. (1) I would have used Wufoo instead of Google Forms. It was kind of a pain reading all of those applications in a spreadsheet. (2) I would have used Draft to receive feedback, rather than having everyone email me individually. (3) I would have scheduled all of my calls with readers on Clarity. I started doing this halfway through, when I remembered that Clarity provides a custom link that sets your consultation fee to “Free.”]

# # #

So… what did these beta readers actually have to say about my book? Again, I have to spare you the details of their specific notes, but here is some of the general feedback I’ve gotten:

“It’s emotionally honest, it’s practical, it’s unique, it will make people talk. All great stuff.” – Ryan H.
“Super readable. I read it in one sitting. It’s hard to put down… When I started reading the 15 things, I started keeping a list of the best ones. It literally ended up being all 15… I didn’t take enough notes because I was too transfixed, and I flew right through it.” – Zach O.
“WOW… REALLY enjoyed the book! I can’t wait for it to come out to be able to share it with people! It was such an easy read, and I’m really particular about books… (don’t like to read that many books)” – Michael G.
“I was imagining that this would be more of a pitch for Free Work, but it really is it’s own piece and provides huge value. It’s going to help a lot of people who didn’t even know they needed it” – Zach O.
“I love the overall message in this book. Your story really resonates with me. As a freelance paralegal, I’ve been feeling the exact same things that you did – if I’m not working, I’m not productive. For me, it actually feels weird not to work.” – Tina K.
“Easily one of the best intros to a book I’ve read. This felt like a movie.” – Mohnish S.
“Up to page 28, and compelled to email you. This is f*ing great, Charlie. Resonates.” – Rob H.
“This was one of the rare books I could read in one sitting. Speaking from an unbiased opinion, I liked it very much!” – Thomas U.
“I’m going to implement this stuff on my own, even though I don’t feel like I struggle with anxiety. I just think this can help me be a happier, more fun person… Incredible work. You’re going to help a lot of people with this book.” – Justin M.
“It’s REALLY well written. Conversational but tight, and engaging the entire way through. I could feel myself getting sucked into each of your stories and being taken through the journey start to finish… Section #3 hit me pretty hard personally and sent me into a frenzy of free writing about my own life and what I’m doing.” – Edward D.
“I’ll start off by saying that overall, it’s an awesome book. Phases 4 and 5 were particularly golden. These parts contained the most compelling stuff, super useful, and a great and entertaining read. I’m straining to think of a single way to improve those sections. More generally speaking, your writing really shines when it’s autobiographical, and you’re very good at blending first-person with second-person to illustrate your points.” – Scott H.
“I had been thinking about taking an improv class for a long time and you finally got me to do it. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. I was able to face my problems head on. I left each class feeling so much lighter after all the exercises and laughs. It did wonders for my confidence and really just helped me get out of my head.” – Andrew E.
“I think you’re doing a fantastic service to whoever reads this and uses it to help effect positive change in their lives. Which, I’m guessing, is your primary objective, and I believe you’ve achieved it… You’ve assembled some really helpful content here and relayed it in an entertaining and heartfelt manner. The #1 takeaway I get from it all is that you’ve taken concepts that some people would initially bristle at (because of what they’ve been programmed to think by society) and presented it in a nice fun package that’s tough to say no to.” – Cortis L.
“This book has a natural, down-to-earth tone that I really enjoy. It makes me laugh and think, which is always a good thing… The scripts and examples of what a person can do, going from the extreme to the comforting, really gives this an edge to other nonfiction books I’ve read that claimed to help you. Of course, the books I read are usually from scientists and researchers, so there’s a reason for that… You’ll notice about a quarter of the way through the book, my sticky notes became progressively more casual. I stayed with this format because that is genuinely how I felt when I wrote those notes. I wanted to be as straightforward as possible, and to show you parts where you made me crack up (Breaking Bad) and where I felt confused. The book brought out my natural personality because you showed me yours.” – Jessica C.

And even though I made a request for beta readers to not talk about the book online, a few people couldn’t resist:

001 copy
gebbs play1

But my favorite commentary on this early draft came from my friend Ali. She’s a synesthete, which means she sees words and numbers in colors. She first told me about her super power when we were talking about our favorite books at dinner one night, and she mentioned that she’d read Lolita more than 20 times because “it’s like experiencing a rainbow.” Here are a few comments she made on the colors of my writing:

“After the intro, there is a noticeable shift in lightness. At first, the writing felt dark, the words were harsh, and punctuation was the blunt. As it progresses, it lightens, and as a result, the color of the words and the sentences start to brighten. It’s less about a difference in actual color, and more about a change in shade.”
“The colors of this section of the book are the most wide-ranging thus far. Now, in addition to the lighter shades, new hues have been introduced and it generally feels more rich in color. It is possible this is due to the lists of activities portion, or just the sense that the mind is being expanded since you are providing methods for this to occur. There is now a variety of color that has been introduced- I am seeing several shades of yellow and a washed out red, as well as a midnight blue and more of a sky blue.”

If you had any doubts as to whether or not these reviews were real, that comment should lay them to rest. Couldn’t make that up if I tried.

Of course, not all of the feedback was usable. A handful of people sent me congratulatory notes, which were nice to read, but had no impact on the book. And I actually got one overwhelmingly negative review from a reader. There’s either a cultural difference in our beliefs about life and work, or this person flat-out didn’t like my writing style (or me). This is what they had to say, along with my responses:

“I found this a superficial read, with very little that I or anyone else could possibly action. The book doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a personal memoir or a recipe book for others.”

I won’t argue if they didn’t like the book, that’s fine. But I do take issue with one thing they criticized, because I intentionally designed this book to be highly actionable. In fact, there are three big sections that explicitly show how a reader can implement certain parts of my routine into their life. In one section, I explain the weekly writing exercise I did that helped me identify and eliminate my biggest sources of stress. In the next section, I break down every single technique and exercise that helped me, along with the easiest course of action the reader can take to start doing it immediately. In the next section, I show my weekly schedule — broken down hour by hour — which reveals everything I was doing. All three of these sections are highly actionable, I can’t stress that enough.

“I suspect this book is much more important to the author, as a way of laying his own ghosts, than it would be to any reader.  It feels self-indulgent.”

It was a therapeutic and rewarding book to write, no question. But I wouldn’t have put this book together if tens of thousands of people hadn’t already been helped by my original post on how I cured my anxiety. There’s a reason that post rose to the #1 spot on Google for the search “cure anxiety,” and that it displaced highly ranked Oprah and Dr. Oz articles, and that WordPress reached out to ask if they could feature it on their homepage. The reason was simple:

That article was important to other people. It helped them. And I can promise you that the book is better — much better.

I’ll wrap up the beta reader feedback with an exchange I had with my good friend in San Francisco, who wrote this message to me after reading the first section:

I can’t help but feel bad that you were having a tough time, and we (or I, rather) didn’t know it/the extent of it. I know I didn’t have much of a “before” Charlie to compare you to, but it makes me sad that you were struggling, just across the street from where I spent a lot of my time. I’m glad we helped you stay sane, as you say, but I don’t know… I guess reading the blog post (and now the book) is a good reminder to ask someone how they are, and then ask again.

My response:

There’s nothing to feel bad about. You guys were always great. The way I handled myself was my choice, and I’m glad it played out the way it did. If it happened any other way, this book probably wouldn’t exist, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

# # #

Last but not least, I need your help… I would love to get my book into the hands of some of my heroes who have embodied play. I quote many of them throughout the book, but all of them are extremely high-profile and — as far as I’m aware — I don’t have any connections to them.

I know this is a long (and I mean loooooong) shot, but it never hurts to ask…

If you have a personal connection to any of the following people (i.e. they would answer your phone call, or you’ve shared a meal together), AND you would be willing to email a digital copy of my book to them, please let me know by contacting me or leaving a comment below.

Jim Carrey

Bill Murray

Jerry Seinfeld

Ricky Gervais

John Lasseter

Richard Branson

J.K. Rowling

Steven Spielberg

Peter Jackson

Tom Hanks

Jack Nicholson

Michael Jordan

Matt Groening

Stan Lee

Shigeru Miyamoto

Adam Sandler

Stephen Colbert

Steve Carrel

P.S. Click here to listen to my 30-minute interview with the Smarter Science of Slim.

P.P.S. Click here to see a prettier version of Recession Proof Graduate (thanks so much to Scott at Accel.io for putting this together!)

P.P.S. If you’d like to be notified the minute my book is up for sale, just sign up for my newsletter.