If adding “Published Author” after your name is one of your goals for 2014, you’re probably itching to polish the NaNoWriMo manuscript or a WIP that is marinating on your hard drive and send it out into the world.
But don’t just run a final spellcheck and pronounce your work ready for publication.
If you are serious about publishing, your first readers should be beta readers.
And just what is a beta reader?
Think of beta readers as superhero partner/readers for your WIP. Correctly employed, your superheroes can save you time and money. How? I’m glad you asked!
Ideally, you want to assemble a team of beta readers. By getting focused, constructive criticism from multiple viewpoints, you’ll be able to identify (and you’ll have the opportunity to address) potential problems with your manuscript before you spend money on professional editing. Then, when you do hire an editor, you’ll get more bang for your buck. (Learn more at Three Things You Shouldn’t Hire an Editor to Do.)
Each one of your superheroes will have a different strength, and no one beta reader will offer the same level of advice in every area. (That’s why you’ll get the most comprehensive feedback from a team.) Some will be generalists, some will be detail-oriented, but they’ll each see your story in a new way, because
Beta readers approach your manuscript from a fresh point of view.
Here are the types of beta readers who make perfect team members:
- The Workhorse: a reader who is very familiar with your genre—perhaps a reviewer of books in your genre who can let you know if the story is entertaining, has a good flow and interesting characters, and where you dropped the ball if something isn’t working.
- The Expert: a writer with an intimate knowledge of both the type of story you’ve written and the craft of storytelling. This reader/writer can be invaluable when it comes to constructive criticism about the way you’ve told your story and can offer useful suggestions for other things to try.
- The Professor: this is the stickler for grammar. Of course, you’ve already run spell-check and grammar-check programs, but this type of proofreading step will save you time and money when you’re ready to hire a professional editor. (For more money-saving self-editing tips, check out How to Save Money on Professional Editing by Preparing Your Manuscript.)
- The Bookworm: a reader who is representative of your average reader, perhaps a reviewer, maybe just an avid reader, but someone who can let you know about the experience of reading your book. Do your opening pages create a desire to keep reading? Does the action slow down in the middle of the story? Are the characters fully fleshed out?
Now, how does this team do its magic? The short answer is: That’s up to you.
You decide what guidance, if any, your beta readers get. Do you want to ask your readers to look for specific things, or do you want to let them read the work and give their natural reactions? If you are concerned about a specific issue, by all means ask your superheroes to zero in on that part of your manuscript. If you prefer to just cut them loose and see what they come up with, you can do that, too. (Hint: most beta readers appreciate some guidance, so feel free to create a list of things that are important to you.) Through trial and error, you’ll learn who provides the type of valuable critique you’re looking for . . . and who doesn’t.
What is the most valuable skill beta readers possess? It’s the ability to be honest with you.
This point cannot be overstated. Critiquing a manuscript isn’t a popularity contest, so surrounding yourself with people who will tell you how wonderful your story is and what a great writer you are won’t help you. (Your spouse, parent, or BFF probably won’t be as objective as you need a beta reader to be, either.)
I’m not suggesting you take every suggestion to heart and revise your manuscript by committee, but do give careful consideration to each suggestion, and then reject those that really don’t work for you. If three of your four beta readers make the same observation about your tendency to overuse adverbs, for example, you’ll be wise to go through your manuscript one more time to see how many adverbs you can remove.
Your beta readers’ input allows you to go back and do minor (or even major) revising before you spend your hard-earned money on professional editing . . . which means your editor’s time can be spent on helping you polish the remaining rough edges instead of trying to explain why your character’s motivation doesn’t make sense or your middle chapters lack action.
And now I’d like to offer a few words of advice to beta readers and the authors they critique:
First, to beta readers:
If you’re asked to be a beta reader, approach the manuscript like a teacher: point out what works for you and what doesn’t, and explain why you feel that way. The writer trusts you to understand that this is a draft, and she’s looking for constructive criticism. She might not incorporate all your suggestions, but merely the fact that you’ve pointed something out and had a great explanation will make you an invaluable member of a team . . . and there might be chocolate chip cookies involved, although I can’t promise anything.
Next, to the authors
Your beta readers are not professional editors or writing coaches, so don’t expect them to do the heavy lifting. Do be clear about your expectations and your timeframe, and remember that they are unpaid volunteers and are making time to read and critique your manuscript. If their advice proves helpful, they can be invaluable to your writing career, but even if you reject some suggestions, thank them profusely for their time, both in person and in writing in your acknowledgments. And, if possible, offer to pay them back by being a beta reader for their manuscripts in exchange.
In my experience as an editor, one of the most common mistakes writers make is believing their work is ready to publish when more revising and editing are necessary. This often leads to higher editing bills because your editor will have to make edits that beta readers might have pointed out to you at no charge! So start now to line up a group of beta readers who are willing to give you their honest assessment about every aspect of your story.
Have you used beta readers? I’d love to know how their comments helped you with your next round of revisions. Have you ever used beta readers at multiple stages of revising your manuscript? If you’ve been a beta reader for another writer, did you find the experience helped you with your own writing?
Beta readers offer an opportunity to take your writing to the next level. And when you are ready to hire a copyeditor, I hope you’ll take me up on my offer to provide you with a free sample edit to show you how I can help you say it the way you mean it.
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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.
For more great writing and publishing information, check out Change It Up Editing and Writing Services on Facebook, where I share interesting articles and links about writing and publishing.
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- The Kingmaker: Why Beta Readers Are Awesome (kingmakersaga.wordpress.com)
- (BETA) MatchMaker, MatchMaker Make Me A Match! (amiallenvath.wordpress.com)
- Beta Readers are a Valuable Resource for Writers (wordsaremybusiness.ca)
- No man is an island… though some may want to be. (writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com)
- What Makes a Good Beta Reader? (smallbluedog.com)