It is tempting to write a novel, hit save, and send it off to an editor or publisher without ever looking at it again. It must be perfect, right? You have just put your heart and soul into it.
But not even the most experienced author can do that.
There are a few steps to take before you send your novel to an editor or publisher, and one of these steps is to use beta readers.
What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is someone who critiques your novel before it is ready for the editing stage. At this early stage in the publishing process, the novel should still be considered a draft.
Your beta reader can give you a reader’s perspective on the characters, plot, and setting, and spot any story or style issues. They can tell you what works and what doesn’t work. They won’t make direct changes to the manuscript but will provide written feedback which will help you with subsequent drafts.
Beta readers are not usually professionally trained (though some can also be writers or editors), and most don’t expect payment for their time (however, there are professional beta readers who will expect payment).
Why do I need a beta reader?
What you have in your head is not always the way it appears on paper (or on screen). And if you have had the story going around and around in your head for months (if not years), you sometimes can’t see the holes in the plot or a character’s believability.
A beta reader will help you understand what the reader will think when they read the novel. You don’t want to find that out after you have had the cost and time input of editing (which is still a necessary step after the beta reading step).
A beta reader can help you get your manuscript to a level where it can be sent to an editor, agent or publisher and improve your chances of success.
Who can you use as a beta reader?
Choose your beta readers carefully. It would be preferable to find someone who has a good knowledge of your genre – they will know what is current in the market and what works.
Make sure it is some you trust for their honest feedback. Your mum or best friend may be too close to you to give you the critique you need and may not have the skills to know what works or doesn’t work. It can also make for some awkward situations if you don’t agree with their feedback.
A beta reader should be confident in giving you feedback and be able to communicate their ideas clearly and specifically in writing. One or more of your beta readers should have knowledge or expertise in writing and publishing.
You should have as many beta readers as possible, so that you can see any consensus between comments and have a range of experience and insight.
What is the process?
Once you have found a beta reader who you wish to work with, there are some things to keep in mind.
What to do with the feedback
Don’t take it personally. Your beta reader is providing feedback on your book, not you. (That may be easier said than done, given that you put your all into the book.)
It can be overwhelming, but remember that this feedback is going to help you make your book even better than it was. One way is to read through the feedback and then let it sit for some time before you go through it again.
You may not agree with everything they write, but at least consider it. If they thought it, another reader may too. Trust your gut. If more than one beta reader said the same thing, chances are it should be changed. On the other hand, you remain the final decision maker, and if you feel it isn’t the right fit for you, then don’t change it.
Go through each point and decide on what you want to change and what you don’t want to change (you could make two lists), then go through the manuscript systematically and implement them.
What to be aware of
As you don’t usually pay a beta reader, you need to be kind to them. They are doing you a favour.
You need to trust that your beta reader is professional enough not to steal your ideas or expose your book before it is published. Most beta readers would be offended if you asked them to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but you should make sure your beta reader has a good track record or is from a reputable source.
Don’t use beta readers as editors. They are not qualified to do this specific stage in the publishing process (unless, of course, they are also editors). Some beta readers do come to see their role as editor, but they should be looking at the big picture stuff and not worrying about specifics such as not using passive voice, word choice, sentence structure or typos. These are done in the copy-editing and proofreading stages and should only be looked at when the manuscript is ready for it.
Where do I find a beta reader?
Local writing groups may be a start.
Or you can go online. Find a writers’ group or community on social media such as Twitter or Facebook and take part in discussions about beta readers. There are also writers’ groups and forums on other platforms. For example, Goodreads.com has groups specifically for beta readers.
Professional companies or editors may also provide this service.
Once you have gone through your feedback and are happy with the manuscript, it is time to speak to an editor.
Marja Stack is a copy-editor and proofreader based in New Zealand. Her business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers, whether business, non-fiction or fiction. For more information or enquiries please see her website: www.clearlingo.co.nz.
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