Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beta Readers

I've mentioned this a few times over my last few posts, but my manuscript is nearly ready to be reviewed by beta readers.  If all continues on current trajectory, I will have a "beta-ready" draft by April 3rd.  As I prepare to send this to a few readers, I thought I'd explain the beta process in a little more detail, particularly with regard to my own ideas and expectations. 

Caveat: This is my first time sending a novel out for beta-review, so ideas and processes may change over time.  Not every writer approaches their review in the same way, and this might not even be the best way, but it makes sense to me right now. 

What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is someone who is willing to read a complete, but as-yet unpublished manuscript and provide feedback to the author (me).  Here's the Wikipedia definition.  The beta should provide constructive criticism -- honest, useful, and insightful feedback -- on the work in question. 

From my perspective (and I imagine every author would feel approximately the same), it's not useful to say that you don't like me or you hate the book.  I need to know why you hate the book.  I need to know if and where plot holes exist.  I need to know if you got bored, or where there's not enough description.  I also need to know what you liked, and if you were excited, engaged, or couldn't put it down. 

What I don't need is a line-by-line copy-edit (although if you happen to see something, especially if it seems to be a recurring problem, go ahead and let me know so I can fix it). 

What are the expectations?
I think this is probably different for every author, but I'm going to request the following of my beta readers...

1. Deadline:  
We all have time constraints and life issues, but once it's out there, I'm going to be sitting on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, tearing my hair out, to find out what you think.  So...I will give you a month to read it and send back your feedback.  I'm not going to do any work on the manuscript after I send it out, so this will also give me some time away from it to have a fresh perspective when I'm reading through the comments.

2. No Sharing:  
Do not share the novel with anyone else at this point.  Not your mom, not your best friend, not your next door neighbor.  It's a work in progress, and I know there will be additional revisions after I get everyone's feedback.  If you like the story, FANTASTIC!  Tell everyone how great it is and then tell them that some day, once it's finished and published, they'll be able to buy it.  You can even tell them the premise of the story and why you liked it.  But please do not share the actual novel until it's published.  If I find out you've passed it along to someone else, I will hunt you down, okay, that's not true, but I'll be really upset.

Along with the manuscript, I'm going to send out a simple editing guide to use while reading the novel.  Essentially, I would like the beta readers to mark up the margins with their comments, using a legend of sorts to organize their thoughts.  For example, if a passage is boring, I want you to put a big "B" in the margin and explain in a few words why you're bored.  Like, "B - too much walking through the woods."  Or if a section is really exciting, it might be "E - LOVE IT!".

4. Be critical, but don't be mean: 
'Nuff said.

What can beta readers expect in return?
My undying gratitude.  And maybe a case of beer or a bottle of wine, your choice.

Okay, but seriously, I am trying to turn this into a career, so I will do my best to act professionally in my response to comments.  I will endeavor to not take any feedback personally, and I will not argue with your impressions of the book.  In fact, unless there's a comment that I truly don't understand, I promise to not bother you about it at all, unless you bring it up in conversation or something, and even then I promise to not get upset. 

Well, I'll do my best. 

It's a hard thing, putting your work out there for other people to tear apart.  But I really do want the criticism, because I need to learn and improve my writing.  I don't want people to coddle me and tell me that "it's just so wonderful."  That's why moms are not going to be allowed to read it (sorry Moms - you'll get to read it when it's finished).  Of course, I don't want to be crying over the darn thing either.

For those of you who are my beta readers -- and you should know who you are, but if not, you'll find out soon -- this is your chance to bow out.  If you don't think you can make the timeline, or don't want to put up with my Type A personality BS, you don't have to be a reader for me.  I won't get mad.  Believe me, I realize that it's going to be a bit of work, and we all have jobs, hobbies, and other commitments.  I will 100% completely understand. 


  1. "What I don't need is a line-by-line copy-edit (although if you happen to see something, especially if it seems to be a recurring problem, go ahead and let me know so I can fix it)."

    I wish all the manuscripts I've beta'd realized this. When they DO desperately need a line-by-line copy-edit, I will often do that in lieu of a proper beta (if story issues are not dire) because it makes it almost impossible to focus on the story at all.

    However, other than that, I think you about covered it. When I beta and receive betas (done a bunch), primary things are more along the lines of: I loved this because..., I hated that because..., this didn't make sense to me, that was awkward, perhaps a different word choice, character needs a better reason to do that, I expected this and got that (not good), I expected this and got that (good). That sort of thing.

    Every beta though has a different style. Some write up the actual manuscript. Some make all their commentary in a separate document. Some are really good at catching worldbuilding and characterization; others know what makes a good scene and good writing. Some tell you what's good; some don't really. Yada.

    After a while, I learned that certain stories, I specifically want a certain kind of beta. On others, I have to go to two to get all the things looked at I want. And eventually, I knew what kind of story to turn down also. My beta brain is different from my writer brain, and I'd rather not be a copyeditor.

  2. I used someone very helpful in London (tho I'm an American). Could have used some more praise, but suggestions were excellent. will provide the name when I find it.

  3. @Megs - thanks for the input. Overall, I *think* my manuscript is relatively clean. I'm sure there are issues here and there, and I'm also sure that I've used some crutches that will need to be fixed, but I don't think my betas will have to copyedit for me. I get your point though, reading a manuscript with terrible grammar, spelling or punctuation is a nightmare to get through. I've read a few that were like that, where the writer hadn't learned the basics of dialogue formatting (and it wasn't a stylistic choice, they really didn't know) and it was hard to get through.

    Since this is my first completion of a novel-length work, I'm trying to find a broad group of betas, so that I find some different perspectives on things. So far, I have two readers who read a lot of fantasy (know the genre), two who don't read much fantasy but know good writing, and one "subject-matter expert". Five betas might be a bit much, but I'm interested to see how their perspectives differ. It's sort of an experiment...this whole adventure is a bit of an experiment! :-)

    @Pamela - please pass along the name. Even if he/she is busy, or the timing isn't right, having more contacts is always a great thing!