Betas, we love them and fear them. . .
by Amanda S. Green
Kate’s post yesterday touched on a topic that has been percolating at the back of my mind for the last month or so. It’s one we’ve touched on before but now that NaNoWriMo is over – and now that more authors are taking the self-publish route – I think it’s one that needs to be discussed. Basically, it’s about the difference between beta readers and copy editors/proofreaders.
Every writer goes through that phase where he doesn’t think what he writes is good enough for anyone to see. For a period of time (sometimes for the writer’s entire life), his work is tossed under the bed or in the closet once it’s finished and no one gets to read it. But for most of us, there comes a time when we finally let go of our baby and let someone read it. Sometimes it’s because we’ve been cajoled and threatened and bribed – Yes, Sarah, I’m talking about you – into letting someone read it. Sometimes, it’s because we can no longer stand just tossing our babies into a dark corner, never to see the light of day. But, for whatever the reason, we finally let someone pry our work from our fingers and we go hide under the sink, waiting for their comments.
Once we’ve finally decided that maybe, just maybe, we’re ready for the world-at-large to see our work, we need to find first readers, or beta readers. I know the first time I was asked to beta read something, I thought it was like what we did in the critique group at the time: correct spelling and punctuation, formatting, wording things the way I would word them. Boy, was I clueless. Spelling and punctuation, as well as formatting, are what the proofreader looks at. Wording things the way I would word them – well, let’s just say I still wonder at the restraint the author showed in not smacking me.
Fortunately for me, the author was a patient soul and taught me what a beta reader is. A beta reader is that person who reads your manuscript and lets you know if there are major consistency issues with it. Did you promise the reader four weddings – one for each sister – and halfway through the book, forget about one of the sisters? Is there a major ick factor to the book? If so, what is it and why? Does the story make sense or have you just laid a turkey egg?
In other words, a beta reader doesn’t edit and doesn’t proof. They read. Giving the author a list of grammar and punctuation problems isn’t going to help – unless the author has asked for it. Look at it this way, beta readers are reading for content, not to see if it follows all the rules. For one thing, if the manuscript is going to a publisher, that publisher might have a house style sheet you, the beta reader, aren’t familiar with and you could be giving the author bad advice. For another, proofing comes later – after the story is finalized.
There’s something else to keep in mind when you beta read for someone: don’t keep hammering at them about what you think. Tell them once and let it go. Most authors have more than one beta reader. They listen to what each one says. But, if only one person comes back saying they had a problem with something and no one else did, the author will probably go with the majority. More than that, if you keep harping about an issue to the author, well, you start falling into that toxic relationship Kate was talking about yesterday. Remember, authors are, on the whole, not overly confident in their work to begin with. If you keep pushing at them about what is a perceived fault in their work, you very well may get them into a spiral where all they are doing is obsessing about a nit that really didn’t need to be picked.
Don’t assume you know the author’s process. In other words, you can’t assume you KNOW why they’re doing something and you shouldn’t even be thinking that way. As a beta reader, you should be thinking as though you didn’t know the author — so no “Oh, she wrote this because of THIS incident”.
Another example of what you shouldn’t do as a beta reader: if the author notes that a character’s birthday was on the 12th and later in the manuscript, there’s a reference to the birthday being on the 15th, note it but don’t obsess about it UNLESS it becomes a major consistency issue. In 99.9% of the times, it won’t be. It’s a typo. Nothing more.
Now that isn’t to say don’t tell them if you have a problem with the story. They need to know that. But only if it deals with the story, not with the grammar, etc., unless it is so bad you can’t read it. Period. End of story.
Beta readers are an invaluable part of the writing process. You are often the author’s touchstone with reality when it comes to what they’ve just written. But very often, betas also get the work before the author has done any major editing. Another reason why you shouldn’t worry about the nits when it comes to grammar, punctuation, etc. Besides, any author who is serious about making a go of writing will either have his own copy editor/proofreader he works with for his self-published work or his publisher does. So, focus on the story.
Remember, beta reading is not the same as being a critique partner. Nor is it being an editor/copy editor/proofreader. It is being a reader and then answering honestly any questions the author has for you. Did the book work? Did it hold your attention? Were there MAJOR plot inconsistencies that need to be dealt with? Did it surprise you when X died or Y married Z or when the elves and dwarves married and lived happily ever after? It is not pointing out every split infinitive and dangling modifier, correcting spelling or second guessing how and why the author wrote what he did. It sure isn’t trying to make the novel yours with “helpful” suggestions. After all, do you want your betas having you rewrite your novel so it sounds like something they wrote? (Well, I’ll admit I’d love it if Dave or Sarah did that to my work. J )
Authors, you, too, have a responsibility when it comes to beta readers. Let them know what you want. If you have specific things you want them focusing on, tell them. Don’t expect them to read your mind. Now, I know a lot of authors have a set list of questions they give their beta readers beforehand. I’m not going to say that’s wrong. However, I will suggest that it can be a double-edged sword. By giving them the questions ahead of time, you predispose them to be looking for certain things. This could lead them to overlook other issues/problems/strengths. Conversely, it does give you the answers you’re looking for. My suggestion is to change the timing of the process. Ask the questions AFTER they read the novel. You’ll still get the answers but they won’t be slanted by that possible predisposition.
The relationship between an author and his betas can be wonderful, as long as each party remembers their roles. The author needs to chill for a few days and let the beta readers read. The beta readers need to read and then give constructive feedback to the author. Constructive being the key. If you are asked to beta read and aren’t sure what the author wants, ask. Then there can be no misunderstandings. Your job is to help the author tighten the story, not make it look pretty – unless that is what you’re asked for.