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Beta readers and beyond

by Amanda S. Green

Sunday I posted some thoughts about beta readers, what they do — and don’t do — and an author’s responsibility regarding them. When I originally wrote the post, it was meant to be a one-time deal. However, some comments made on the blog and privately in e-mail have convinced me this is a topic that needs to be explored a bit more.

If you google “beta reader”, the  definitions you come up with run the gamut. Some say beta readers do look for things like grammar, punctuation, flow, etc. Others seem more in line with what I said: that a beta reader reads and then lets the author know the strengths and weaknesses of the work: looking at things like if the book grabbed and held their attention, did they connect with the characters, etc.

So, it really is up to the author to make sure he tells his beta readers what he wants from them.

And, beta readers, it is essential that, once you’ve been told the guidelines, you follow them. Otherwise, you run the risk of pulling the writer out of the creative process and into an editorial loop that can turn counter-productive. You also risk not being asked to beta read for that author again and, let’s face it, most of us love getting early looks at what our author friends are working on.

Authors, tell your beta readers what you want them to look for. Or at least tell them what you don’t want them focusing on, promising to have specific questions afterwards. Betas, if you aren’t given that much guidance, don’t be afraid to ask the author what they want you to look for.

Okay, so now the beta process is over and the author is once more looking at the manuscript with the comments from their betas in mind. This is where some self-discipline on the writer’s part comes into play. Because we are often anything but confident in what we’re working on at the time, there is the tendency to want to change everything that a beta reader comments on. Don’t. Please, authors, don’t. Look at all the comments from your beta readers and see if there is a consensus among the betas. If there is, then take a hard look at what they are saying and weigh it dispassionately. If their suggestion makes the story stronger, do it. If not, file it away for later consideration. I tend to follow the rule of three. If three betas say the same thing, I have to consider it.

That doesn’t mean I automatically throw out individual comments. I don’t. I do look at them and consider them. But, I’ve learned — as a beta reader and as an author — the danger of thinking that everything each and every beta brings up is a mandatory change. I’ve seen instances where a beta reader has focused entirely on spelling and punctuation. Guess what, that beta was a worse speller and knew the rules of punctuation less well than did I. Another didn’t like the way I’d spelled a character’s name and went through changing it to the “proper” spelling. Yes, there are dents on my desk from where I pounded my head against it.

So, communication between author and beta at the beginning is essential. The ground rules need to be set and followed.

One of the comments I received to Sunday’s post was that authors, especially those who haven’t been published, need someone to tell them if their grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., needs work. I agree. Heck, I know published authors who need this as well. Frankly, this phase of editing is essential, whether the author is going the self-published route or the traditional publishing route. It’s obvious why the self-published author needs this help. I can’t tell you the number of comments I’ve seen on various e-book/e-reader boards about the need for self-pubbed authors to find someone who can edit them.

However, those same comments are also being said about those authors taking the traditional route. Publishers don’t edit and proofread/copy edit to the degree they used to. Oh, they tell you they do. That’s one of their selling points. The reality is, it isn’t of the quality it used to be. Talk to any author who works with a legacy publisher and you’ll hear horror stories about changes made that completely changed the meaning of the sentence/paragraph. So, yes, they need someone to make sure the manuscript is as clean as possible before sending it out. But that is part of the editing process, not the creative process and, frankly, beta readers come in the creation process when the author is still focused on making sure the story works.

All this is a round-about way of saying there are, in my opinion, several stages in the process before a manuscript is ready for submission:

  • creation
  • beta reading
  • editing
  • copy edits/proofreading
  • final edits
  • submission

Of course, each author works a bit differently. Some write manuscripts that are so clean very little is needed in the way of proofreading. Others write so that there are no consistency issues. Some have not only beta readers but what we’ll call alpha readers, those who have been with the writer for a long time and are very familiar with the author’s style and process. These alpha readers are sort of a bridge between beta readers and final edits. They have proven their ability to spot issues, as well as strengths, and to help the writer strengthen the novel both in story and in structure. Alpha readers are familiar with the style manual for the publisher the author is submitting to — and believe me, different publishers do have different rules and a lot of them don’t make any sense. But you still need to follow them. That’s another reason I suggest that beta readers not focus on grammar, punctuation and spelling. The lesson is that there is no right way, but there are a lot of wrong ways that can sabotage the novel and the author. The way to prevent it is communication.

Do authors in general need beta readers? Hell, yes. Do beta readers need to be proofreaders? Absolutely not. They are the first line in verification that a novel works. If the story isn’t there, if the characters aren’t such that they grab the reader, then it doesn’t matter if the rules of grammar are followed. Believe me, I’ve read submissions that are technically perfect but the story is so bad it can’t be saved.

Speaking as an editor, give me a good story first and foremost. As long as the grammar and punctuation aren’t so bad they throw me out of the story, I don’t care if there is a split infinitive or a dangling modifier. That can be fixed during the editorial process. Have a handful of trusted beta readers. Listen to them. Consider what they said. Implement what needs to be implemented. Then have one or two proofreaders who know the style sheet for the publisher in question look it over. Once it’s ready, submit — or self-pub it. But don’t sweat the technical until the story is there. At least that’s my opinion.

And, betas, don’t get your nose out of joint if an author doesn’t do everything you suggest. Just as an author has to be dispassionate about his work during edits, you need to be the same. You don’t know what the other betas said. You might have misread something and that’s what caused you to make the suggestion/comment you did. Be honest with your opinions. But don’t sweat the technical rules of grammar unless the author has asked you to. If they haven’t asked for that sort of comment, volunteer to help with the proofreading when it’s time for that stage of the process.

Remember, the whole goal is to make sure the book is as entertaining as possible. Structure is important, but that is checked near the end, after the base, the story, has been perfected.

  1. Thank you

    December 6, 2011
  2. That’s a good list for writers, beta readers and publishers to keep in mind.
    It gives the betas a feel for where they are in the list of Thing to Do.
    And reminds the Publishers that even though the writers have gotten overall reactions, edited and proofed, the publisher also need to get an overview of the work, suggest edits, and when that’s done, get a grammar and spelling Nazi to pick nits all the way through.

    December 6, 2011
  3. This is an awesome post. I am an avid fan of beta readers, and there are so many people out there who just plain refuse to get people to read their work. It’s good to know, too what the author is looking for. Otherwise, you can overdo it (or under do it) and not give them the help they need.

    December 10, 2011

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