Beta reading has been a hot topic on my blog and others. Most, my own included, have focused on specific aspects rather than the entire concept. I thought a short series of posts that define beta reading and lay out some guidelines for both the writer and beta reader could be useful.
When done well, a beta read can help take a writer’s manuscript from the slush pile to the bestseller list. When mishandled, it can shatter a writer’s confidence and drive him away from an activity he loves and should still be doing.
Although beta readers don’t have to be writers, this series of posts is designed for writers who want to “beta read” with another writer. The guidelines for beta readers, however, apply to non-writers as well.
Today’s post, and those on the next three Saturdays, will cover this topic. I hope to provide a clear understanding of this important act that requires extreme tact, respect, and sensitivity.
What Is Beta Reading?
Beta reading can be defined as the critical read of a manuscript (e.g., novel, memoir, nonfiction) prior to submission for publication. The beta reader reviews an author’s manuscript for all or selected elements such as plot development, character descriptions and motivations, general readability, grammar, and logical inconsistencies.
Some writers use the term interchangeably with “critiquing.” But this term is also used for the exchange of a few manuscript pages between members of a critique group. For these posts, I’ll use beta reading to mean the review of a complete manuscript.
Also, beta reading is not a full-blown, line-by-line manuscript edit. The beta read comes before that. The final pre-query/pre-publication manuscript edit should be done by someone with excellent skills in this area. You should consider hiring a professional editor for this task.
Do You Need A Beta Reader?
This is the first question you should consider. Beta reading is done with an eye toward publication. This can be either traditional print or independent publishing.
If you write only for yourself or a few close friends and family, you don’t need a beta reader. Given the personal nature of this type of writing, a beta reader’s review might discourage you from continuing a hobby that you enjoy.
But if your goal is to publish short stories, novels, or even nonfiction, beta reading is a powerful tool for making your work the best it can be. Think about it. Would you rather have an objective reader identify weaknesses in your plot (or flaws in your argument) before you attempt publication or receive scathing reviews after the book is in the public eye?
Successful authors, even those with twenty or more books to their credit, have one or a few trusted readers who critique their draft manuscripts. If Stephen King still does it, why would I think I don’t need to?
Are You Ready For A Beta Reader?
This is a critical question you must consider. And you shouldn’t answer before you’ve given it serious thought.
Writing, like any creative act, is an intensely personal experience. Putting our work in the public’s eye requires courage and a thick skin. No book resonates with every reader. While most readers would say nothing or no more than “I don’t know what the big deal is,” some take great pleasure in writing mean-spirited reviews and trashing an author wherever they can.
Criticism is hard for everyone to take. It’s human nature. But if we’re going to become good writers, we must let others evaluate our work. We need to learn what we’re doing well and where we need improvement. This can be especially difficult for newer writers. It takes time to develop a thick skin. And the first critiques will hurt, no matter how gently and encouragingly they’re written. Be sure you’re ready to make this move.
Newer writers shouldn’t request a beta read on a raw first draft. It’s not ready for such a review. Put the draft away for a few weeks and do something else. Then, come back to it and review it yourself. You’ll find mistakes. You’ll see where characters need improvement. You’ll find plot inconsistencies. You’ll find other things. Fix these things first. Then decide if you are ready for a beta reader. You may want to run your revisions past a friend or family member for another round of rewrites first.
If you are ready, let the manuscript sit again for a few weeks before you ship it out. The distance will help you be more objective about the reviewer’s comments. (Thanks to Kourtney Heintz for this excellent suggestion.)
Are You Ready To Be A Beta Reader?
As noted above, I want this series to address the role of both the writer and the reader in the act of beta reading. Potential beta readers need to understand what’s involved in the process and to be prepared for the work and the writer’s response.
Are you ready to provide critical feedback to someone you may know only from blogging? Or from your writers’ group? Or your critique group? The writer will feel some level of pain and discouragement from your review, even if you do it in the most respectful and helpful way possible. You can’t control how the writer will react to you after the review. You must keep your personal preferences and opinions out of the review. You must be honest and tactful. Can you handle this? Not everyone can. That’s okay. But if you can’t, I suggest you politely decline if someone asks you to beta read a manuscript.
Next Saturday I’ll discuss what both the writer and the beta reader should understand before beginning the process.
If you have additional recommendations or thoughts to add, please feel free to do so. When the series is done, I’ll place links to these posts on a separate blog page so people can reference them easily in the future. Comments often become some of the most helpful parts of a post, providing insight and recommendations for other resources.