Welcome, JM McDowell, to Writes and Bites! JM is an archaeologist and planner by day and aspiring novelist by evening. Currently focused on Mid-Atlantic archaeology, she did graduate work in Honduras and Mexico. She is currently revising and polishing a science fiction novel based on the premise “What happens when an archaeologist discovers the final resident in her eighteenth-century cemetery is a skeleton with twenty-first-century dental work and artifacts?”
Hello, everyone. I’d like to start by thanking Kat for her gracious invitation to speak with you about beta reading today. You see this term tossed out on a lot of blog posts, but it’s not always clear what is meant.
If your goals include publication, whether through a traditional press, an e-press, or your independent outlet, you need beta reading.
So What Is Beta Reading?
Beta reading is the critical read of a manuscript prior to submission for publication. Some writers use the term interchangeably with “critiquing.” But critiquing also includes the exchange of a few manuscript pages between members of a writers’ group. True beta reading means review of a complete manuscript.
Most discussions of beta reading are directed to fiction writers, especially those working on novels. But those of you writing short stories, memoirs, and other types of nonfiction should also give thought to such a reader for your works.
Why Should I Have A Beta Reader?
Have you ever read something and found obvious mistakes? Typographical errors peppered throughout? Statements that you know are incorrect? Something so poorly written it made you laugh before you tossed the book aside, unfinished? Do you want your work to get the same reaction?
Beta reading is a powerful tool for making your work the best it can be. Even the most successful authors with multiple bestsellers have go-to readers for the drafts of the next book. Maybe they’re old-school and don’t call them “betas.” But that’s what those go-to readers do.
Even if you’re a professional editor by day, it’s impossible to review your own writing with an unbiased eye. We writers spend too much time with our works, and we have so much backstory or other information in our heads. We don’t always recognize that we’ve missed an important step or link.
When Do I Bring In A Beta Reader?
First drafts aren’t ready for review by anyone except the author. Put that first draft in a drawer for a few weeks or months. Then go back and see it for what it is—a starting point. (If you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, you’re familiar with “sh*tty first drafts.”)
Whether you’re writing fiction, a memoir, or the definitive textbook on your specialty, go after those awkward sentences, bad grammar, superfluous scenes, plot holes, less-than-complete revelations, poorly supported conclusions, missing data—everything. Finished? Now you’ve got a decent second draft.
This is when you first call in a beta reader—if you feel ready. Is your second draft still weak? Go ahead and wait until you finish draft three. But personally, I wouldn’t go longer than this. We need objective, critical input to make sure we’re on the right track with our story, idea, or textbook. It’s better to hear what isn’t working before sinking years into a project.
What Do I Look For In A Beta Reader?
You want someone who will read your work thoroughly, carefully, and with an eye toward helping you improve it. Some people are blunt in their comments, sometimes to the point of cruelty. I don’t hold with that type of review. Writers tend to be self-conscious, self-doubting, and sensitive. Critiques should be constructive, not soul-crushing. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is not a philosophy I follow.
Beta readers should point out what is working in your manuscript as well as what isn’t. Ideally, their response begins with good points, then gets into what really needs work, and finishes with more positive feedback.
Beta readers don’t need to be fellow writers. Especially with fiction, someone with a good feel for what works in a story—and doesn’t—can provide valuable feedback. Fellow professionals in your field or skilled experts for your “how-to” book are also potential good beta readers.
Where Do I Find Beta Readers?
It’s first important to realize that beta reading is a time and labor intensive act. So you should be prepared to reciprocate with someone who agrees to help. Agree to read something s/he has written and provide good feedback. If you don’t think your skills are up to par, offer something else in return, be it monetary reimbursement or sharing your expertise. Can you help design a web site? Offer research assistance? There are many ways to reciprocate—be creative!
I have found wonderful beta readers in the blogging community. Ask your blog buddies for help. Some may decline because they don’t want to jeopardize that friendly, supportive relationship with you. That’s okay. But look carefully at people who follow your blog. Read their “about me” pages. Some of them are professional writers/editors or have degrees in English. There is a potential gold mine here for excellent sources of feedback.
Do you belong to a writers’ group? Is there someone who makes really helpful comments for you or other members? Maybe that’s a good person to approach about a reciprocal arrangement.
Check out online resources such as Absolutewrite.com. They have a beta forum at: http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ where individuals can look for and offer help.
Another potential source is critters.org. With sites like this, you may have to wait your turn or provide help first. Check out the most recent requirements on the web site and see if the community looks like a good fit for you.
Finally, you can also hire manuscript coaches, who often advertise in writing magazines. This is an option if you’re uncomfortable asking people you know to provide critical reviews or offering the same in return. Usually these coaches are looking at more polished manuscripts, so check to see if and how they read earlier drafts.
Would You Like More Details?
In early 2012, I posted a four-part series about beta reading on my blog. If you’d like more information or insights from other writers who commented about their experiences, please feel free to drop by the “Beta Reading Guidelines” page on my blog at http://jmmcdowell.com/beta-reading-guidelines/. And, of course, I’d be happy to answer any questions you have here in the comments.
My thanks again to Kat for the invitation to spend some time with you!