you thought pushing through to finish your manuscript was tough, think again. Those who have gone before us have made it no secret that the most taxing aspect of penning a novel is the dreaded rewrite.
But before you can get to the rewriting phase, you need to know what exactly needs to be rewritten.
The answer to this question varies from author to author, depending on their path to publication, but typically includes some combination of editors, copy editors, and beta readers.
Those first two are pretty straightforward. An editor gives feedback on story arc, characters, plot points that don’t quite add up, and sections that aren’t clear. Copy editors sniff out typos, grammatical errors, punctuation faux pas, and inconsistencies.
Beta readers, on the other hand, are harder to put a finger on. So I decided to ask four published authors just what beta readers are and what they do.
Stephen Leather is one of the United Kingdom’s most successful thriller writers. His bestsellers have been translated into more than ten languages. His e-books have been worldwide bestsellers, and his e-book, The Basement, was number one on the Amazon charts in the United Kingdom and the United States. He has also written for television shows such as London’s Burning, The Knock, and the BBC’s Murder in Mind series. Two of his books, The Stretch and The Bombmaker, were made into movies.
WOW: Okay, so we know that beta readers are people who read through a manuscript with a critical eye prior to publication. But from there, the job description can go in all sorts of directions. One of the things that makes you a dream team of a panel on this topic is that you each use beta readers differently. Can you explain the function of a beta reader during your editing process?
Joanna: A beta reader for me is someone who will read the book as an honest reader—not with professional eyes, but as a potential customer. They also need to enjoy the genre I’m writing in—in my case, thrillers. Plus, they need to read the book in a given time frame, usually three weeks, and give some feedback, verbally or written, that will help me improve the book.
Jody: I use beta readers mostly to provide more specific information that may go beyond the scope of what my editors can provide. For example, on my book Rebellious Heart (releasing September 2013), I located a beta reader who is knowledgeable about Colonial America. Since the book is set in 1764, during a time in which I’m not an expert, I wanted to find someone who could offer feedback related to the colonial era—what I might be missing, things I may have gotten wrong, and areas where I could add in more specific period detail.
Chuck: Beta readers provide us with differing viewpoints and show us flaws in our own work that we were incapable of seeing ourselves. I recently used about five beta readers to help with my writing guide, Create Your Writer Platform. I’d say seventy-five percent of the advice they gave was invaluable and helped me tighten the book. They pointed out places where my instruction was too sharp, where I was rambling, and where I was simply confusing.
Stephen: I feel so awkward referring to readers as beta readers. It sounds far too technical and impersonal. But for the life of me, I can’t think of another term; so I suppose we’re stuck with it.
I use beta readers (I cringe as I say the words) for a number of things: to check if a story works, to pick up typos, and to check facts. I use different people for different aspects. Suppose I have a novel that has military bits in it, I’ll get a pal in the SAS (Special Air Service) to read it. If I’m writing about police matters, I’ll run it by a police officer. If I set a book in a country I’m not too familiar with, I’ll try to get someone in that country to cast their eyes over it.
WOW: “Beta reader” is a rather impersonal term, isn’t it? We should try to come up with something a bit more endearing! Speaking of endearment, the advice typically given to writers looking for beta readers is to avoid family members and close friends, as they tend to think whatever you do is great. Even if they don’t, they might be hesitant to tell you what they really think for fear of hurting your feelings. What’s your take on this advice?
Stephen: The problem is that a friend or fan isn’t going to be very critical because they start off from the position that they like you and your work. You have to ask them to be brutally honest; but even then, they’ll be wary of offending you. That’s why beta readers are best for spotting typos and grammatical mistakes and for pointing out errors of fact. Getting an honest view of whether your story works is harder. For that, you’re better off with a writing group, where people are less worried about causing offence!
Chuck: Most friends and family members can’t be objective enough to offer honest feedback. A writer who passes his work out to friends and relatives in lieu of true, blunt critiquers will receive unjustified praise on his story and think it stronger than it is. Also, most of my family members are in no way qualified to critique a novel because they’re not writers themselves.
Jody: Some personality types might be the exception, but the large majority of friends and family won’t want to hurt our feelings. Even if we give them permission to be “brutal,” they’ll probably only tell us a fraction of the truth about what they didn't like.
The other issue is that our friends and family aren’t necessarily skilled enough to point out the problems. They may have a sense of “this isn’t working” or “I didn’t like this aspect,” but they probably won’t be able to nail down specifics that can truly help a writer improve the story.
WOW: All excellent points. I just want to go back to what Jody said about some personality types being an exception. Joanna, you mention on your blog that your mother is your copy editor and one of your best critics.
Joanna: My mum was an English teacher for twenty-five years, and she’s also done a copywriting training course, so she’s actually qualified to be an editor. Most parents don’t fit into that category! If they do, use them.
WOW: Thanks for the clarification, Joanna. If a writer does choose to go with a friend or family member, how can they ensure they get valuable feedback and not just an “Oh, honey, it’s wonderful”?
Chuck: I would tell my wife this: “Baby, I love that you love everything I write, but what I need now is harsh criticism. Please don’t share any compliments at all. The more you rip this thing apart, the more value you will provide to me. Plus, I’ll take you out to dinner if you can be mean and help me with this.”
Stephen: I think friends, family, and fans are great for proofreading because they’re keen to help. But it’s fair to say that even if you’ve written an awful book, your auntie is going to say it’s wonderful! The key is having a mixture of beta readers: some family, some friends, some people you know are good at spotting mistakes. The more, the merrier!
“The more eyes the book goes through before publication, the fewer issues you will have later; and hopefully, the better the reviews are.”
WOW: That brings me to another question: How many beta readers should a writer employ?
Jody: When I decide to find a beta reader (which I don’t do for every book), it’s usually for a specific reason, as I mentioned earlier, and I usually only need one. But because I believe that the more feedback I receive, the better I’ll make my book—I usually seek out some extra critiques during the editing process. I’ve used a variety of types of edits (not necessarily the same for each book) including: critique partners, beta readers, and my agent.
Joanna: Basically, the more eyes the book goes through before publication, the fewer issues you will have later; and hopefully, the better the reviews are. It’s important to make sure that you get a big enough spread to work out what’s individual preference and what’s a genuine issue. However, too many will just be too complicated. I use five or six.
Chuck: At least three to four. But the truth is—send the manuscript to as many as need be. At the same time, the belief is that too many cooks spoil the soup.
WOW: That leaves things quite open-ended, doesn’t it? With all that feedback coming in, how does a writer figure out what to incorporate and what to pass up?
Stephen: That’s easy. If their comments improve the book, I use them!
Jody: I always weigh every comment or suggestion from a beta reader or critique partner with great seriousness. I usually make myself have a very good reason before rejecting any advice.
Joanna: If there’s a consensus in opinion or if what they say rings true for me, it gets changed. Otherwise, it stays. There’s no point in having beta readers if you don’t use the feedback, but equally you have to stay true to the story.
Chuck: Trust your gut. If your novel’s biggest unique characteristic is that it’s told out of sequence, you can trust your gut that this unusual framework must remain—even if some readers dislike it. Remember that you aren’t writing for everyone.
WOW: What are some tips to getting the most from your beta readers? I mean, it would seem counterproductive to just toss your manuscript at your beta readers with a “Here ya go!”
Joanna: [I send around a letter that] gives some indication of what I want them to look at and gives some open questions:
- Please just read and enjoy the book and let me know your overall thoughts. This is not an edit of any kind, so please don’t comment on typos or grammar, etc. That will be dealt with by my editor.
- Did you skip over anything, or did anything bore you?
- What did you particularly like?
- What could be improved? Did anything jump out at you or jar you from the story?
Jody: Since I write historicals, I use beta readers to cater to a specific need for the book, usually having to do with the book’s time period and/or setting. I let my beta readers know they don’t need to comment on typos or grammar issues, but that they can focus solely on the historical aspect. Of course, I give them permission to comment on anything that jars them. But my purpose is to make the beta read as specific for them and easy. I let them know up front that they’re not doing a full critique of my book or a line edit because that’s something my publisher will do. [You could also] provide a questionnaire to readers, something easy they can fill out when they’re done with the book that can highlight a few areas for feedback. Allowing for anonymity could be an even better way to get accurate impressions.
Chuck: Explain what you want to get out of the edit. In other words, tell them what to pay special attention for. Urge them to be blunt. If their feedback is confusing, ask them to explain what they meant.
Stephen: I usually e-mail them a Word file, so they can mark any comments on it and return it to me. Generally, I just ask them to have a look at it and let me know if they spot anything amiss. If I’m specifically looking for facts to be checked, I might include the relevant page numbers.
WOW: So, now that we know how to approach them, at what point during the editing process do you recommend breaking out the beta reader brigade?
Joanna: I would never give beta readers a book that hasn’t been edited a number of times already. You have to respect their time, and their job isn’t to fix your grammar or question your wording. It’s more to say things, like “the ending didn’t satisfy me.” There are a number of iterations: my own edits, structural edit then revisions, line edits, beta readers, and finally a proofread before publication.
Jody: Over time, I’ve learned that the best time to get a critique or beta read is after I’ve done my in-house rewrites (the substantive edits). There’s really no point in sending a book out to others and soliciting input on a story that will likely be changed in many ways during the rewrite stage.
Chuck: It doesn’t matter. Any point will help.
“A professional editor or proofreader will probably catch ninety-nine percent of all typos—but not even they are infallible.”
WOW: So far during this interview, we’ve covered beta readers as fact-checkers, proofreaders, and trial audiences. Theoretically, a writer could recruit a small army of beta readers to do all these things and get a pretty well-rounded edit. Could this take the place of a professional edit?
Chuck: [It] certainly can, provided the readers are honest, blunt, smart, and experienced. It’s usually writers who do not have a cadre of beta readers that seek out freelance editors.
Stephen: Of course, professional editors are better; there’s no question of that. But not every self-published writer can afford the hundreds or even thousands of dollars a professional editor charges. A professional editor or proofreader will probably catch ninety-nine percent of all typos—but not even they are infallible. A beta reader might only catch fifty percent. But if you have ten beta readers, between them, they will probably catch closer to ninety-nine percent.
In my case, [editors] have less work to do than with an inexperienced writer. I’ve been writing professionally for more than thirty years and have been a published author for a quarter of a century. I don’t need the sort of hard edit that a new writer requires. My publisher is much more involved with catching mistakes and typos, and beta readers are actually quite good at that.
WOW: No matter how you look at it, beta readers are pretty special, and authors owe them a lot for their time and the impact they have on the final product. So, for the most important question of this interview: How do you thank your beta readers?
Jody: In most books, I write an acknowledgement at the back thanking all those who helped on the book. I also send a signed book to the person once the book is released and usually try to include a small thank you gift.
Stephen: I often send out signed copies of books. I’ve also been known to use the names of beta readers as characters.
Joanna: I include them in the acknowledgements of the book and of course, thank them. I sometimes swap beta reading favors. Chocolate is sometimes involved. But these people are usually friends, not strangers, so there’s always the next bottle of wine . . .
WOW: Chuck, Stephen, Jody, and Joanna, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and for the spectacular tips and advice. And if you ever need a beta reader, I’m available! For now though, I’m off to think of a replacement for the term “beta reader.”
Tiffany Jansen is a freelance writer based in the Netherlands. She is the author of two children’s historical fiction books (for which she used beta readers), is currently working on translating a novel from Dutch to English (which she will also run by beta readers), and one day, plans to write a historical fiction novel set in Renaissance Italy (for which she will use many, many beta readers). Find her on Twitter at @TiffanyRJansen.
More from Tiffany on WOW!:
An Expat’s Guide to a Portable Career: An Interview with Jo Parfitt