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Writing: How Being a Beta Reader Improves an Indie Author’s Own Work

Author photo of Lucienne Boyce

Indie author Lucienne Boyce

Many indie authors seek to improve their work-in-progress by using beta readers as test-pilots for manuscripts, to make sure their books are the best they can be  before they self-publish them. But have you ever considered that beta reading for other authors can also improve your own writing?

Award-winning historical novelist Lucienne Boyce, who also writes historical non-fiction, shares her experience and explains why she recommends finding time in your busy self-publishing schedule to be beta reader for other writers.

Recently I’ve been asked to do quite a bit of beta reading for both traditional and indie authors. If you’ve never heard of beta readers, they are people who read a book for free and comment on it as readers or, if you like jargon, consumers or end users. They are not necessarily writing professionals, and they’re no substitute for copy editors or proof readers. They are there to pick out the sorts of things readers in the “real world” are likely to be thrown by, such as muddled plot lines, confused action, unconscious repetition, and inconsistencies in characterisation.

Finding Time to Beta Read

Cover of Bloodie Bones

Lucienne Boyce’s latest novel

It’s not always been easy to make space for beta reading on top of everything I’ve got on the go at the moment. Beta reading is not only time consuming. It can be difficult to balance concern for the writer’s feelings with the need for honest comments.

“It’s great” or “it’s terrible” are no use to anyone.

And you know that no matter how hard you try, you may well send the recipient of your anxiously considered opinions running to the chocolate and Merlot. It’s a big responsibility. You have to concentrate on what you’re doing and think carefully about what you put in your report, and just typing it up can take ages.

Nevertheless, I’ve managed to fit some beta reads into odd bits of time here and there. Perhaps it’s largely for that reason that I’ve undertaken the reading in the spirit of someone who’s doing a favour for writing friends. That’s not to say that I don’t recognise any benefits to myself. After all, if I beta read their books, it’s likely that one day they will return the favour.

More Than Just a Favour to be Returned

Cover of To The Fair Land

Her previous historical novel

But I’ve begun to realise that I’m getting much more than an exchange of services out of beta reading.

  • For one thing, there’s the never-failing delight of discovering new stories, especially in genres that I don’t usually read.
  • For another, it gives me immense pleasure to think that in some way I have helped someone to improve their book.
  • It’s lovely to open a beautifully written and produced book and see my name in the acknowledgements!

More than that, though, are the benefits it brings me as a writer.

We all know that it’s easier to spot other people’s mistakes than our own. True enough, but let’s face it, their mistakes are often our mistakes.

  • Have they got a favourite phrase they keep using? So have I…
  • Do they have a habit of starting every chapter in the same way? So have I…
  • Have they changed a character’s name half way through and forgotten to make the subsequent changes? Aargh! I’ve done that!

How Analysing Other Writers’ Work Improves Your Own Writing

Sometimes they make mistakes that aren’t in your repertoire. There’s no need to feel superior about it. Rather, it’s valuable to analyse why they are mistakes and make sure that you continue to avoid them. Sometimes the errors are so obvious you wonder how they missed them. Never fear: there are plenty of examples in your own work.

HNS award logo

Lucienne Boyce won this award for “Bloodie Bones”

I once wrote a scene in which three characters were called William. Two of the characters were actual historical figures and their names really were William. But this was definitely a case where historical accuracy had to give way to story. It was an easy enough mistake to put right by changing my fictional character’s name, and using surnames or titles for the two real Williams to distinguish them from one another. I could even have fictionalised them. So there were plenty of option, none of which did me any good until I realised there was a problem.

So now I think of beta reading as an opportunity to hone my own skills. And if you think you’re too busy with your own work to take on beta reading someone else’s, it might be worth thinking again. Treat it as a shared learning experience and you might be surprised how much it helps to improve your own writing.

OVER TO YOU What’s your experience of beta reading? Do you do it for others, do they do it for you? Do you have further advice to add to Lucienne’s? Join the conversation!

#Authors - here's how beta #reading for other #writers improves your books - by @LucienneWrite Click To Tweet

ANOTHER GREAT POST ABOUT BETA READING FROM THE ALLi ARCHIVE

Writing: How to Find Beta Readers

 

 

 

 

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5 Responses to Writing: How Being a Beta Reader Improves an Indie Author’s Own Work

  1. Debbie Young November 11, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    Great post, Lucienne, and I completely agree with you. Before I became an indie author, I had never heard of beta reading, and now I wouldn’t publish a book without running it past a group of carefully chosen beta readers before sending my final, final, final draft to my editor for polishing.

    But I also really enjoy beta reading for others, and it is enormously rewarding to feel that I’ve helped make someone’s book better. Probably the one I’m proudest of having helped with is Belinda Pollard’s terrific thriller, “Poison Bay”, in which one of the characters has Type 1 diabetes. She approached me to beta read it for the diabetes storyline, knowing that I’d written a memoir about diabetes in my family. From my first-hand knowledge of living with two people with the disease (my husband and daughter both have it), I was able to help her fine-tune the novel on the technical side. Her book is now be a quiet and helpful ambassador raising awareness of diabetes, while also being a great read. (This is front of mind as we’re just comig up to World Diabetes Day on 14th November.)

    And as you say so well, beta reading other authors’ work helps build up your own objectivity when it comes to writing and self-editing. Not that we can ever be truly objective about our own work, but a closer knowledge of seeing other writers’ work develop nurtures our own. It also reassures us that others go through the same processes of editing anguish that we go through ourselves – it’s too easy to assume that other authors’ novels spring to life fully formed and perfect, and that we’re the only ones to suffer editing hell!

    So – what’s not to love about beta reading? I’m hooked! 🙂

    • Lucienne Boyce November 11, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

      Thanks for the comments, Debbie, especially drawing attention to the reassuring aspect of beta reading.

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