A beta reader is to a book as a test pilot is to a planes.
Beta readers help identify any pre-production flaws in the machine and so aid the development of a much better end product.
Beta reading is a process much loved by indie authors who have discovered it. But many still don't realise the advantages that can be gained both from having their own manuscripts beta read, or from being a beta reader for other authors.
British psychological thriller writer Jo Ullah explains how her passion for beta reading grew from her own experience of having her debut novel beta read, and how she's now become a keen beta reader for fellow writers.
When I finished my first novel all I really wanted was someone to read it.
I needed a reader, or preferably readers, to tell me where it worked and – more importantly – where it didn’t.
As writers, we all like the sound of our own voices. We just love (and sometimes hate) what we’ve written, otherwise we wouldn’t do it, would we? Whatever we feel about our writing it is undeniably passion. For that very reason, it’s hard for an individual to see when their writing just isn’t working for the reader.
That’s where beta readers come in.
I was very lucky and persuaded several people to beta read my manuscript. I was even luckier that some of those people were prepared to give me tough love and express just what wasn’t working for them. During this time, I started beta reading other people’s manuscripts, this is what I have found.
Different Ways to View and Work on Someone’s Manuscript
Get a hard copy and write on it with pen or pencil to return to them when completed.
- Download it as a Word doc on your computer, directly highlighting the text and adding in comments as you go. I have found it easier to divide this into two, giving interim feedback at the midway point and then writing up my overall impression on completion.
- Via Google docs. I’m currently beta reading for someone via Google doc.
There are pros and const to each. On the computer, I can use the built-in docs tools to highlight text and leave comments, but if in Google docs, the document is shared, so I can see what other beta readers have remarked on. . Personally I would prefer to be recording my own reactions to the writing without being influenced by someone else’s views. Also the author will need to know how many beta readers see a complication with or feel confused about how a particular area was written. Unless an author’s beta readers write ‘me too’ next to a comment how will they know this is a shared insight?
How to Be a Beta Reader
- Constructive criticism
I expect you have all heard the Yeats quote ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. This is a good thought to keep in your head while beta reading. Say it like it is, but do it politely.
Try to balance some good with the bad. Find something you found particularly wonderful about the writing to balance things that didn’t work for you. Everyone needs a bit of stick/carrot balance.
Keep notes as you go along regarding the story arc, or other larger impressions that don’t translate as a margin comment, or you may find you have forgotten some of these thoughts as you get further into the narrative.
Some people advocate only beta reading in your genre. Personally I have read inside and outside of my genre. I find that interesting prose works in any category.
Read the manuscript regularly so as not to lose the flow of the narrative. Set aside an hour a day if you can.
If possible, give interim feedback, or at least the occasional nod that you are still reading their MS. It’s hard, as an author, waiting for feedback.
Why I Like Being a Beta Reader
I believe that beta reading is helping me become a better writer.
I have learnt so much from reading others' writing – from the common mistakes we all make, to some lovely writing ideas and techniques.I also enjoy seeing the creative process in its raw state.
Reading other genres teaches me about their mechanics to some extent, and helping others should make it easier to find beta readers for my own books.
Where to Find Work to Beta Read
- If you're an ALLi member, requests for beta readers on our members-only Facebook forum
- Word of mouth with your writing friends
- Facebook groups
I recently joined a Facebook group called BetaReader Connect in which authors post up requests for readers. I put the question regarding IP protection to Jonas Frid, who created and moderates the group. Boiling down his answer, he feels that most authors are too consumed with their own work to steal the work of others, and the very fact of sharing your manuscript with others gives you a group people who can provide proof of ownership. Jonas is also the founder of www.betareader.io, a system for authors and beta readers, a system that allows authors to share their work securely and see their beta readers progress through it in real time. It’s still in its early prototype form but worth a look.
I have also signed up on the mailing list of www.betabooks.co with a view to finding beta readers (in return for a fee) for my next novel. I haven’t applied to beta (or ARC) read for them yet, but I most likely will do.
OVER TO YOU What has been your experience of beta reading, either as an author or as a reader? Do you have top tips or cautionary tales to add to Jo's post? Join the conversation!#Indieauthors - here's how to become a better #writer by being a #betareader: read @JoUllah's case study of her own experience as both author and reader Click To Tweet
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