Writer, be a ‘beta’ reader!

“Want a house planned? Go to an architect. Want a manuscript appraised? Go to a wordsmith.”

ONCE you’ve read your manuscript, ensured the plot is the best you can make it at this stage, and seen to any glaring inconsistencies in your narrative, it’s time to have your work read by someone else. In the independent and traditional publishing landscapes, this is the moment to seek out beta readers, and for you to become one.

You can do beta than that

Beta readers are not family. Cousin Myrtle is not going to give you objective criticism on your manuscript, nor is Uncle Eric. They will always love everything you do, blinking in slightly confused admiration about your writing pursuits, but they are undoubtedly not equipped to read and appraise an emergent piece of writing. Beta readers are other writers or people who work with words (editors, academics, sub-editors, journalists, etc.). Want a house planned? Go to an architect. Want a manuscript appraised? Go to a wordsmith.

Beta currency

Often the stock-in-trade of writing groups, beta reading should always be about reciprocity. After telling people you’re a writer, be prepared for other writers to ask you to read for them. I have been doing so for long enough that I’ve read second and third titles by the same writers, and vice-versa. The process makes you into a great watchdog of their work, and they provide the same essential service for you. Get used to regular beta reading – all your work on plotting and narrative sets you in good stead for the process.

One last read… for now

As a courtesy to your beta readers, before sending them your manuscript, give it one more read through to ensure it’s the best it can be at this stage. This will invariably involve working on it more before sending it off, but hopefully you’re getting used to the reality that being a writer is all about doing the work. The term ‘beta’ reader stems from the second letter of the Greek alphabet, which assumes there is someone in the ‘alpha’ reading position. That’s you.

Beta courtesy

When sending your manuscript to a beta reader, it’s wise to lay down some ground rules. If you only seek feedback on plot, say so. If you want the whole shebang, through to spelling, ask for it, but also respect that a voluntary beta reader may not have the time or inclination to go into great detail. The format you send your manuscript in will depend on these decisions, particularly if you want to enable the beta reader to leave sticky notes or comments in the places they refer to. The most important feedback a beta reader can give you is about the manuscript’s readability (which is indelibly linked to your plot), so while it would be helpful for someone to proofread your manuscript, this is not the stage for it.

“Remaining observant for gems of genius beneath piles of dross is preferable to swinging a wrecking ball.”

Beta packaging 

There is no need for a manuscript to have a final title. The title is not important at this stage, although rare is the writer who has not decided on one, but be prepared for it to evolve down the track. Ensure your manuscript is legible. There are a number of formats to follow (the classic plain typeface, one-inch margin on four sides, double-spaced lineation, page numbers, new chapter-new page format is standard) but down the track you will be required to tailor your manuscript to different publisher’s requirements. Some beta readers will ask you for a printed manuscript, or at least some payment to cover the cost of paper and ink for printing it out at their end. This is an entirely reasonable request, and if that makes you roll your eyes, this is your first taste of the electronic vs print tussle of publishing. A very large proportion of the reading public will not read a book on a computer screen. Get used to it.

Beta deadlines

When selecting a beta reader, it’s always okay to negotiate a deadline for their response. Most writers are keen to get their work to publishers (or to self publish), so an open-ended time period to read a manuscript can become a drag. Be real with your potential beta readers, indicating a notional timeframe. A month is not unreasonable. Six months is way too long. Give beta readers permission to tell you they got to a certain point and got confused or lost interest. This feedback is essential and shows you where to immediately rework your book.

Paid reading

Ever since the independent publishing marketplace expanded, manuscript appraisal services have been popping up in all major publishing territories. There is no standard fee, which is usually charged per word, and there are plenty of companies seeking to stream writers into their independent publishing services (‘taking your book from manuscript to paperback’). If you’re going to pay for the service, clear negotiations and a contract are essential, outlining costs, timeframe and what you’re paying for.

Beta feedback

Reading the responses of beta readers is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process. Good beta readers know this, and do not seek to destroy the spark of a writer’s soul when they critique. It’s very important to remember that receiving negative feedback is really the point of beta reading – rather get it now before your book is a paperback sitting on the shop shelves, when the only way to change anything is to pulp the lot.

Sifting criticism

It takes years of practice, but it is possible to gauge constructive criticism. If you find yourself having several ‘a-ha’ moments when reading the feedback of your beta readers, these are the first things to take on board. The reason is they resonate with you, but they can also frustrate because, of course, your inner critic is saying: You should have thought of that! All constructive criticism will inspire you into immediate action.

DON'T SWING IT A wrecking ball approach does not work in beta reading.
DON’T SWING IT A wrecking ball approach does not work in beta reading.

Worse is not beta

Not all beta readers are fair. Sometimes, writer jealousy kicks in and unreasonable or unwarranted feedback is given to your work. When this happens, it’s your first opportunity to endure a bad review (and they are coming your way if you plan to publish anything). It can hurt like hell and inspire you to retaliate, but my advice is to seek clarity about the criticism with your beta reader, if you genuinely don’t understand what it means. Beta-reader feedback can be an ongoing discourse, and I reckon good beta readers can be judged on their willingness to have a dialogue about their thoughts and responses to others’ work. When providing feedback on a manuscript, remaining observant for gems of genius beneath piles of dross is preferable to swinging a wrecking ball.

Beta planning

Sometimes, beta readers prefer to give you feedback on the phone or in person, so you’ll need to take detailed notes. If you can’t act on the feedback immediately, ensure you save it somewhere you can find it later. There is no requirement to act on beta readers’ feedback immediately. Giving their ideas brewing time can help our perspective when working out the next stage of the rewriting process. You may have multiple beta readers – if so, wait until they have all responded to your manuscript before you begin reworking it.

Beta marketing

Sometimes, a marketing issue will crop up in beta reading feedback. This might give you a jolt if it’s cold, hard sales issue, such as: ‘A book like this will never sell!’. Marketing concerns can be a frightening reality for emergent writers. It’s early days when our work is at manuscript stage, but marketing is always relevant in publishing, so it’s wise to walk the line when sifting feedback that refers to a manuscript’s genre, length, ‘place in the market’ and/or saleability. Don’t balk at a beta reader’s marketing-style feedback, it can help shape the direction of your publishing pathway, although if anyone tells you your book has no place in a bookshop, remember that’s been said about many very successful books.

Recap

WRITE REGARDLESSSending your manuscript to its first readers is an incredibly courageous act. Congratulations! You have come a very long way. While your work is being read, use the time to continue your marketing through regular online publishing, and consider starting your second book!

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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