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A Guide For Beta Readers

productReviewSo you’ve been tasked with beta reading a novel, or maybe you’re an author looking for what you should expect from your readers.  The real question, for you, is probably what do you do?  And when I look around, I don’t see many guides for beta readers.  So here is a guide you can use, whether you are a beta reader, an author, or an editor.

What Is Beta Reading?

I just finished editing my next novel’s manuscript, and I found it hard to get beta readers.  When I spoke to several other authors, I found that they too had this problem of getting new beta readers.  I think this is largely for two reasons.  The first is that many don’t know what a beta reader is, and two, many are intimidated by the idea.  Beta reading is essentially a trial reading.  A beta reader reads over an early form of the manuscript for an upcoming novel.  This manuscript is often a little rough, but largely publication ready.  It just needs a little bit of polish.  They are the readers that are trying out this novel for the first time.

Don’t confuse Beta Reading with Advanced Readers.  Advanced readers generally are receiving a finished, and publication ready, copy of the book called an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy).  They are reading a copy of the book for editorial purposed to review the book.  It is a very different thing than Beta Reading which helps to polish the book for publication.

What Are the Qualifications of a Beta Reader?

There really aren’t any specific qualifications needed to be a beta reader.  I think this is something that most people don’t realize.  It sounds fancy, so people assume that they can’t possible help out.  But a good author wants beta readers from a cross section of people, to give the best representation of his potential readers.

Some of the people that authors want to beta read: They want a mixture of men and women.  They want a wide age range with the bulk of them falling in the books target demographic, but they do want a few people a little older and younger than your target audience. They want people of various educational background. They want people from different belief systems.  They want people from different fields of work or study.  They want a few fellow authors or editors, but mostly they want regular readers.  They want readers of their genre and potential cross genres.  For example, Volition Agent is science fiction, but it has action and thriller elements, so when I selected beta readers, I chose a few action and thriller readers.

As you can see there is no “typical” beta reader.  So no matter where you come from in life, if you like reading and want to help an author mold his work, you can be a beta reader.

So, what should I expect?

Each author does beta reading a little bit different.  With Dissolution of Peace, I sent out a few chapters at a time to the group and then compiled there results and sent out the next set.  When my next two novel manuscripts I just sent the whole manuscript and waited to compile the answers at once.  Some authors are more involved and like to have you read a few chapters and then meet up on Google Hangouts and have a group discussion about those chapters.

Expect to get a Word or PDF document that is in standard manuscript format.  That means it will be double spaced and in a uniform font. It won’t be a finished book, remember it still needs its polish.  Expect to be given some basic instructions too.  Some authors are very specific about what they want, others are more open.  I’ve been more open on my last few manuscripts.  That is something that is entirely up to the author.  Some will want you to make notes using the Word Comment function (which is my favorite).  Others will just want notes on a separate sheet. I prefer a combination of both.

Also expect a deadline.  Authors are often working under deadlines and they need these notes back from you by that deadline.  If you can’t commit to that deadline, then don’t agree to be a beta reader.  Authors are expecting responses from all of the beta readers (typically authors don’t select a lot of beta readers, I go for around ten).  So if the deadline doesn’t work, it is best to say so.  This way another reader can take your place.

What do I do?

Read.  But make notes while you read, either on a separate sheet or using Word’s comment function.  Do NOT change anything on the author’s manuscript, unless they have instructed you to.  And if you do, make sure you turn on Word’s Track Changes function.  Otherwise, the author will never know what you changed.  If you aren’t allowed to make changes to the manuscript but you see something glaring, you can use the comment feature to point it out.  Author’s don’t mind you pointing out typos and grammar issues, but that generally isn’t the focus of beta reading.

What Should I be Pointing Out?

I think this is the number one question beta readers want to know.  Here is a list of some things.  Authors may ask for more, but this generally covers all the bases.

Questions that Pop into your head – Point out to the author when and where a question came to mind.  Sure, it could be answered later, or not at all.  The author can see if he is putting the right questions in your mind during the right parts of the story.

Areas where you lose interest – Point out areas where you begin to lose interest or your feel like the author has slowed down the story too much.  For example, you might read a long drawn out paragraph about a starship’s engines and you feel your mind starting to wander rather than focusing on what is being said.  Point that out.  It could be what is called an “info dump” and we need to fix that.

Dialogue that doesn’t work – Perhaps some of the dialogue seems fake.  Or you don’t think a street thug would use such proper English.  Point out confusion areas where you are not sure who in talking.  Also point out scenes where dialogue is taking place but you don’t know where it is taking place at.  Dialogue absent of scene.

Passages you had to reread – Point out areas you had to reread a few times to understand.  It could be an awkward sentence, or an over technical passage.  But if you had to reread it, it is probably worth pointing out.  It is also worth points out if you reread a passage because you like it a lot (see below).

Story gaps – Point out things that the author doesn’t seem to explain.  There are gaps in the story line or something you don’t follow.  It is easy for us authors to forget you don’t live in the same world we created and while we know this happened in the “background” it may not be obvious to the reader.

Plot Holes or Weak Plot Points – Plot holes are dangerous for authors and weak plot points are sometimes even worse.

Unbelievable Story Elements – I like a good twist as much as the next reader, but I don’t like being completely shocked to the point I’m screaming “yeah right!”.  I like to read a twist and be both surprised but also think back and realize I could have seen it coming.  A character who can suddenly stop bullets with her bare hands on the last chapter, but there was no hint to this ability anywhere in the book before, is something you may want to point out.

Use the expertise you do have – We all have knowledge about different things.  Don’t be afraid to share it.  I recently read a book where a character carried a Glock (pistol), and the character repeatedly “flipped off the safety”.  As a Glock owner, I wish I had beta read that novel so I could have told the author that Glock’s have no external safety to flip off.  The safety is ingratiated into the trigger.  In my next novel, Broken Trust, the location of the novel is based on Lagoon Valley (though modified), near my hometown.  The problem was, I refer to the lagoon.  One of my beta readers pointed out that a lagoon is a body of water near a coast.  Not the case in my Lagoon Hills city.  It is really a lake.  The point is you have knowledge that you can, and should share.

Tell the Author of your Ignorance – Just like you have expertise in certain fields, so does your author.  And that tends to mean we do one of two things: We either show off our knowledge and really it has no point in the story.  Or, we assume everyone knows what we are talking about, and it leads to confusion.  Point out both of these to the author.

That’s out of Character – Point out things you see a character do that you feel are not in line with the character.  Characters evolve, but generally not suddenly.  If it doesn’t seem right point it out.

I loved that line – Here is where beta readers tend to forget.  They forget to praise what they like.  Even now, I listed it way on the bottom of this list.  I suppose it is human nature to point out what is wrong first.  But you need to tell an author if you liked something.  Did one line stick out in your mind or hit a special cord with you?  Tell the author this.  Did you love an action scene, or a character’s particular dialogue, or did you love a particular twist?  List those for the author too.  List the stuff you liked for the author too.  Let them know where they really hit the nail on the head.

General thoughts – Here is another point beta readers tend to forget.  I like to take a moment at the end of each chapter (or section of chapters), and again at the end of the novel, to tell the author my overall general thoughts on it.  Both the good points and the bad.  Things like: I really liked how character X is starting to come to her own in this chapter, but I wish she wouldn’t have been so weak with Character Y.  Or, I really loved this action packed chapter, when it was over I couldn’t wait and dived right into the next chapter.  Any general thoughts are good for the author to consider.  Maybe they were looking to slow things down, or speed things up, or give a since of romance.  Your general thoughts will tell them if they hit that mark.

Characters – I think this is another point that authors need from beta readers, but are often left off.  Give a thought on the novel’s characters.  I like to do this as part of the summary.  I go through each of the characters I remember and I tell the author if I like them, didn’t like them, and why or why not.  I tend to get more detailed and explain what I liked and didn’t like about each character.  It gives the author a better idea if they are hitting the mark with how the readers feel about a certain character.

NOTE:  Never get insulting with you comments.  The criticism you give should be constructive in nature.  That doesn’t mean some of your comments won’t sting a bit, but as long as you are constructive with your comments it is fine.  Here is an example: “You’re being foolish if you think a woman would ever say that.” versus “I don’t think Character Z would really say that.  It doesn’t seem inline with anything she’d done or said before.”  See the difference.

What will the Author do with everything I note?

That depends on the author’s process.  I will wait until I get all the notes back from all the beta readers.  I read all the comment made.  I then reread the manuscript and go through each area line by line.  Chances are, if the majority of the readers comment on something, I will make changes to correct it.  If just a few, or even only one, reader comments on something then I have to decide on that change on a case by case basis.

This is one thing that I have seen frustrate a few beta readers.  They complain that the author didn’t make some of the changes they suggested.  The truth is the author did take your suggestions under consideration, but in combination with all the other reader’s suggestions.  If nine readers like that Character X is a jerk, but you hated this about him; chances are the author will keep him as a jerk.  That isn’t to say that he won’t tweak Character X based on some of your suggestions.  Remember this is the author’s novel and they will make changes they feel best suits the story.  But rest assured, they did read everything you had to say and took it all as important.

What happens next?

Well for me, I like to adjust the story based on the reader comments and then send it to my editor.  Other authors do the beta read step twice and will get a different set of readers to read it again.  That is up to the author.

Summary

So now you have a guide on what to do as a beta reader.  I find beta reading a lot of fun and an excellent chance to really help develop an author’s story.  As an author I enjoy getting beta reader feedback, it is often the only time I get a direct feed into a readers thought on my story.  With this guide you can be an effective and excellent beta reader for any author out there.  No go forth and help an author out.

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Self Editing and What are Beta Readers

I’ve mentioned this several times, but my work goes through a process before I set it up for publication.  A quick summary:

I write it.

I self edit it.

I send it to Beta Readers.

I self edit it (again).

I send it to a professional editor.

I fix it.

I have it published.

When I list it all out like this it seems very simple.  But anyone who has ever put words on paper knows it isn’t so simple.  Most writers understand the first part.  Write it.  And most writers are capable of sending it to a professional editor and changing what they mark up.  But many writers miss the middle parts.  And, like a sandwich, the meaty parts are in the middle.

Self Editing

IMG_20130406_142102_592If you’re going to send this off to professional editor, why is self editing so important?  Well, two things.  Editors are humans too, they won’t catch everything.  Especially if your manuscript is error plagued. Second, you will quickly find that you discover a lot about what doesn’t work in your story’s plot by doing a self edit.

When I self edit, I find that I still miss a lot.  So I learned a little trick, and tried it out for the first time with the Volition Agent manuscript. I printed the entire manuscript and went over it, using a red pen to mark up what changes I needed.  I use the red pen because it stands out.  So when I went back to make changes, I could find them quickly and fix them quickly.  I print it out because it gives me a chance to read my words in a different way than I did on a computer screen.  When you look at your words in a different way, things stick out that you would otherwise miss.

When I self edit, I look for the following things:

Grammar mistakes.  This is the first thing I look for, though I am also the first to admit I am very bad at catching them.  Though I did find that having the manuscript printed in front of me (versus on my computer screen) was much easier at seeing these things.  But still, I recognize that grammar is not my strong suit so I do my best with checking for this stuff.

Punctuation errors. For me, this is most often missing punctuation.  No period.  Using a period when I meant for a question mark. The other thing that I have a habit of doing is putting a quotation mark at the end of the paragraphs during multiple paragraph dialogue (by one speaker). So I have to remove those.

Typos. I type at 60 words a minute with no errors.  But when I write my stories, I typed at 80-90 words per minute with a lot of errors.  Some have told me to just slow down.  But when I type from my mind, my mind goes much faster then 60 words a minute.  Probably much faster then 90 words per minute.  So I often find a lot of typos, missing words, or added words.  Easy to fix, and really easy to spot when you read it.

Plot Errors. I’m not an outline writer, so I ofter find things in the early chapters that I missed or didn’t need to continue the story for the later chapters.  I’d say 90% of my red marks on my manuscript this time around were for plot and prose issues.  Either to remove something or to add something.  In fact, I reworked the entire ending and will be going back to add 5 new chapters throughout the book.  Some will say this is why outlines work.  But I also know many outline writers.  They too say the bulk of their self editing goes to the plot.  The most important part of your story is the plot, followed by how you tell it.  Remember this doesn’t just include missing or extra plot points.  This includes all aspects of your story not related to the above topics.

Said Tag.  English teachers love to tell you about the 1,000 different way to say ‘said’ or now I think they want to make it a million ways.  It is all a bunch of bull. It is made up by English teachers (just like the author’s message). Said is the simplest (and most over looked) word to describe dialogue.  Since I write a lot of official reports at work, I am am trained to write “stated” on most dialogue in my reports.  So I often find my stories are loaded with “stated” instead of “said”. So I have to fix those.  But the best way to break up dialogue is not with “said” but with some type of action.  For example: “I’m writing my blog,” Richard didn’t even look away from what he was doing.  His fingers still clicked on the keyboard. “I’ll take care of the garbage when I am done.”  So where applicable, I avoid using any dialogue tag and use action.

Repeated words.  My characters like to look at each other a lot.  They also love to smile.  So I often over use those two words.  Repeated words are not always bad, sometimes it is required to make a point.  But overuse of any word will be noticed by a reader and can become jarring.  So I look for those.  I also look for repeated phrases and dialogue points through out my story.

What are Beta Readers?

I’m having a heck of a time finding beta readers for Volition Agent. I think this is largely because people don’t understand what a beta reader is.  If you know video games, beta testers get their hands on an early copy (not finished) of a game.  They get to play it and in return they provide feedback to the game developer.  They let them know about glitches in the game, issues with game play, story elements that seem out of place, and an overall opinion of the game.  The developers take that information consider it all and then make changes where they think they should.

Beta readers do the same thing.  They get an early copy of the book.  They read over it, point out mistakes, things that confused them, story issues, grammar mistakes, and provide an overall opinion of the story.  The writer takes all this information and uses it to make the book better.  Just as a developer won’t change everything the testers complain about, an author won’t change everything.  But they will make the story better as a result of the Beta Readers’ input.

Authors need a cross section of beta readers.  I recommend you get a few who don’t read your genre.  I recommend a few that are writers.  Also a few that are editors.  And then a few that are just readers of your genre.  Can you have too many beta readers?  Yes.  If you get overloaded with information it won’t do you any good.  But if you have too few readers, then you won’t get a good sampling for your book.  The number is up to you.  Somewhere between not enough and too much is what I recommend.

Beta Reading shouldn’t be confused with Advanced Reader Copies (ARC).  Typically ARCs are finished.  They are handed out to reviewers in exchange to get review quotes to hopefully use on the book itself. That’s how all those review quotes wind up on the book the day it is published.  Sometimes review quotes are gathered from Beta copies, but that isn’t the purpose of a beta reader.  The beta reader is there to improve the work so the author can put out the best story possible.  Advanced Readers are there so the author can better market their work.

Why self edit again?

If you took all the information from beta readers, and did nothing with it.  Well that would be a complete waste of everyone’s time.  While you might not change everything the beta readers point out.  If the majority of them say that a certain scene doesn’t work.  It would be best if you made it work.  Once you make significant changes you need to review those changes for yourself, the same way you did the first time.  That will involve a whole rereading.  But it is worth it to put out the best book you can.

Once you’ve got the meat together in you sandwich, it’s time for the top piece of bread.  Get a professional editor and have them review it.  Then your sandwich, um I mean story, will be ready for the masses.

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