Beta Reading, Part 2

Beta Reading, Part 2

For beta reading, part 2, let’s take a look at the actual feedback process. But first, let’s get the mechanics out of the way.

Practical Mechanics

When beta reading, you are generally only using a few possible programs. Here’s how to best use them:

  • When using Microsoft Word, go to Review and then select Track Changes. Use this feature to add Comments as well. If using Word, it helps a lot if the writer is using styles and headings. If they don’t know what those are, Google is their friend. Styles make it easy to change a font size on the fly if a publisher demands a different one for querying. And headings make it easier to find where chapters break.
  • When using Google Docs, turn on Editing Mode.
  • For any other programs, you may do best to just ask the writer to save the piece into Google Docs. Why? Because it will be easier for you. After all, you are doing them a favor. You aren’t being demanding if you ask for some consideration in this area.

What Sort of Feedback do they want?

This might feel like it should be obvious, but it’s not. Abusing the author is, of course, out of the question. You certainly should be honest in your assessments. At the same time, though, consider the following two sentences.

The main character is boring.

or

The main character is not very interesting.

These two sentences mean nearly the same thing, but the second one is a bit gentler. Consider this: even the worst of stories is somebody’s baby. Don’t be a jerk to the writer. This holds true even if you really want to burn their computer to assure that they never, ever write anything again.

And I have read stories like that.

Fixing Problems

Every reading is different, but there are a few basic issues which a manuscript might have.

Technical Issues

Your writer doesn’t know how to use dialogue tags. They argue with you over how to write out numbers. Punctuation and capitalization feel wrong, but you just can’t explain why. This one is easy. Call in the authorities. Grammar Girl is an easy, breezy read. Just cite it, with a link. Or try Strunk & White for something more formal. Get really fancy with The Chicago Manual of Style. Don’t forget, American English differs from British English, and there can be some nuances with Canadian or Australian English as well. Normally, it’s a logical fallacy to appeal to an authority. But in this instance, it will save everybody’s time.

Inconsistencies

Is the character dark-skinned on page 3, and fair on page 78? Point these out immediately. For some inconsistencies, the writer may be able to split the difference. Maybe a short character got tall because they grew.

Padding

This is a big problem with NaNoWriMo novels. And for good reason! You are rewarded for being verbose. Hence ask the writer – is this scene necessary? Is this level of description vital to the plot? Characters are analogous to actors in a film. The main ones are leads, then comes the supporting cast. And then come the extras. The leads need a lot of description, assuming that’s not some sort of spoiler. The supporting cast gets some description, but not as much as the leads. The extras are sketched. And the same is true for scenes. Scenes which drive the plot are leads.

Transitions and other necessary scenes that aren’t plot drivers are relegated to supporting status. These can be red herrings and blind alleys in a mystery. Or the more minor obstacles thrown in the way of true love in a romance. Or they can be the scenes depicting local color, and expository paragraphs.

Truly minor scenes are extras, and they can also be extras if they are a part of a more important scene. For example, if your two police officer characters go to a coffee shop to discuss the case, then their discussion is probably a lead. But the color of the walls of the coffee shop, or the barista’s snappy comeback? Those are extras.

If a story feels overly long, then it’s probably been padded. Work with your writer on how to streamline those parts of the narration.

Sketches

I am guilty of this one, mainly because I am often working to get the idea down on paper. This is another thing which can happen in a NaNo novel. The time limit can push a writer to elide over certain transitions. Same rules apply. If it’s a lead, then you need some meat on those bones. For supporting, it depends. Further, if every scene feels like an extra, then it’s hard to figure out what the work’s focus and plot really are.

By working with a three-tiered scene and character system, both you and the writer can focus better. If Betty the Barista is important, then the story really needs to focus on her dark eyes, her jaunty beret, and the rose tattoo on her left shoulder. If she’s just seen in passing, then she probably doesn’t even need to have a name.

Above All

Be kind and patient, as well as you can. These problems may take the writer some time to fix. Be encouraging! But if it is just not working, then don’t hesitate to cut the cord.

Beta Reading for Indie Writers

Beta Reading

Beta reading is both an art and a science, I feel. There are good ways to do it. And there are not so good ways.

But as an independent writer, the best way to get beta readers to help you is to become a beta reader yourself. Here I’ll address common issues and ways to make it a more productive experience for both of you.

Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading

A beta reader is analogous to a beta tester. You are supposed to be checking a piece before querying or self-publication or posting on a free content site such as Wattpad. Beta testers generally do not test software’s very first iteration. They might be asked to test a function or even the whole shebang once it’s done. But they don’t test the lines of code to see if they are correct. That is a developer’s job.

And beta reading is similar. You are not responsible for checking basic stuff like spelling. The author should have run their work through a spellchecker, prior to sending it to you. If they do not have a spellchecker for some odd reason, then you as the beta reader are in for quite the ride. And this is not a happy ride, I assure you.

How to handle it

What should you do If someone sends a document utterly riddled with spelling errors? Here are a few options:

  • Kick it back (nicely) and tell them to run a spellcheck before they send it back to you. If they don’t know how to do this, then you can suggest they Google free spellcheckers or save it as a Google doc (under Tools, there is a spellchecker).
  • Correct their spelling, but make it clear this will increase the time frame considerably. For most people, even if they are not in much of a rush, this a good incentive to take care of business.
  • Tell them the relationship isn’t working out.

A lack of spellchecking does not necessarily mean someone doesn’t care about your time. The writer might not be a native speaker. They might be very new to the scene. Or they could have certain forms of dyslexia which make a spellchecker kind of throw up its metaphoric hands and run in the opposite direction. If any of these are the case, then see if you can get compensated for your time. Because at that point, you’ve gone beyond beta reading.

Length and Time and Expectations

The best-laid plans, yadda yadda, you know the rest. We plan one thing, but life has a tendency to inconveniently intervene. Consider your time, how fast you read, and any monkey wrenches life might throw. A good rule of thumb for planning is to multiply by one and a half. Therefore if you think 1,000 words will take you an hour, then consider it will take 90 minutes and plan accordingly.

Ask about their schedule. Maybe they want to publish in two months, or twelve. If you can’t meet their deadline, all is not lost! Instead, you could just beta read the first few chapters. Figure out what works best. Or agree to work together at a later date.

Next, I’ll look at what you need to do, to be a good beta reader.

Beta readers and editors

Beta readers and editors

Beta readers and editors – what’s the difference? Does it matter which one you use to help with your manuscript?

Beta Readers and Editors-Adventures in Career Changing
Beta Readers and Editors

Beta Readers

Beta readers are people who read over your work and evaluate it before it gets anywhere near a publisher. They might read for typos, spelling errors, grammatical issues, and punctuation problems, but that is not a very good way to work with them.

Continuity Checks

Instead, you want them to help you with flow and continuity. If your main character is female and 5’2″ and has a chihuahua on page 4, then she should still be female, 5’2″, and the owner of a chihuahua on page 204, unless there is some on-page reason why she isn’t. E. g.:

  • She is transgender, and successfully transitioned (with or without surgery) to male. Or the character no longer identifies as female or male.
  • The character had a growth spurt and is taller, or has osteoporosis, and shrunk, or maybe her legs were amputated (sorry, character!).
  • She gave away the chihuahua, or it ran away, etc.

The last thing you want is for your beta reader to wonder where the chihuahua went, particularly if the little dog isn’t a big part of the story.

Demographics

Good beta readers are in the demographics of the people you’re trying to reach with your novel. They like your genre or at least are willing to read in it and offer feedback. They don’t tear you a new one when they don’t like something, but they are also unafraid to tell you if something isn’t working for them.

Some questions to ask them

Ask them:

  • Are the characters believable? Are they distinguishable?
  • Do you think the situations are plausible?
  • Are the settings well described? Can you picture yourself where the characters are?
  • Do the transitions work?
  • Are the conflicts plausible?
  • Is the conclusion a satisfying one?

Also ask about genre-specific issues, such as whether your mystery was too easy or difficult to solve, if your horror story was scary enough, if the technobabble in your science fiction novel was credible, etc.

The best way to get a beta reader is to be one! Offer a trade with another indie. Usually this work is done for free. So be kind, and either recommend your beta reader friend or at least donate a little something to one of their three favorite charities.

Editors

Editors are more professional than beta readers and are generally people you hire. They will do copy editing, where they check for typos, etc., although there should be a last pass by a proofreader before publishing, no matter what.

Editors can also check for continuity, but they will mainly read with the audience in mind. They are a good enhancement to the work of a beta reader, and are a good idea before you send your work out for querying.

Researching Editors

The best way to get an editor is to do some research. Ask people you know are published. After all, an editor no longer has to live in the same city or country as you (but you will do best with someone who is a native speaker of the language your book is in). Work with the editor on a sample chapter. Do you get along? Are his or her suggestions reasonable? Are they slow?

Ans if you are absolutely, utterly stuck for funds, try a local college or university. You might be able to get an English major to help you, but be aware they probably won’t have experience and they may not be the best fit. But they may be all you’ve got.

And make sure to have a written agreement with them! This is a sample copyediting contract, and it’s pretty good. Be sure to change the contract to indicate the laws of your state apply!