Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Some Readers are Beta than Others

By Catherine Hudson

We know writers like to hide away in their cave with copious amounts of chocolate and coffee, but what happens after they type ‘the end’?

This is where the Beta reader comes in. What is a Beta reader? Wikipedia defines them as:
An alpha reader or beta reader (also spelled alphareader/betareader …  is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material with the intent to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.
Elements highlighted by beta readers encompass things such as plot holes, problems with continuity, characterisation or believability; in fiction and non-fiction, the beta might also assist the author with fact-checking.
Your mother is not your Beta reader. She is your mother. I don’t care if she meets all criteria below (and mine almost does—she is a published fiction writer and has taught English), your mother cannot be your sole reader. Same goes for your best friend. They have rose-coloured lenses on for a reason—they love you and cheer you on. Let them continue to hold that position.

So, how do we choose the right person to view our work? Here is a list of some of the kinds of people I try to find as my Beta readers:

1 Audience with accuracy:
  • They read plenty of fiction
  • They are a fiction writer themselves, published or unpublished.
  • They read/write good quality books in the same genre of that manuscript.
  • They read books from around the world not just near to home so they have an ‘international’ viewpoint.
  • They have read books published recently; in the last five years, preferably some published traditionally through an established company.
These requirements sound stringent, but readers who are widely read know what is considered quality in today’s market, and therefore are going to give me advice that is going to move me closer to publication. 

An avid non-fiction reader or writer may love a good novel, but fiction differs greatly from non-fiction, it is a moving target as far as guidelines and style of writing. You want your reader to know whether your manuscript is hitting the mark. Advice that is inaccurate or out of date may harm, rather than improve the manuscript.

2 Expert or Spy:

Technical material must be correct—is your character a nuclear physicist? Try and find one. You would be surprised who God can bring across your path if you pray. If you the writer are the expert, great, then find a colleague in your field to vet your research. They can spy out your fictional territory from a real-life perspective and find those mistakes that weasel their way into those early drafts.

3 Age/socio-economic status/race/creed/religion/culture/background

Often as writers we research from the comfort of our swivel chair and keyboard, and we miss intricate details, intrude upon the story with our own world view. I’m not saying we have to experience all the gamut of things we put our characters through, but consider your character’s age and social status alone—have you used their style of speech? Particular way of interacting? Accurate endearments or slang?

One wrong word and your readers are pulled out of the story. Find a Beta reader who closely resembles your character in real life. 

Authenticity is believability. 

4 Target Market

We should know who is going to buy our books. Find a potential fan with none of the specific traits listed above—a Joe or Jane Bloggs, if you will. These readers will tell you whether your work will sell. Did they enjoy it? What didn’t they enjoy? Were there any areas of confusion? 

These readers are the ones who will compliment you and spur you on—the bread and butter clients we want to entertain, and whose lives we want to touch.

5 Mechanics and detail

Some readers have an eye for that misspelled, misused word or inaccurate date/distance/time frame. If you find one of these they are worth their weight in gold, as they pick up many problems that would otherwise go before the editor at your publishing house.

6 Honesty

At least one reader who will in no uncertain terms, say what they DID NOT like in a manuscript. Without fail this beta reader often gives the best advice. This person must love you and have a generous supply of chocolate to soothe your wounds as they take a red pen—or in my case, scissors to your work.

Final advice: DO DO DO use an editor. Whether or not your publisher supplies one, this is an expense that should not be spared. We often have one chance to impress either reader, agent or publisher. Put a polished, pedicured, pampered foot forward—you get the picture. 

What criteria do my writerly friends here at ACW have for their Beta readers? Who thinks they would make a Beta reader than another?

Catherine Hudson writes Historical and Contemporary romance for the CBA market. She was a finalist in the 2013 MARA Fiction from the Heartland contest.





36 comments:

  1. Very sensible advice, Catherine--I think you've covered it all! My only comment would be that, while my mother isn't around to read my manuscripts, I DO ask my daughter, who is an excellent editor/proof reader, and my sister, who is a very experienced senior high school teacher and marker of state-wide English tests. Yes, I do want to keep them in those roles of daughter and sister, but as my beta readers, they love me enough and have a close enough relationship with me not to want to see me fall flat on my face in my writing journey. As a result, they always tell me honestly what they think about my writing and I find their feedback hugely valuable.

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    1. Thanks Jo. You're very blessed your sister and daughter are so lovingly honest. My mother reads mine too, and also is honest and gives great advice.
      I find she is a great Beta reader, in addition to the other types of people mentioned. I feel the best approach is a good scope of experience and eyes on the project. After all, so many different types of readers and thinkers will read the published product, and we want them to experience the best version of our work. I often find mum thinks similar to me - I enjoy the feedback I get from someone who doesn't think like me! :)

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    2. I agree - if you have a perfectionist in the family who knows your heart and what you are trying to communicate, they can be an invaluable and ruthlessly honest critic. But that also works against an author. They can know you so well and what you're trying to communicate that they miss the ambiguity of language. So a sole reliance on family and friends is never wise.

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    3. Yes, I agree with what you've said too, Anne. Depending on the book, I usually have two to three other beta readers as well whom I might choose because they have expertise in a certain area or they represent a different age group or a different type of reader. With my non-fiction book 'Soul Friend', my sister read it but refused to comment too much as she didn't like it at all! It was MUCH too introspective and reflective for her. She said her approach would be to 'just get over it and get on with things!' That is her 'no nonsense' personality and we laughed about it but it was a good insight for me that not everyone will like such a book.

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    4. That's great Jo that you're finding a variety of people to be on side and help you. It really does make a better product doesn't it? Iola gave Soul Friend five stars and raved about it so the polish has shone through, congratulations.

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  2. Cat, great post! I really like how you've explored the diversity of how a beta reader can help you improve your book before it is published. I have two critique partners in the US and a group of nine beta readers. I brainstorm my proposals and work with my critique partners during the writing process. My beta readers see my stories after I've finished editing and before I submit the ms to my editor.

    I didn't plan to have a large group of beta readers. They're my friends in real life who have expressed an interest in reading my books and supporting my writing. Not all of my beta readers have read every ms, which is another advantage of having a larger group. They can say no to reading my ms (usually because the time frame I've given them is too tight due to my deadlines) and not feel like they're letting me down.

    Their feedback is valuable because they aren't writers and they see different things from a reader perspective. Some have an editorial or English major background, others are mainly romance readers, most of them read widely across a number of genres. They all know I'm looking for honest feedback. I usually ask them to look at specific aspects in the story that I perceive as areas of concern or weaknesses in the story.

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    1. Thanks Narelle. Wow, sounds like you have a great team of Beta readers - what a blessing!
      You've mentioned the right word - diversity. I feel it is key to have our manuscripts read by a diverse group of people as that is what our readership will be - diverse. I'm sure you find your team invaluable and I hope to build a bigger team myself over time in preparation for publisher deadlines.

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    2. Agreed, wow! I have almost to apply the thumb-screws at times, even with writers I've done beta-reading for. It's wonderful to be able to have such a large reliable group.

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    3. Thanks, Cat and Annie :) I'm very blessed to have a reliable and diverse group of friends who like my stories and support my writing. My beta reader group evolved organically and also at the right stage of my writing journey. I do think new writers are better off seeking critique partners and groups who can help them learn the mechanics of writing craft and story telling.

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    4. I agree, Narelle, and I hope from this and other posts that people will consider offering their skills.Sometimes it can seem daunting, but it is really exciting to be a part of the editing process. For our readers here on ACW they may have skills to offer and enjoy working with an author. It would be great in time to see the organic growth you experienced, Narelle, happening here amongst ACW writers and readers.

      Many hands make light work, but in this case I think many hands make the work shine brighter! Our messages and themes will show up far better with a polished product.

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  3. I know I would not be a good beta reader as dont see spelling mistakes unless they are glaring. I often read the right word even if its not there. I cant spell. I do however see things like the wrong name for a character and two books I read. The first one the Heroine they used the name of the heroine from book one by mistake. The second I had to read several times and worked out she had changed the POV or the character by accident and it really pulled me out of the story. I will admit I have left a book to check they got a historical fact right like using metric before I thought it was introduced. But I would struggle to read a whole book having to check it. I know reading from netgalley there are often errors in the book.

    I admire readers who do this.

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    1. HI Jenny,
      From what you have said here I actually think you would have a place as a Beta reader if you wanted it. The fact you pick up errors in POV, historical dates, mis-naming a character, all speak of your ability as a reader. Sometimes as writers we just want someone to read the manuscript, not be analysing quite as an author would - both are valuable. And if the only thing you pointed out to the author before the book went to print was the fact they had used the wrong character name, then I'm sure they would be grateful.
      A writer doesn't expect a Beta reader to possess all the traits I have listed and we are grateful to each and every reader and what they can point out to us.

      Of course, its up to you - we value what you're doing in this industry right now, Jenny :)

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    2. In that case I could do it as long as I didn't have to be constantly looking for errors. I tried that once where I was having to correct spelling, grammar, and mention sentences that didn't flow well that I wasn't getting to read the story.

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    3. I think different people have different skills, Jenny. I love people who can spot continuity errors - which a focus on grammar and spelling often misses.

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    4. I agree with Anne, Jenny. Not every Beta reader has all the skills. My list is based on the assumption a writer will use more than one Beta reader, and each and every one of them adds value to the final product.

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  4. Brilliant post, Cat. By the time I'd reached the end I had an awesome list of friends and colleagues in mind for my Beta readers.

    Question, perhaps for Narelle who's used her Beta readers a number of times now... Do you send a paper copy for them to return to you with annotations, or do you send them an e-file of your manuscript?

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    1. Thanks Dotti

      I'd be interested to know what method Narelle uses, too. I use an e file for my technologically savvy friends and I just check the track changes when returned. I print off a copy for others. I have 13 bound copies of the Locket, all different, to prove it!

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  5. Dotti, I do everything electronically via email. My readers sometimes use track changes or note the page number with their comments. Their feedback can be very specific (grammar, spelling), or more general and relate to the entire ms, or both. I also prefer written rather than verbal feedback because I'm looking at another ms while they're reading this one. I'm not going to fully absorb and appreciate what they're saying when my head is in a different story.

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    1. Thanks, Narelle. Good to know what works for you. :)

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    2. Thanks Narelle. I agree its good to have a written report to refer back to later. Often I need to clarify later on something a Beta reader has said.

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  6. Great post. Thanks Catherine. I appreciate my beta readers and enjoy being a beta reader myself. I think you make a excellent point about having a range of readers who will pick up on different things, including a reader or two from one's target audience.

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    1. Hi Jeanette,
      I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm hoping we will get some people offering their skills in this area. Often people don't think of it, but this is another great way to support authors.

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  7. Very timely post Catherine. I am just in the process of going through comments back from beta readers for my latest, Sandstone Madonna. I have never had this experience of beta readers before on a full manuscript and finding it very helpful to get this sort of feedback.

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    1. Fantastic Dale, I'm so glad you've found a team to help you! I've found over time that more and more people offer to be Beta readers. From what Narelle has said, this will be useful for publishing deadlines when not all Beta readers may available at short notice.
      I hope the feedback you're getting really helps polish Sandstone Madonna.

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  8. Brilliant post, and well written too!

    Have to say, I love my Beta readers. They're worth their weight in gold. I prefer editing to be done by the digital version (track changes) and they're comfortable with that too. Sometimes a good old phone conversation (or Skype) is beneficial.

    Feedback is vital. Therefore, in my opinion, so are Beta readers.

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  9. Brilliant post, and well written too!

    Have to say, I love my Beta readers. They're worth their weight in gold. I prefer editing to be done by the digital version (track changes) and they're comfortable with that too. Sometimes a good old phone conversation (or Skype) is beneficial.

    Feedback is vital. Therefore, in my opinion, so are Beta readers.

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    1. Thanks Andrea, couldn't have said it better myself :)

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  10. Great post and very timely for me. Thanks Cat. Currently I'm looking for a group of readers, who will hopefully see the flaws in my work. I'm hopelessly biased and need honest readers. Two of my friends have read the first draft. They are good for my ego, but not critical, though one does a great job of editing grammar and spelling. Who will tell me if a scene is unnecessary, or will mark where the book gets boring, or where it is too fast. I can't seem to do it myself. I've checked timelines, the phase of the moon and sentence structure, but I'm sure I'm missing lots... Great advice here and I appreciate it.

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    1. Thank you Jo and you're welcome - its great to pass on some things I've learned.
      Why don't you put out a request on our Facebook page asking for Beta readers? When people offer you can use the list I've given to see which areas each reader is covering, that way you'll feel you've covered a few bases.
      Try to give them a copy that is edited as much as possible for the basics: point of view, grammar, spelling, and the unnecessary weasel words (google those and you'll find a whole list!)
      I've handed my manuscript out very raw in the past and I felt I bit silly seeing so many mistakes come back that I could have weeded out myself.

      All the best and let me know how you get on :)

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  11. Hi Catherine,
    That's a wonderful post, which I'm going to bookmark. We throw terms such as 'beta reader' around, leaving people to make up their own minds what they think it means so often. An excellent check list. I've been asked (offered) to be a beta reader for a couple of new manuscripts these holidays. I loved being involved, and feeling as if my feedback might have helped.

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    1. Thanks Paula,
      That's fantastic to hear you are the Beta reader for some other authors. I am hoping that this post has taken some of the unknown out of the task and Beta reading will be offered more amoungst writers. You are so right, throwing terms around can be daunting, particularly for a new writer. I remember a time I didn't know what head-hopping or POV was and you enlightened me so its great that my post has blessed you - its always nice to return the favour. :)

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  12. This is so useful, Catherine, and covers everything! I only have two at the moment - and of them is my eldest daughter - both of whom give me valuable and honest feedback, but I now see there are Beta readers with skill sets other than my present readers and I need 'em! There is one thing I have to admit to (a bit ashamed of this!): I had a mindset that I shouldn't have too many from my circle of contacts reading my work because who would be left to buy it when it was published?

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    1. Hi Arrowhead,
      It is true that we should be selective when allowing others to read our work, although I think you may be surprised how many will buy your book because they have read it in manuscript form, or simply because they know you. And remember, if you are aiming to traditionally publish then your market is much bigger.

      However, we do need to use wisdom when choosing a Beta reader as they can hinder rather than help if the wrong advice is given.
      Beta readers with the sort of skill set I have listed are better found through online or real-life writing groups, organisations or businesses (such as a good editor - we have one on ACW: Iola Goulton from Christian Editing services).
      Also, do pray and ask around your friends or their friends. With social media our social reach is much greater. With the advice here, you can hopefully find the type of person needed.
      I pray you find a team of readers to help :)

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  13. I would make a good reader for others, but not for romantic fiction, I fear!

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    1. Yes romance isn't for everyone, but all authors appreciate their Beta readers no matter the genre

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