Monday, August 25, 2014

Editor's Notes #16: How a Beta Reader Works


Today, I thought it would be nice to have an opinion other than my own for you to read. Don't get too used to it.

As much as I love the editing process, my specialty leans more toward line edits. I make sure your commas and semicolons don't get mixed up, I fix your odd quotation marks so they're all facing the proper way, and if you're using a homophone, I will ensure it's the correct one. But what about all the tweaking that happens before the manuscript comes to me? Sometimes a book has more global issues that need fixing. That's when a beta reader can come in handy.

There are those for whom beta reading simply means, "I'll read your book and tell you if it's good or needs more work." Other betas will give stronger, more specific opinions. Many of them do the work for free because they love to read and have the time. The person you're hearing from today is a professional beta reader whose thoroughness rivals that of any content editor, and one of the few people whose work I trust completely enough to recommend.

Allow me to turn things over to Sarah from Your Beta Reader.

As a professional beta reader, I’d like to share with you a little of how I do my job. Why? Because maybe you can take something from my process for when you swap manuscripts with your author friends. Helping others and each other never hurt anyone, after all.

In my line of work, I see manuscripts in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re only a few chapters; sometimes I’m the last eye on a full manuscript right before it goes to the copy editor. Each author has his own set of strengths and weaknesses along with his own process. Some need help when their MS is in the roughest shape, because they don’t like to spend time fixing something they’ll end up deleting. Others like me to double check inconsistencies only. Either way, if I see something that needs addressing, I bring it up in my reports. It is my job, and if I don’t mention things, I’m doing my client a disservice. 

Once the report is in the author’s hands, it’s up to him to fix or ignore me—or most importantly, ask for more outside opinions. If, on the other hand, you’re swapping with an author or just helping a friend out, I’d suggest you stick to what they ask of you, unless it’s something major. Overstepping is easy and is a fine line you don’t want to cross.

Here are some general steps I take as a beta reader when I’m working on a job:

  • I take a full week when working on a manuscript, and I read it twice. During the first read-through, I make comments and notes along the way to make sure everything is answered or to remind the author what was brought up and never addressed again, as well as for me to understand the story. I take one or two days in between to clear my head from the story, and then I go back. On the second read-through, I’ll look for inconsistencies and make suggestions based on the ending that will help strengthen the story itself. 
  • I keep notes for dates, timelines, names, descriptions, facts, etc., and I make sure to point out where they’re off in the MS so the author can fix them. The note includes a reminder of the options, along with page numbers, so the author doesn’t have to go looking. 
  • I help identity any problems with the readability or saleabitity of a manuscript by keeping on top of what reviewers (especially the mean ones) are looking for. How? Well, they enjoy bashing the overuse of storylines, clichés, and overly perfect characters, etc. I read reviews, I read books for pleasure and for work, and I share my finds with my authors. 
  • I pay attention to structure, POV, dialogue, show v. tell, and more. When dealing with structure, for example, if there are scenes that would make a bigger impact in another part of the MS, I’ll make a note and explain my reasoning behind it, and make suggestions of what can replace its original location. 
  • I keep on top of characters’ personalities and make sure they’re staying true to themselves. For example, an OCD or neat freak, getting bad news while walking on the street wouldn’t start littering by throwing his coffee cup on the sidewalk because he’s now under stress. Some writers would think it might show just how stressed he is by acting with such opposite behavior, but wouldn’t it be more true to himself if he suddenly stopped and started picking up garbage off the street and putting them in the cans while processing his problems? Two birds, one stone (cliché intended)—but you’re showing and staying true to character this way. 
  • Most importantly, when it comes to delivering feedback, I can be brutally honest . . . but tactful, always tactful. I’ve said this in the past, but its true: I’d like to think I’m a very sweet—but serious—defibrillator . . . I shock my authors with nice (truthful) praises until they’re too numb to know better when I’m gently crushing their hearts. Honestly, it’s tricky to find a balance between being too kind and being too cruel. In the end they really do need to hear the truth; that’s why I also bring up their strengths and make sure they know they’re on the right path.

There you have it. I hope my work process was helpful, or at the very least, interesting to read. Thank you for having me over, Lynda!


You can find Sarah at Your Beta Reader. Her prices are extremely reasonable and her work is exemplary in its thoroughness.

12 comments:

  1. That last part made me chuckle.
    I use test readers when my manuscript is still a little rough - people who are readers but not writers. Once I fix issues and polish it, then it goes to critique partners who are writers. Two of them are the master of snark and humor, which means I'm too busy laughing at their comments to feel threatened or get angry.

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    1. That's a great idea, Alex, to use both non-writers and writers for different purposes. I love snark and use large amounts of it in my editing notes, so of course I think your critique partners are fabulous human beings who are probably related to me in some way.

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  2. Wow, I loved reading what Sarah does as a professional beta reader. What a great guest post! Thanks for sharing this, Lynda! I am jotting down Sarah's info for possible future use...

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    1. Hey, good to see you, Kristin! I do highly recommend Sarah to anyone who's looking for thorough, honest input.

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  3. Staying in character is so important. A good beta reader can point out where the characters veer off their path. That can wreck a story worse than anything for me.

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    1. Same here! I once stopped reading a book after the main character, a tough-as-nails FBI top dog, fell apart, shaking and collapsing, when her apartment was ransacked. It was a complete turnaround from the character's previously developed personality and was the final straw for me in a story that had too many inconsistencies already.

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  4. All excellent information from this beta reader gal. I like how she sets out the ms elements and keeps track of them. Sounds like she does a bang up job for her writers.

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    1. She really does! I've seen a couple of her reports, and she catches things I'd never notice.

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  5. I like the comment about the OCD/neat freak. It is so very true. No matter how freaked out they are an obsessive cleaner/neat freak would clean to reduce anxiety to litter. I guess I am going to have to budget in Sarah now for my next book. Dang you Lynda. (shaking fist). Well, see ya next time Lynda

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    1. Shake your fist all you want. You'll be thanking me later if/when you hire her.

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  6. Thank you for having me over, Lynda! :)

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  7. I was more than happy to have you write my post for me. I mean, share your insights.

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