In Praise of Beta Readers

We writers slave over every word, polishing our manuscripts to within an inch of their lives. But for all that care and attention we still have to fight down the urge to send our latest draft winging its way into the world too early. So keen are we to get that submission off to an agent or a publisher or if we are self-published to press the publish button. Stop! Think! Step away from the keyboard.

Just Press Enter
Just Press Enter by Marithe Franzy Triquetra courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

When you have a polished manuscript ideally you should stick it in a drawer for at least a couple of weeks and read it through with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what a little distance does for your perspective. Suddenly that perfect twist that no one will see coming feels contrived and telegraphed. That purple patch of prose you were so proud of now looks fussy and overdone. It’s important to give yourself time to make the adjustments the manuscript needs. But once they are done, what then?

You are still itching to send that submission letter or upload your masterpiece to the world. So, now it’s ready to go, right? Wrong!

Now it’s ready for your Beta readers to have a look at.

Reading by Eddy Pula courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Who are Beta readers? It would be easier to say who Beta readers are not. On the whole it is not a good idea to rely solely on family members to be your Beta readers. Chances are your family will love you to bits, they will be proud of what you have achieved and want you to do well. Do you really think they will be able to give you the bad news that they fell asleep with boredom at the end of chapter three or that they were skipping large chunks of text to get to the next action scene? Family members will filter out the bad news or at the very least water it down. It’s in the contract.

This coupled with the fact that writers have selective hearing is a bad combination. “Did you really like my book?” “Yes, I enjoyed it. I felt the middle section needed a bit more tension.” “Okaay but you really liked it didn’t you? What about the part where…”

Sound familiar?

So who are the best Beta readers? Well, they should be avid readers certainly, they need to have at least a passing interest in the genre you are writing in and be willing to be scrupulously honest with you even if it may not be what you want to hear.

I have been lucky enough to have the benefit of feedback from five wonderful Beta readers for The Flower Seller. Three of my Betas are members of a writers’ group I belong to. Writers themselves they can get to the heart of the problem in a few neat sentences and they have no qualms about saying what needs to be said because they know the importance of honesty when delivering a critique. One of my Betas annotates the manuscript in the margin occasionally throwing in caustic comments as she goes. Some make me laugh, some make me cringe. They all make me a better writer.

At this stage I can either take the advice I am given on board or decide to ignore them and count paperclips instead.

Paper Clipsjpg
Paper Clips by Dean Hockman courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Whilst counting paperclips is always a handy distraction, I know that when my writing Betas, as I have dubbed them, have finished it’s time to start another draft of the manuscript picking up on their comments, tackling re-writes where necessary.

Organised Chaos
Organised Chaos by Kate Ter Haar courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Once those re-writes are done, it’s time to send the manuscript to my last two Beta readers. One of the Betas has been a friend for more than 20 years. I trust her judgment implicitly. If she says something isn’t working then I know it isn’t even if I thought it was. She may occasionally cock an eyebrow at me as if to say “How exactly does that mind of yours work and should I be worried?” but she’ll spot the mistakes and the holes in the plot. She’ll call me out on the characters I somehow forgot to flesh out and tell me about the scenes that are missing but are absolutely essential. Not much gets by her! She knows I need her honesty more than her flattery. She’s creative, too. She makes beautiful bags and gifts for the home. I give her my feedback on her new lines and product development and in a small way repay the debt I owe her.

After she’s given the manuscript the forensic once over, it’s time for another re-write. I undertake the work gladly. I know it will be a stronger book as a result.

Magnifying Glass
Magnifying Glass by Tall Chris courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

My last Beta reader is the least strenuous in her criticism. I think of her as my market research reader. She’ll tell me about anything that confused her and anything she didn’t like. She gives an overview but it’s no less valid for that.

Only once my trusted team of Betas have finished am I at last ready to reach for that send button or upload my file.

The End
The end by Dennis Skley courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-ND 2.0

Beta readers are a valuable resource for a writer and all too easily overlooked. If you have never used Betas before why not give them a try for your next book? If you do use them, please share with us how many you use and when you send your manuscript to them. That way we can all learn from each other.

Today’s blog is the second in my Flower Seller Thursday collection of writing related blogs leading up to publication day of my first novel The Flower Seller on Thursday 2nd June #FlowerSellerThursday

The Flower Seller by Ellie Holmes





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