Ruth E. Walker
The writer in the attic garret, a single candle barely illuminating the page, the scratchscratchscratch of the pen crossing the paper. Is this your idea of the writer’s lonely life?
Well, not this writer. Yes, the act of writing is solitary. And some of us do isolate ourselves for short periods of uninterrupted time. Sometimes, even with a candle or two. But eventually, even the most private of writers needs to surface and find readers. Because, with few exceptions, that is what writers crave: a connection to others through the writing.
At a recent workshop, one writer asked the others if they wrote with an audience in mind. The answers were as varied as the participants. Some start out with an “ideal reader” in their head; some brought in the idea of a reader later on, the second or third edit, for example. But we all agreed that eventually we work with the concept of someone actually looking at our words.
An agent. An editor. Readers.
So you have the final draft of your manuscript. Seeking publication and submitting our work is a challenge at best and often, it borders on terrifying. Surely there’s a simple way to feel more confident when you press the SEND button.
I belong to a fairly intense critique group: Critical ms. That intrepid bunch has saved my writerly bacon many times as they gave feedback on chapters and scenes every few weeks. And over the past summer, they all read my final draft manuscript. I know I’m lucky to have them; critique groups rarely look at the complete work.
So what if you don’t have a Critical ms in your life? You have the manuscript in hand, hoping to catch a publisher’s attention. And you want feedback from readers. Here’s where beta readers come in. They are not copy editors or proofreaders. Instead, they will read that entire manuscript and give you a reader’s response.
Beta readers often read your work for no charge. But some charge a fee. Decide in advance how you will ask for the favour or if you will pay experienced beta readers for the service. If you decide on paid readers, make sure you ask for and get recommendations on their past performance.
Connect with beta readers through networking, word-of-mouth opportunities and social media:
- Workshops and conferences for writers are great places to meet other writers working at the craft, just like you. They can be your beta readers or connect you with their beta readers.
- Offer to be a beta reader: give and you can receive. Besides, a wise writer learns from reading others’ writing.
- Tell friends and family members you are looking for beta readers (proceed with caution: feedback from people you know and care about can be more emotionally energized than you realize.)
- Connect through writing blogs, reader/fan-fiction websites, social media such as Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You can let others know you want beta readers through these platforms.
- Be open to readers who are unfamiliar with your genre or topic. They might ask questions and see things that others gloss over when they read your work.
How to treat a beta reader
- Don’t offer a rough manuscript to beta readers:
- A polished manuscript is properly formatted: page numbers, chapter headings/numbers, 2-inch margins, double-spacing and indented paragraphs.
- Work hard yourself first to ensure few typos, grammar glitches and logic slips
- Imagine your beta readers talking with others: I just read this really confusing book. I couldn’t make sense of the timelines and the characters were just so flat…
- Ask yourself: Is this draft complete and ready for readers?
- Present your manuscript professionally:
- Have your polished draft ready in both electronic and hard copy formats.
- Some want to read it more “book style” — 2 pages per sheet, landscape format; some want it in manuscript format (see point #1)
- If they want a hard copy, be prepared to print it: don’t expect them to pay for the printing.
- Ask your reader: How do you want to read this?
- Give your readers guidance:
- Offer at least a cover page, outlining what you are looking for, such as: plot glitches, slow sections, any confusions, characters that don’t connect with the reader, etc.
- Prepare a checklist if that is simpler for you and your reader, but leave lots of room for comments and questions.
- Encourage your reader: I welcome any and all criticisms and suggestions, and appreciate your time in reading my book. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings.
- Use beta readers to help with your query or marketing:
- You can include positive comments from your readers in your query letter. But keep it really brief and professional: Beta readers offered excellent feedback that helped refine the final draft.
- If you’re self-publishing, a snippet of praise on the back cover or inside can help sell your book.
- Example: A fast-paced and exciting thriller… A timeless love story that kept me reading to the end…
- Say thank you:
- Send a personal note following up after they give you their feedback.
- When your book is published, it may be appropriate to thank your readers inside.
- Ask: I’d like to recognize your help. Can I mention your name in my acknowledgement page?
Remember: A beta reader is not there to feed your ego. Don’t take the comments personally. Perhaps you don’t agree; reading is subjective, after all. But always say thank you, nonetheless.
And if you are getting comments or questions from more than one reader on the same topic, perhaps you need to rethink your opinion. This just might save you from having an editor or agent ask you the very same questions.
DID YOU KNOW?
Mark Coker of Smashwords, the highly successful e-book distributor, has a few things to say about beta readers. He and his wife used a specific process for their novel Boob Tube to ensure their beta readers had the right tools to respond. He shared some great tips in Publishers Weekly online.
Do you use beta readers? Let us know about your experience.