Blogger Insights

Blogger Insights: Glad You Asked – The Beta Read

Blogger Insight

Long before you collect reviews or distribute advanced reader copies or even finalize your proofread edits there is a solid opportunity to receive objective input on your novel. Beta Reading, as its called, can be a great method to find both the positives and negatives in your story. Joining us today for Blogger Insights is Sarah aka Sarah the Beta-Reader. Sarah provides an affordable beta-reading service and since I employed her talents on my latest novel, I thought she to be an excellent candidate to help us understand the in’s and out’s of the business.

WIDW: Hi Sarah and thanks for joining us. Before we get into the triumphs and tribulations of the craft, tell us how a beta read differs from other forms of editing services?

SBR: Hi Raymond, thanks for having me! Okay, let’s get into this: Beta reading is (in my humble opinion) a critical step in publishing a novel. Unlike a Copy Editor, whose job is primarily about the details of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and applying a publisher’s style. Or a Proofreader whose job happens right before publishing, and is in charge of looking for typos, inconsistencies, and correcting errors. A Beta Reader will critique your manuscript prior to these two steps in publishing, and provide feedback to help improve it.

We read the manuscript and comment on the structure, characters, plot, dialogue, POV, etc., and we help you identity any problems with the readability, or saleabitity of your manuscript. The right beta reader can help you turn an okay manuscript into a great book, and a great manuscript into an outstanding book. Even experienced writers need second opinions on their work. For me, it’s about helping a book find its way while keeping the targeted audience in mind. And most importantly, for the author, it’s about receiving real, honest feedback—that friends and family usually have a hard time relaying—in an objective manner.

WIDW: Authors can be a sensitive bunch and sometimes all we really want is proclamations of our greatness. How do you handle author egos and how often do your clients get upset with your comments?

SBR: Well, all I do is offer proclamation of their greatness…with some criticism hidden in plain sight…or something to that effect. I think. So far, I haven’t had any clients who’ve told me how much they would like to strangle me until my eyes are bulging and/or pop out onto the floor so they can stomp on them. Sorry, I feel a bit dramatic today. But honestly, I think the keyword is: tact. There is a mean way to crush an author’s heart, and there’s a right way to do it. Personally, I’d like to think I’m a very sweet—but serious—defibrillator…I shock them until they’re too numb to know better.

As a beta reader, I have to be tactful and know how to express my opinions and offer advice without killing dreams. I try to present my comments in a way that makes them feel hopeful about what can be done to fix any problems found in their manuscripts, not critiques that will drive them into depression. It’s tricky for sure, 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.

WIDW: There is a point in the writing process where the writer becomes pretty fond of the work and impossibly resistant to changing anything. In my own example, the Epilog in You and Me against the World should have been deleted. I’m basing that on reader reviews and reviews confirmed by Kirkus Review. In truth, the reason it stayed was it is my daughter’s favorite chapter—take a review hit or break her heart, so I went option A. In your opinion at what point is a story ready for a beta-read—when is the point of no return for an author?

SBR: I think as the author, you most certainly have the right to keep things for sentimental reasons. Hey, we can say it fits in with the whole “write what you know” thing, one way or another. But, what I would say to anyone who has heard “this doesn’t belong here,” before publishing, from betas or friends, is to make it belong. If it’s important to you, you can find a way to make it important to the story. Keep it as is and add details in the book to bring that into the storyline. Don’t wait until after you’ve published to want to change that. For me that is the point of no return. That “publish” button. Still, many newbie authors these days make big changes to their novels and re-publish as different editions, so who knows?

A beta can help in any stage of the manuscript, from early drafts of the book to even a partial draft. It all depends on what the author needs. I recommend getting help with a polished full draft, so betas are able to see the general storyline and offer the best feedback possible.

WIDW: I think that is some of the best advice I’ve heard. If you want to keep it—then make it fit. Which brings me to my next question. When an editor says, “this is grammatically incorrect” that’s pretty much written in stone. Story plot and style however, have some leeway for personalization. How should a writer determine which are good suggestions and which are a matter of preference?

SBR: Get a couple more beta readers. Free, paid, or your author friends. Doesn’t matter, get them and ask them all specifically about any doubts or questions you might have on those suggestions. If this is before or after a beta you get for full content critique, it’s up to you, but you can ask people to read and offer thoughts on specific areas. Follow your gut, but do your research…just to make sure.

WIDW: A grammatical editor doesn’t need to be concerned with genre because grammar, spelling and word usage are not a function of story category. Are there any particular challenges for a beta reader who is not familiar or practiced with a specific genre?

SBR: Yes and no. I could say simply: if I don’t read much in specific genres I might not know enough about the audience, or how many clichés are being used, etc, BUT really? Either a story makes sense or it doesn’t. Common sense comes in handy, and is as helpful as getting different perspectives.

It all depends on the writer and the beta herself I think, whether a genre might be challenging. For example, if the writer is using a lot of facts or real terms—and if the beta reader was already familiar with the subject—then it would be easier. If not, then it’s up to the beta, how involved she’s going to be with the fact-checking. Personally, I would research. Even if the writer tells me they know the subject in and out, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t have missed something. All in all, I would say it’s easier to stick to known genres. I’m happy to educate myself in subjects I’m interested in for an author. But if I’m not interested in it, then it doesn’t help me help them.

WIDW: There are a lot…I mean a real lot…of people on the Web hanging shingles and offering services. How can or should an author vet potential beta readers to ensure they are getting sound advice?

SBR:  Simple: get referrals.

WIDW: I often go over to Amazon and read the “Look Inside” feature to gauge a story or a writer’s ability. Sometimes I’m haunted by the things I see and sometimes I’m amazed at how well an author writes. Without naming names, have you ever engaged with a writer and found the work to be such a train wreck that you didn’t even know where to begin?

SBR: Hmm, I plead the fifth?  Okay, so I may have had that once. I was so stumped on how to move forward, that I had to go ahead and write a very brutal report first, just to get it out of my system. I then had some wine and went back to make it “nice.”

WIDW: I work, rework and work again and sometimes again chapter one. I just believe if I can’t get you in the first few pages it will be hard to grab the reader later. In your reading what is it that makes a book an instant “I love this” and opposed to “I don’t know if I can read this.”

SBR: The main character has to make feel invested in his/her story. I think a good balance of being intrigued and yet learning—through action—about this person, is what makes me know whether or not I might love a book. Plots are important, but ultimately the main character has to pull me in and not make me want to roll my eyes.

WIDW: I have one particular book that I could not finish reading. It was kind of awful writing. There were descriptions that were “cut and pasted” throughout to the point that I was saying “Yeah I get it, the water smells really bad. I heard you the first 20 times.” I keep it on my book case because it was professionally published so it’s a reminder that a contract isn’t the mark of good writing – good writing is. Where do you think most new writers go wrong?

SBR: I think they get too excited and rush to publish. I always think it’s a good idea to let a manuscript sit a bit, then go back, and make sure you still love everything about it. Also, using friends and family to get feedback is probably a wrong move. More often than not, they only offer praises in fear of hurting the writer’s feelings. I really think its important to have other people read it first, and listen to their advice with an open mind. Get angry if you must, but listen and care enough to not publish a work before it’s ready.

WIDW: I believe there are only two types of writers. Those who are good and think they aren’t and those who aren’t and think they are. When you engage with a writer is it more difficult to do your job when the book is really bad or more difficult when the book is really good?

SBR: I think this is where your book, The Devil’s Hour, comes in. Yes, I’m going to bring it up; it taught me that it’s definitely more difficult when the book is really good.

While reading a great manuscript, I have to remember that I’m working instead of feeling like I’m living IN the book and the happenings. And I have to pay closer attention to details. When a book needs work, it’s easier to spot the problem areas, and in turn easier to offer comments and suggestions. But when a writer pulls you in with good writing and fantastic plot, it’s sometimes hard to tell where you think you’re just trying to find something wrong or when you might be missing tiny problems. So yes, hands down, it’s more difficult with good books. Thanks for making me sweat bullets while reading it, by the way.

WIDW: I’m going to take the compliment. But I will add that regardless of how you felt over all about my work, you provided some really insightful suggestions that made the end product better than I could have done on my own. Sarah, thanks again for joining us. For those of you looking for a great, low cost solution to getting another set of eyes on you work, visit Sarah’s website at:

SBR: Thank you so much for having me over, Raymond. It’s been fun!

7 replies »

  1. Nice interview. Of course I’m already predisposed to like it since it involves two of my favorite people, but still…

    I like that Sarah is a sweet but serious defibrillator, lol. The frivolous defibrillators really don’t get the job done, do they? Very apt comparison. 🙂

  2. I may have to visit that website one of these days. I can’t tell you how helpful beta readers have been to my own work.
    By the way Raymond, I’m available to work with you up until early May when I leave for my study abroad trip. Just thought I’d let you know.

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