When is a Book Ready for a Beta Reader?

I gave a presentation recently, “Self-Editing Made Easier,” to a group of writers who are at varying levels regarding their careers: some are new writers, just finishing the first draft of their first book; a few have multiple books out; a few are traditionally published; and a few going the self- or indie-publishing route.

I was asked, “At what point in my writing, should I give my material to a beta reader?”

My initial response was, when the writing is polished. Discussion followed as to what polished meant. That answer was easy: when it’s ready to send to an agent or publisher, or for the self-published, when the writer believes it is ready to be published.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about my response of when to involve a beta reader, and I began thinking about my own critique group and the readings we do for each other versus the manuscripts I give to my beta readers.

If I could go back to that meeting, here’s what my response would be now:  Whatever you want that beta read to be; whatever you want to get out of them reading your work.

To that end, I think there are two types of beta reads.

Organizational Beta Read

The writer believes there are no more holes, that the characters are likable and believable.

Overall, the job of a beta reader here is to:

  • Find plot holes – where events or the order of events just don’t make sense.
  • Determine if the main characters are likable/unlikable, as the case may be, and to tell the writer why or why not.
  • Point out areas of muddy or unclear meaning. Simply put, some scenes need clarification or more details in order to make sense.
  • Determine if there is too much or not enough backstory if this is a book in a continuing series.

Often readers will discover an author with a later book in the series, not knowing the history of the character up until this time. Consequently, it is the writer’s job to provide just enough of that backstory so that the reader can understand the character’s motives and wounds, but not so much that the reader is bored. That means backstory must be trickled in here and there, like bread crumbs leading the way out of the forest for Hansel and Gretel; but in this case, the bread crumbs lead the way backward into the earlier stories for the reader.

With this particular beta read, there is no focus on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. This type of beta read is often performed in a critique group. The writers want to know early on in the writing before they have polished the writing, if the plot and characters are working. Often, the readers are getting chapters as they are written, because for these writers, it is easier to change the plot here, learning that something does work, rather than making coming back and making major changes once the draft is completed.

The crucial part here is that the writer must tell the readers up front not to worry about the grammatical errors. Instead, they are to be ignored.

Also, before the reading occurs, the writer needs to provide these readers with a short list of problem areas, where the writer already knows that there is a problem.

In most cases, this Organizational Beta Read is just that—a read to spotlight the plot and characterization—and nothing more.

Polished Copy Beta Read

This is the manuscript that has been polished by the writer. Supposedly, all errors have been removed, sentences rewritten, best word choices made, consistent character traits, hair, eye color, and the spelling of their names. Everything is correct and everything makes sense.

The goal for this beta reader is to find any error, any hole, anything that doesn’t make sense.

In conclusion, a beta read can be and should be anything you, as a writer, want it to be. Regardless if the manuscript is a first draft, a polished draft, or a draft in between, clearly communicate what you want from your beta reader.

There’s nothing more frustrating for a beta reader than to discover after the reading 1) that they should have been looking for something in particular, or 2) that they didn’t need to read it as a polished draft when in fact it was a first draft.

So, when is a writing ready for a beta reader?

Answer: Whenever you’re needing feedback. Just be sure to indicate what kind of feedback you’re seeking.

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