After my front-line editor has scrutinized my manuscript and we’ve wrestled to the ground every punctuation and grammar error, and repaired every lapse in plot flow we can find, I print copies for my beta readers. They are my last line of defence, my last chance for perfection, before the submission letter. I know perfection is impossible, but I still strive for it.
The really important thing about beta readers is that they love to find errors. And I love it when they do. I am profusely and genuinely grateful when they pass me their well-thought-out comments. I do the happy dance when they find anything amiss, whether it’s in timing, grammar, or punctuation. When one of them triumphantly informs me that a character stood up twice on the same page without sitting down in between, I could cry with joy. I mean, how would a mistake like that look to a publisher? Amateur time, right?
Often, a beta reader will come back to me with a question like, “Why did Lyris get hit in the eye with a snowball in Chapter 2, but there’s no mention in the rest of the book of the eye turning black?” See, this is a good question. Not a deal-breaker maybe, but easy enough for me to go back and hit Lyris in the stomach where it won’t show, or drop in a mention of her black eye in a subsequent scene. Beta readers help ensure every little sub-plot is tied up in a pretty bow. Paying customers may not notice the bow, but they might be thrown off by the omission of a black eye.
I have one reader with a highly-developed sense of justice. She thinks every character should get their just desserts. They should pay for every transgression. Um, no. Nobody gets away with murder in my books, but plenty of minor offences go unpunished. Knowing her as I do, I overlook the social order critiques and celebrate her gift for locating double words, missing words, missing punctuation — in short, she takes my manuscript closer to perfection.
If more than one beta reader makes the same, or similar, comment, I pay attention. At this late stage of the writing process, I’m not keen on making any major changes to plot line or character development. But, if something is bugging several beta readers, then it will bug a lot of paying customers. Thankfully, though, this doesn’t often happen.
I would never send out a manuscript without first filtering it through my beta readers. When I give them the printout — much better for finding discrepancies than electronic reading — I ask them to get back to me within three weeks. To encourage them to be honest with their opinions and make it easier to list their findings, I also hand them a pre-printed form. Not one of them has failed me yet.
Where do you find beta readers? They are everywhere, and mine include relatives and friends. A few are also writers. I acknowledge them by name and thank them in my books.
I know writers who don’t use beta readers at all, and some who only ask other writers to read their manuscripts. Whatever works, there’s no wrong way to do it. But, my little posse of beta-readers works well for me!
A former technical writer, Gloria’s first mystery, CHEAT THE HANGMAN, won the 2012 Bony Blithe Award for best light mystery. She is working on another mystery novel and occasionally writes a short story or novella just for the heck of it.
Follow Gloria on Twitter @GloriaFerris