Maryann Miller recently wrote about her beta readers in this post. But what exactly is a beta reader? Sometimes called “first readers”, these are the people who freely read an author’s latest manuscript, usually after the second revision when the story has come together and is fairly solid. Sending a book out for critique at this stage gives the author a chance to break away from the story for a period of time, and then come back with fresh eyes and the help of trusted critical reviews to consider. It’s my observation that beta reading and subsequent revisions make for a stronger story in the final version, even if the author hires an independent editor (especially if only for proofreading the final draft).
Beta readers and the help they give an author make dramatic differences in the quality of a story. Today we chat with two authors who both use beta readers, and for whom I’ve had the pleasure of reading early manuscripts. Meet LJ Sellers, author of the Detective Jackson Mysteries, and Ann Parker, author of the historical Silver Rush Mysteries. Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil! Let’s jump right into some questions.
Dani: When do you send a manuscript out to be read? How many readers?
Ann: I usually send the draft out when it’s close to “finished,” right before it goes to my house editor (who is my ultimate beta reader). As for the number of people, it varies, depending on who I can beg or bribe to read it. Usually it’s five or so. I also have two beta readers that I “save” for doing an ARC read. One is a proofreader by trade, the other is my husband. Both are very detail-oriented.
What kind of turnaround time? How many rounds for each title?
LJ: I typically ask my beta readers to get back to me within three weeks, but most of them read my stories immediately and send feedback within a week. For that, I'm very grateful. I don't send the novel out for second rounds with readers. They're volunteers, and almost no one wants to read the same story again in such a short time. But I have one loyal beta reader in the UK who always reads it twice because he wants to—the first time for overall story content and the second time for proofreading. (I love this guy!) After collecting all the feedback, I do a third draft and send it to my publisher. From there, the manuscript goes to a professional content editor.
Ann: I try to give beta readers a month, but that doesn’t always happen. Like LJ, I don’t ask folks to read it a second time. Sometimes (oh, this is embarrassing to relate!), I’ll have a beta reader read through “on the fly” as I finish up other fixes. Dani, you did that for me on Mercury’s Rise… I was on college tour with my youngest, and you and I did email/phone back ’n’ forth for a couple of long, long nights.
Once I have everything within the time-frame I need, I go through the comments, do a “final” draft, and send it to my editor.
(Dani: I love how Ann always puts "finished" and "final" in scare quotes.)
How often do you use the same readers? When and why do you change readers?
LJ: A core group of people read for me every time (because they want to!), but I also work with at least one new beta reader for every manuscript, and I try to find readers who have never experienced my work before. It seems important to get fresh perspectives and to ensure that even my series books work as standalones.
Ann: I, too, have a core group of folks who read all the books, including a wonderful research librarian up in Leadville, and Ms. Dani (who has the eye of an eagle and an electronic red pen as sharp as… a porcupine quill? I’m out of similes here!). I’ll add experts as needed—an expert in historical mourning fashion and etiquette, for example, or an expert in various aspects of the Civil War or mining. If I ask an expert to read for accuracy, I will offer to highlight the particular sections that involve their expertise. That way, if they don’t want to wade through the whole thing, they can just focus on the aspects that are in their area of interest.
What kind of guidance do you give them?
LJ: I give new beta readers a basic set of questions, such as: Is the beginning engaging? Are the characters compelling? Does the story have any sticking points or things that confused you? Was the ending satisfying?
But my regulars give me all types of specific feedback, including plot points and phrasing advice.
Ann: I usually provide a list of questions/things to look for as well. For instance, I ask them to scribble in the margin places where they think they’ve spotted a clue, or to periodically scribble their thoughts on “who done it” as the story progresses. I also ask them to note places where they get lost, or have to back up and re-read a passage (which indicates to me that I probably need to re-write it). Also, they are free to note anything else that catches their attention. If they feel something is anachronistic, for instance, I ask them to circle/note it in some way. Sometimes, the bit is historically accurate, but if it causes the average reader to stop and think or wonder, then I usually try to find another way to say it, or I explain in more detail. And, of course, I ask them to let me know if I surprised them at the end, and if the mystery was “satisfying.”
That’s very useful information! Thank you for sharing with us. In coming months, we’ll explore this topic in greater depth.
Readers, how many of you have fulfilled this function for an author? Authors, how many of you use beta readers? If not, what in particular do you want to learn about this writing tool? Please leave us a comment or question!