After my first book came out, I had dinner with my friends Chantale and Nicholas. They had just read the novel and loved it, but, Nicholas said, I don’t understand why you had people in Victorian England drinking coffee. Wouldn’t they have just had tea?
I replied that coffee was a favourite beverage in Victorian England, and is actually mentioned in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. I confess I was a bit smug in tossing out the answer, because it was one of the many, many details I had researched when I was writing the book.
Even with research, though, it’s easy to miss things. When the writing is going well, it moves very quickly, and if you’re not careful you’ll whiz past silly gaffes, logic-lapses, and sins against grammar.
Thank God for the Beta reader.
I love the concept, but I hate the term. ‘Beta’ implies second-best. Trust me when I say a good beta reader is top of the line, A-plus, and, to use the cliché du jour, game-changing. More accurately, game-elevating.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, Wiki describes the ß reader this way:
A non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.
I’m incredibly lucky that I have three such people in my corner. They read my manuscript (often ad nauseum), spot breaks in continuity, holes in the plot, and other problems. They also cheer me on. They tell me when a story is good, when the character makes them cry, and, yes, when the plot falls flat.
The first of my ß -readers is Jane. Best friend, cheerleader, editor, and pedant. Your primary ß – reader need not be the first two things, but she must definitely be the last couple.
No one sees my first draft while I’m writing it. When I’m done, I’ll tidy it up as best I can, and then send it to Jane. She reads the entire manuscript and makes notes:
- I’m not following this paragraph. Which character is talking?
- Pete’s eyes are brown in chapter 8. In chapter 2 they were blue.
- I love this section!
- I think you’re confusing further with farther. Have you checked Fowler?
And so on.
Jane is a thorough pedant, which makes her an ideal reader. She’s also very well versed in the golden age of English detective fiction, and is a history buff. In other words, she’s the exactly right person to read my Sherlock Holmes novels. She also loves my work and I know she’s as anxious as I am for the story to be the best it can.
I spent a lot of years living in the US and other places, so sometimes my language slips out of Victorian England and into 21st century Ohio. That’s when Jane says, You keep saying trunk. It’s a boot in the UK, you know. Also, we spell aluminium with a second i... Because she’s English these things leap out at her.
Generally, by the time I get the manuscript back, I have Jane’s notes all over it. I take a deep breath and then plough through. (The most recent piece I sent her, a short story that I consider the best thing I’ve written thus far, was returned with an unnerving, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.’ Yikes!)
I’d say about 80% of the time, Jane is spot on. Another 10% of the time, I totally disagree with her and keep to my original writing. The remaining 10% of the time we discuss the topic because I need more information. Sometimes she’s missed something in her reading (usually my fault because I haven’t made a point clear); sometimes there are issues of interpretation or national / historical issues that one of us has missed. For instance, in Return to Reichenbach, I have Holmes and Watson arrive in an Irish home around 11pm. The hostess offers them supper. Jane pointed out that it’s odd to serve a meal at that time of night. I replied that in Ireland of that period a woman would be considered a terrible hostess if she didn’t. End result: I kept the scene but made clear that this was a cultural norm.
It usually takes me several weeks to get through Jane’s notes. Sometimes the revisions lead on to a major rewrite and this can take two or three months.
Once I’m satisfied that the MS is as clean as I can make it, I send it on to Ellie. If there are still errors, she’ll find them. It’s odd that she and Jane don’t often spot the same things. When they do, it’s a certainty I have a problem and need to fix it. Because she’s Irish, Ellie will notice if my Dublin or Meath scenes are off. Was there a train station in Baldoyle back then? Did they need passports to travel between England and Ireland?
Ellie’s notes are generally shorter than Jane’s, probably because Jane’s already caught all the big gaffes. The manuscript she receives is nearly-finished which means she is in a good place to tell if the story flows and if the pacing works. Those things are harder for Jane to catch, because she’s reading a much rougher copy.
As with Jane, I usually agree with Ellie’s notes. In the short story I mentioned, she commented that I used the word ‘quarreled’ and it didn’t seem to fit the 1969 New York vibe. I agreed and changed it. On the rare occasions when Ellie makes a comment that I’m dubious about, my response is the same as it is with Jane: ponder, discuss, and decide.
After Ellie has done her magic and I’ve responded with any further revisions, the manuscript is off to my third reader, Patty. Because she’s American, she doesn’t usually spot when I’ve used an Americanism rather than a British term, although she often surprises me. Patty is she’s a grammar purist. She’ll catch every missing comma, every split infinitive. She’ll challenge me about variations in British grammar or word usage. She’s also excellent at spotting any final threads of plot I’ve forgotten to tie up, or inconsistent story lines.
By the time I’ve worked through all the feedback and comments, it’s often a good three or four months since I completed my first draft. With all the revisions, feedback, and yet more revisions, I reach a point where it’s all I can do to look at the bloomin’ thing. I put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks. Then I read through the entire manuscript from the beginning, checking that I haven’t missed anything. One thing I’ve found is with repeated re-writes, is some dopey mistakes can ensue. For instance, if I decided to turn a character’s name from ‘Will’ to ‘Bill’ and used the word-replace option on MS Word, I can end up with phrases like, ‘I Bill make you listen to me.’ Oy vey…
This is why the delay matters. Fresh eyes see more. Also, sometimes I’ve made a change based on feedback, but in the final reading I decide it needs to go back. I don’t often reconsider later on, but it does happen. Letting the MS go ‘cold’ allows me to be more dispassionate about the edits.
All of which leads me to this, if you want your writing to be taken seriously, find a ß Reader or three. Keep the following in mind:
Working With A Beta Reader
- Quality is far better than quality. If you can find even one reader who will be absolutely honest with you, you’ll never look back. Bribe him with brandy if you must, but persuade him to read your early drafts and give it to you straight.
- Train yourself to take all criticism as a gift, because it is. Yes, it’s hard to excise your most delightful phrases, but if they’re spoiling the story, they gotta go.
- That said, it’s your story. If you really disagree and you’re sure you’re right, stick by your guns. A good ß Reader won’t sulk when you disagree any more than you’ll sulk when they tell you you’ve goofed.
- And if you do decide you’re right and the reader is wrong, at least give them a chance to make their case. Don’t dismiss their suggestions out of hand. They won’t mind you sticking with your own vision so long as they feel you took them seriously. I say this mindful of the fact that some writers have a more professional relationship with their ß Readers than I do. In my case, all three are friends and so I feel I can get away with a bit more latitude than I might if they were virtually strangers. Even if they aren’t mates, though, I’d still recommend letting them know you took their comments seriously.
- As much as you want them to be specific with you about problems in your text, you should repay the favour and tell them what you liked about their feedback.
- If you can, try to get two or three readers. It’s hugely helpful to hear alternative points of view. For example, in a story I recently completed, I described a woman’s response to being unable to read behind a male character’s eyes. The phrase I used was, “I couldn’t read his sapphire secrets…” I liked the phrase; Ellie didn’t. She thought it was ‘too clunky’. Jane disagreed and I asked why. Because it fits that narrator, she said. I agreed and kept the phrase. I thought about it for days, though, before I made up my mind.
- Don’t mistake your girlfriend / boyfriend / mum for your ß Reader. There’s a different relationship there. At least, I hope for your sake there is. Unless these people are authors or have well-honed critical faculties, they’re probably not going see your flaws, or to tell you about them if they do. Your ß Reader must first be an honest and insightful critic, and secondly, be willing to bruise your ego and endure your tears or wrath in order to improve your work.
- Be appreciative. Your readers are helping you out because they want to and they could surely find other things to do with their time.
If You Want to BE a Beta-Reader
You can find writers looking for Beta Readers on Goodreads. If you’ve read the author’s work and enjoy it, this is a great way to become part of the process. Don’t jump in until you’re sure, though. It’s quite a commitment, it’s time-consuming, and it certainly won’t make you rich. However, it can give you considerable insight into the writing process, allows you to see the work of a favourite author before anyone else, and enables you to become part of the finished product. You may also find your author mentions you in acknowledgements and give you a first copy of the book when it’s released.
Some Dos and Don’t if you decide to try your hand at being a B. Uh, ß:
- You MUST be honest. Sycophantic praise is does nothing for the author or her work. If you can’t bear to criticise your author, or if you genuinely can’t see their flaws, then perhaps this isn’t a good role for you.
- But not brutal. You don’t need to be delicate with your feedback, but neither should you be savage. You may think you’re being entertaining if you say things like, “What happened here? Did you forget how to write?” Trust me, the author isn’t laughing.
- All your feedback must be as specific as possible. While “This paragraph didn’t work for me”, or “I thought Mabel was a bit wet” might be true, it doesn’t give the writer much to go on. Better to say, “You switched tenses in the middle of a sentence,” or “You used the word ‘dainty’ four times in the same paragraph,” because now the author has something to work with. Likewise, “Mabel just reacts all the time. Why doesn’t she ever step up and take control?” You may find later on Mabel’s behaviour becomes more clear to you, at which point you can say, “OK, I get it now…”
- Don’t rewrite the author’s work, no matter how fabulous you think you are with a pen. It may seem like the best way to explain how she should improve the passage, but it will come across as showing off and many authors will resent it. Or what if the author should use your rewrite verbatim, aren’t you going to feel like you deserve the credit? OK, maybe not if it’s just a word or two, but what if it’s a paragraph? Or a page? Or a chapter?
- It’s not your job to be the author’s moral compass. If you hate that a character has had an abortion, or tells lies, or wants to vote for Trump, you can be honest that you had that reaction, but you cannot try to impose your values on the author.
- Try to avoid keeping your feedback one note. Whether it’s all gushing admiration, or cross the board negativity, it won’t work for the author. Yes, she needs to know where she’s made a mistake, but she also needs to know when something works.
In conclusion, I want to say thank you to Jane, to Ellie, and to Patty. I know how much they’ve contributed to my work and I’m enormously grateful.
If you are struggling with your writing, do think about the value of a ß Reader. They’re A-Plus in my book.