So, I type my last revision, reread my last paragraph, and close the final scene of my manuscript with an exhale I can feel to my bones.
When It’s Time For Beta Readers
I might not be an almighty guru of writing, but I have made enough critical mistakes at this point in the game to know a thing or two.
My biggest mistake was passing out my first novel for beta reading before I went through it for a hard revision. I’d done some gentle SPaG edits, but hadn’t bothered to modify more than a paragraph or two here and there even when I knew I should probably change some meatier parts of the story.
This was unbearably stupid of me. T.T
Not only was it a tough and boring read for my betas, but it was also largely ineffective. Their critiques focused around gaping holes I’d known needed to be fixed, I was constantly apologizing for things I’d forgotten to explain, etc.
It was basically the beta-reading equivalent of sending a rickety old raft onto the open seas in the middle of a storm. In short, that strategy netted me:
- Man Overboard: Half my beta readers bailed before reaching page 3. They were bored and couldn’t connect because I hadn’t edited out the boring stuff that didn’t directly relate to plot.
- Lost At Sea: My surviving beta readers were either confused or pointing out things I knew about. Not only was this less than helpful to me, when they reported back and found out that I already knew about said issues, they felt ineffective overall which then killed their ability to connect.
- The Widow’s Walk: I spent most of my time waiting impatiently and feeling like a jackass.
Hardened by experience, I can now say with some authority that you should edit your book twice before you pass it off: once, for the patchwork stuff you know has to happen before you’ve even finished with the first draft and then one more time, in order to delete all the extraneous scenes.
But How Should I Approach This?
Before I finished my manuscript, I had romantic notions about my friends sipping coffee while they poured over a printed copy of my work, pens in hand as they praised my genius. By the time I’d finished it and saw the final word count tap out at 164,000 words, I knew printing it would be infeasible.
So I did what anyone would do. I got lazy.
I dropped all my scenes into the same document and shared it on GoogleDocs.
This was incredibly stupid because:
- It was nearly 460 pages long. No one could read it, except for my most dedicated reader, L. She would open the document, spend twenty minutes getting ready for bed, and check back to see if it was done. That thing took an average of ten minutes to load completely and while that was happening your screen would jump all over the place and the comment button wouldn’t work.
- Everyone could see each other’s comments. I quickly realized I was getting an amalgamation of opinions by virtue of cross contamination rather than by the merit of each person’s thoughts. After all, one of them might think, “That was stupid. I should tell her” and then see that everyone else had liked that part. So. Damn. Ineffective.
- It was intimidating. Here I was, asking them for a favor and all they could see was 400 un-loadable pages looming before them. Not only that, but if they clicked away from the page when they were done for the day, the whole thing would reload and they’d lose their spot.
This second time around, I asked everyone what would work better for them. Most agreed that GoogleDocs was fine, but that they would like things broken down into chapters. One reader (one my most valued) insisted that she needed to feel the page beneath her fingertips to feel committed. Initially, I fought back against this before I remembered she was doing me a favor and that I should be gracious about it. So I bought a ream or two of paper and printed out the fully revised 410 sheets she’d asked for.
To address the issue of cross contamination, I made everyone their own separate folder and copied the files into them. Took maybe an afternoon.
But If Your Readers Aren’t Professionals, How Will They Be Effective?
Crawling through all the writer based panels at ComicCon, one thing has stuck out to me about beta readers (though I forget who said it).
Beta readers are only good for answering two things: where they get bored and when are they confused. Nothing else matters.
–Some Guy At ComicCon
Personally, I thought that my readers could do with an additional question: what do you like? I tend to get a little machete happy when it comes to my manuscript and sometimes I slash the parts that help the reader connect with the characters. I hoped this would help insulate me from that.
I typed up a quick note at and stuck it as the first file in all their folders. The note was a terse little thing, thanking them for the solid and telling them how to use comment button (instead of commenting inline. Gah!).
I also made a point of my nifty little highlighting system, thusly:
This means I’m bored! I might have even zoned out and had to reread this part!
I’m confused! I had to reread this part and I still might not understand what happened.
I really liked this part!
So How Did This Work Out?
No clue. Still waiting on my readers. I’ll update as soon as I know.
Now go write.