Monday, May 23, 2011

The World of Beta Readers


This last week I have been focusing on finishing my beta reading of Kimmel's book.  I got behind on it, what with editing my own WIP, so as soon as I finished my round I dove into her book.  Because of that, I have been thinking a lot about beta readers.

Do you know what a beta reader is? 
I found out just last year, honestly.  I had heard the term thrown around, but never thought much about it.  Now, if you know me and my hubby, we do like our video games.  We have even played the beta versions of certain games before.  So I figured it was something like that.  Getting the "finished" product... playing (reading) it... then pointing out all the flaws and gaps and moments that it freezes/randomly shuts down.

And guess what.  That was it.  Minus the freezing/shutting down.

A beta reader reads the MS with "a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public."  (Thank you Wikipedia for speaking for me.)

Since then, I have had the chance to beta read for a couple different friends.  It is a great experience.  And a scary one.  What is even scarier?  Sending my WIP to my beta readers.  Even though I personally know each person I had as my beta reader, I still felt the ants in my pants and the jitters.  Major jitters.  Here this book is.  You have been slaving away on it for who knows how long, only mentioning the most awesome parts to the ears that will listen.  Then you edit a bit.  Make it even more awesome.  Now... here comes the test run.  It's scary!

So, today I thought I would post a few thoughts on what both the writer, and the beta, should keep in mind when beta reading away.
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Author:

- Make sure you do at least one, if not two, strong edit rounds before you pass it to the betas.  While their advice is needed on all levels, you want to give them something closer to the finished product, other than the rough one.  They need the magic!

- Choose your betas carefully.  These are people who will be reading your baby.  Critiquing your baby.  You need to know that you can trust their opinions and thoughts.  And that they will give opinions and thoughts.  (I'm sorry.  But  "It's good" just isn't good enough.  But I will get to that one later.)

- Give clear instructions.  Do you want an in depth, catch all grammar issues review.  Or are you mostly just looking for the gaps and the loved spots?  Make sure to explain to your betas what exactly you are needing.  Tell them to write their notes in a different color than the text.  I have found that adding something such as  "EDIT2" after each note/correction makes it easier to find them all later.  Whatever you chose, make sure to clearly tell the betas.

- While family is awesome, they may not always make the best beta readers.  It's tense enough asking friends to do this job.  Family is a whole 'nother story.  While they are usually your biggest fans and strongest rooters, they also can have a harder time being critical.  Yes, you want and need the love/adoration.  But unless you know for a fact that your family member can put aside that connection and read honestly, I would recommend to wait on their praise.

- Be open minded.  Yes, this is your baby.  Yes, you created every sentence, every page.  And I am pretty sure you think it is amazing.  (I hope you do!)  Now you have to listen to your beta readers.  As writers, we understand our entire story, even the parts not written, because it was born from our own minds.  The beta readers don't.  They will tell you where the plot gaps are.  Where they got confused, lost.  What sentences made no sense and what sections felt unneeded.  Remember: You asked them to do this.  Don't argue or get butt hurt if the entire MS doesn't return glowing with praise.  They are trying to help you, to make this the most amazing thing ever.  So, take a deep breath and try to listen.

- On that note: You don't have to do everything that every single beta suggests.  That is just what their thoughts are.  Suggestions.  While I do not advise totally disregarding all of their words, you can pick and choose.  Listen to their advice, take it to heart... then do as you the author knows best.  It is your baby.  They are the community helping it grow.

- Send it to more beta readers than you want feedback from.  From personal experience, and finding out from other writing friends, not every beta will end up finishing and sending their feedback to you.  That's ok.  It doesn't mean they hated it.  Life happens, and there really isn't much we can do about it.  So, if you are hoping for at least three solid feedbacks, send out at least six. 

-Thank them.  These beta readers did a lot for you.  They read your MS.  They shared their thoughts.  They worked hard.  So make sure to say a huge thank you, potentially with chocolate.


Beta Readers:

- Follow the instructions.  I am sure the author will send what format, feedback, etc they are wanting from you.  Do that.  Don't change it up because you feel your ideas for feedback are better.  The author has taken faith in you, and they know what they are needing back.  So, do that.

- If you commit to beta reading, do it.  While we all know that life happens, the author is depending on you.  Try to do it.  Aim to do it.  And if something comes up where you realize the job won't happen, be kind and tell the author.  Leaving them dangling in the dark until the last second isn't very kind.

- Be critical.  Many times you may just feel the urge to say "It's good" or "I love it."  While both of those are awesome to hear, they don't help much in the grand scheme of it all.  If you love a part, explain why.  Authors love praise, they really do.  And they will need it... because if you do not get a part, if you couldn't understand it or just felt strange about it... you need to tell them that too.  Being critical means living on both sides of the spectrum.  While you may love the story, it will never shine and be its best if the weaker parts don't get polished.  You, as the beta reader, are out there to find those parts.  Don't worry.  The author is trying to be open minded.  So be honest.

- On that note: Don't be brutal.  Honestly, if you just can't stand the entire piece and felt like it was a huge waste of your time... find a slightly nicer way to word it.  Even if you do like the piece, don't make the entire MS bleed.  I know we all want perfection.  But remember how hard the author has been working on this.  They are about to be smashed in the publicity world.  Break it to them nicely.  If you feel the MS needs much more work than what you see before you, email the author and speak to them directly.  Do not just tear them apart.  While you do need to point out the weak spots, make sure to also compliment on the parts that worked.

- You are their first step into the world of reviews, remember that.  The author has sent you their work.  They are now at home, nawing on their nails and pacing the floor.  They are nervous and excited.  Your thoughts mean more to them than you may know, and they need to hear them.  The book world is brutal.  They are bound to be in line for some not-so-awesome reviews in the future (Hey, every book has them!) and you are now the first. 

- Stick to the time line.  The author will more than likely tell you when they would like your feedback returned by.  Respect that.  If you find you are lagging behind, tell them.  Communication is key.  The author is likely on some sort of deadline, and they can't wait months for you to finally do what you agreed to.

- Respect their privacy.  Being a beta reader is awesome.  You have been let into the author's inner circle and entrusted with their prized possession.  Don't abuse that.  You must remember that it is still a WIP, and still being worked and tweaked until it is ready to shine.  Don't disrespect the author by bad talking the book to others.  Handing it out to others to read.  Telling people everything that happens within the pages.  Copying it and selling it as your own.  All of those are huge no-nos.  You have earned their respect.  Don't lose it.
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Beta reading is a great way to advance your book to the next level.  Not every writer out there has an amazing agent loaded with talented editors and a-waiting publishers.  With beta readers, we working a bit more independently have the chance to grow.  Take that chance. 

I know from personal experience that the feedback and insight given to me from my beloved beta readers was invaluable.  I don't think my WIP could have gotten to where it is now without their time and love.  My Betas, I know I say this often, but... Thank you.  I love you.

Whether you are the author sending your book out to the betas.  Or the the beta reader now ready to devour the pages in front of you, I wish you luck in this adventure.  And remember: Bring lots of chocolate.

(For another good posting about betas, check out this one.)

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How about you?  Have you ever been a beta reader?  Are you about to send or have sent your MS to betas?  What are your thoughts on this world?

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4 comments:

Kay Elam said...

Jenni,

This is a great post and I'd love to use it as a "guest post" on my blog www.kayelam.com/blog. Of course I'd give you full credit and link back to you.

I'm in the process of getting my Beta reads in and editing my m/s. Question: Do you edit by BR or by Chapter. I've been doing it by BR but think I may do Chapter 1 for everyone before going to chapter 2.

I'm already a subscriber via Google Reader. I was in the Revisions class with you. Do you have an agent or are you about to start the query process.
My e-mail is kayelamwrites@gmail.com. It would probably be easier to have this conversation via e-mail than in your comments. LOL

Jenni Merritt said...

Kay,

Hello! I remember you from class!

I will shoot you an email. Thanks for the comment :)

Kimmel Tippets said...

I will be using this post for my future beta readers. I love how you broke it down for both sides.

Shallee said...

Ah, beta reading. I've done it for others and had it done for me, and there's really no substitute! My book would be nowhere near as good as (I hope) it is without those betas.

This was a great succinct post on betas. Thanks for sharing!

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