So you’ve written your piece, read through it and revised it, worked on it some more, and now it’s reached the point where you’re thinking of submitting it for publication. Before you do that, consider rounding up some beta readers and having a beta reading cycle.
What are beta readers? They are people who read your work pre-publication and give you feedback. The term came from pre-releases of software that go through beta testing. Where do you find beta readers? Try your writing group, and if you know people who love to read the genre you write in, ask for volunteers. If you’re writing mysteries, and your potential beta reader doesn’t like the genre, then he or she is probably not a good fit for your project.
Sometimes it’s helpful to give the beta readers guidelines, especially if this is the first time you’re working with them. This can be as simple as asking them to tell you what they like, what they don’t like, and to flag any areas that confuse them. If there’s something in particular that is giving you trouble you can mention it or not. For instance, you might say, “There’s something wrong with the ending, but I can’t figure out what.” Or you might decide not to say anything and see if your beta readers come to the same conclusion.
Planning and Managing the Review Cycle
You want your beta reading cycle to be effective. So it’s a good idea to give some thought about the kind of help you’re looking for, and to schedule your beta cycle with a specific beginning and end date. Talk to your potential beta readers to make sure they are available and that they want to participate. Only use beta readers who like the idea of participating, and plan on enlisting a few more than you think you need. That way if some get too busy and don’t have time, you can still get comments from the others.
Preparing a Document for Review
I find it helpful to save the file for the piece that is going out for review with the date in the file name. It could be something like this: title_date_mylastname_beta. That way I know exactly which version of the piece went out for review. Beta reviews can be done in common file formats like PDF or Word that you send to the reviewers (soft copy), or you can provide printouts (hard copy). For shorter pieces, many readers don’t mind reading a file, or printing it out themselves to mark it up. If you have a long piece, find out if your beta readers prefer printouts.
Note: One way for reviewers to mark up a Word document is to turn on tracking. That identifies every change but preserves the original text. If you receive this type of mark up from a reviewer, you can choose to accept or delete each change. Or you can print it and work from the hard copy if that’s easier for you.
If you’ve written a novel and your beta readers prefer hard copy, the cost of reproduction can add up quickly. So far, the least expensive option that I have found is to go through Lulu (www.lulu.com) and set up a book as a private project. A private project isn’t visible to others, and that is the default setting at Lulu when you upload a project. You can use their wizard to format your beta review draft, and then order the number of copies that you need, using whatever coupon code is active when you place your order. Lulu has online chat support during business hours and I’ve found them to be very helpful.
It pays to shop around, and you might find a better deal somewhere else, so you should comparison shop before you make your final decision about where to get your printouts produced. If you really can’t afford to have copies made, tell your beta readers and ask if they can work from soft copy for your project.
In a perfect world, everyone you approach for a beta read would give you insightful, useful comments that allow you to polish and perfect your work. In real life you’ll discover that some beta readers are more able to give useful comments than others. You’ll also find that they have different strengths. Some will spot issues with language mechanics, others can give good advice about plot. You’ll also encounter readers who either like or dislike a piece, or a part of it, but don’t know why. All of this can be useful, but sometimes it can be frustrating and confusing if the readers’ comments contradict each other, or if you feel the comments are not relevant to your aims as a writer. Remember too, that some reviewers will forget to tell you what they like about your work because they are focusing so much on trying to help you find any mistakes before you submit it for publication.
If you’re not sure which comments you want to follow up on, you can always make a test file. Try the revision and see what you think. Do you like the story better—or does making that change introduce a problem? If you like it better and it introduces a problem, can you fix this new problem? Sometimes revisions do “break things” that you have to go back and fix. With practice it gets easier to evaluate review comments and figure out which are most helpful to you. You’ll also learn which beta readers are the best fit for you.
Beta reviews can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when you’re first starting out, but they can also be very valuable. Being on the receiving end of comments can give you some insight about how to be a beta reader yourself. Once you start using beta readers, you will most likely hear from some of them about pieces they’d like you to review.