Many people are not quite sure of the best time in the development of their book to ask for a beta read. The following timeline — adapted from the traditional publishing process — can help you plan.
Beta Readers are those wonderful people who critique your manuscript, usually as an exchange — they read yours and you read theirs. Every author needs several of them, especially when they are just getting started, even if their book will go through a rigorous editing process later with a publisher.
For self-publishers, I see beta readers as absolutely essential. They help close an editing gap that can be hard to fill on a small budget. Beta readers are Self-Publishing Superheroes!
1. Writing the first draft
If you are writing the first draft, this is the time to begin RECRUITING your beta readers — thinking about who you’d like to invite. Yes, I know you really just want to concentrate on the writing, but if you can dedicate a smidgeon of that creative energy to thinking ahead and planning, the next stages will go more smoothly. Beware: It can take a long time to find the right beta readers for your project!
I’ve written before about the characteristics of the ideal beta reader, so you can check out that article for inspiration on who to ask. And I’ve also given some ideas about where to find these superheroes.
A special case: The early beta read
If you are a new writer, or writing in a new genre, it can be useful to get a beta report on an early chunk of your MS. I did this for my wilderness thriller Poison Bay when it was only about 30,000 words, because it was my first attempt at fiction, and I was painfully aware of my status as a nervous newbie. I’m very glad I did that, because it resulted in huge changes to what I’d already written, as well as what was still to come. The basics of the plot didn’t change, but the delivery of it underwent a revolution!
This was what I call Developmental Editing (see this post for my definitions of different stages of editing).
2. Rewriting and self-editing
It’s still not actually time to send out to beta readers! But it IS time to be getting them organised and “booked in”. Having a deadline when you must send to your betas will help you stay on target with your writing, too.
A special case: Lots of betas to choose from, and a MS that won’t behave
If you have a manuscript that just ain’t singing to you, and you’re flummoxed about what to do with it…
…and a fantastic crowd of beta readers available, some of whom are experienced, and good at seeing the Really Big Picture of a book…
…this can be a good time to send it out for some feedback on how to solve those problems. You might continue working while it’s out to beta, or you may take a break (depending mostly on your deadlines and your levels of frustration!) So, in that case, you would ideally have one or two beta readers at this stage, and two or three DIFFERENT beta readers for the later beta reading stage. (That’s ideal, but not always possible.)
Beta readers in this stage are filling in for developmental or substantive editors, or maybe both. Developmental editors look at what a book could become. Substantive editors look at big issues of structure and themes and what should and shouldn’t be in the book.
3. What you THINK is the final draft
This is the one you send to your beta readers. Yes, I know you’re thinking you’d really rather just publish it and be done with it by now, but hold your nerve! While it is out to beta, you need to be taking a complete break from the book.
Go out for dinner. See if you can remember the names of your children. Wash those dishes that have been in the sink since January while you were enslaved by your art. Do your best to forget you ever even wrote a book! This “distance” is going to give you fresh eyes when the book comes back. You’ll need those fresh eyes when the beta reports start rolling in. (And probably a big box of tissues, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
At this stage, beta readers are providing substantive editing. This is another Big Picture style of edit.
And it will generate a lot of work, so try to allow as much space in your schedule as you can after it comes back, ideally several weeks. (Sorry about that. I know how it feels when you’re confronted by More Work. Really. Been there myself!)
4. The actual final draft
Your beta reports have come in, and you have felt so crushed that you wanted to throw the whole writing thing away and open a florist shop in Argentina. (And this is if your beta readers are KIND and ENCOURAGING! Yes! It’s normal to be devastated. No, it doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be a writer.)
You have eaten a medicinal amount of chocolate (or substitute comfort food/beverage of choice), stamped your feet a few times, and grouched to your loved ones… but then, after a good night’s sleep, you have taken another look at the reports, seen the positives instead of just the negatives, evaluated, thought, and finally rolled up your sleeves for the rewrite/edit that you had to do to make your book all you now realised it could be.
And it is FINISHED.
You don’t need any further beta reads at this stage, although you may like to run the final version past your betas so they can see how you responded to their comments. But that depends on the type of relationship you have with your betas.
A special case: Self-publishing on a very tight budget
One last thorough beta read can be handy if you are self-publishing and can’t afford to hire a copy editor. Copy editors look at the details — the spelling and punctuation, language and sentence flow. And you can rest assured, there will still be problems for a copy editor to find. There always has been in every single book I’ve ever encountered during the publishing process, and yours will be no different. In fact there’s still typos for the proofreader to find (proofreading comes last of all), and that’s after several sets of professional eyes have looked at it!
So if you are recruiting a beta reader for this stage, you are looking for someone who has excellent grammar and is good at detail. And you are briefing them clearly about what you do and don’t want from them at this late stage. You don’t want a developmental edit by mistake!
Most likely, this won’t be the beta reader you used for a developmental edit, because people tend to be strong in either Big Picture or detail. (There are rare people who are good at both.) And hopefully you have the opportunity to ask someone who hasn’t read it yet, because it’s ideal if a copy editor is seeing it for the first time — we become blind to errors in text that we’ve read before, and see what we expect to see instead of the actual letters on the page.
Best wishes for your book and your beta readers!
Where are you up to in your manuscript development? What experiences have you had with beta readers at different stages of the process? Let me know what you think — I love to read your comments.