A Beta Reader critiques your manuscript, and provides feedback to help you improve it. Lots of people will suggest asking a beta reader to copy edit your work. I don’t recommend that, and here’s why.
1. The power of a good Beta Reader
Beta readers are the Superheroes of Self-publishing. They can help provide valuable pre-publication feedback that self-publishers would otherwise miss out on.
And if you’re pursuing a traditional publishing path, they can dramatically increase your chances of getting a contract.
The right beta readers can help turn a so-so manuscript into a good book, and a good manuscript into an outstanding book. I’ve written before about the characteristics of the best beta readers.
To understand why I think beta readers are so powerful, and how to get the best value from them, let’s look at the editing stages in the traditional publishing process (or what they used to be, before publishing budgets shrivelled!)…
STAGE 1: Developmental editing
This is about helping a book find its way. It may take place in early drafts of the book, or even a partial draft. Or sometimes a polished draft where the author has been struggling with a book that just doesn’t quite work.
Not every traditionally-published book receives developmental editing.
The editor looks at what is already written and gives the author ideas for what the book could become, to help tell the story better (fiction or memoir) or to help the book reach its goals (non-fiction). It is Big Picture editing, looking deeply into the content, structure and themes of the book, but from a high and wide perspective. The author may find they have months of work to do after a developmental edit.
- This could be an example of developmental editing in fiction: “Consider writing the book from a first person point of view, instead of third person, to create an unreliable narrator and increase tension by confusing the reader’s loyalties.” (Yes, developmental editing is BIG!)
- In non-fiction, a developmental editor may say, “Consider removing this section and writing a new section on X, to improve the argument you are presenting about Y.” Or maybe, “Consider revealing more of how you feel about these issues as you write instead of remaining detached, as it will be more persuasive and engaging for readers.”
STAGE 2: Substantive editing (sometimes also called Content or Structural editing)
This is usually done on a complete and polished draft of the book. The editor suggests ways to enhance the themes or purpose of the book, by rearranging the content or suggesting deletion or addition of various elements. This edit is also a Big Picture edit, but it looks more closely at the mechanics of how the content is serving the Big Picture of the book’s purpose. The author may have weeks of work to do in response to a substantive edit.
- In fiction, a substantive editor might suggest that some characters become more prominent, or that some become much smaller, to improve focus on the main action. They might notice plot holes, and suggest ways to close them.
- In non-fiction, chapter order might be changed to help the author build the case they are presenting in a more logical and effective way. It can involve some rewriting. The editor might delete whole sentences and paragraphs because there’s too much waffle blunting the focus. The editor might suggest more effective ways to present information in tables or lists.
STAGE 3: Copy editing (sometimes called Mechanical editing)
This is a much shallower edit than the previous two. It’s primarily about the details of grammar, spelling, punctuation and applying a publisher’s style (although I’ve found that many a copy editor can’t help making structural or content recommendations too!). It happens relatively late in the publishing process and is more about fixing the technicalities than deciding the overall direction of the book. The author usually simply approves copy editing (if their contract gives them that much power), so there’s a smaller time demand at this stage.
STAGE 4: Proofreading
This isn’t really editing, but I include it in the list because I often encounter confusion about the difference between proofreading and editing. Proofreading occurs after a book has been typeset, and is really part of the book production process. The proofreader’s job is to check for typos, the correct placement of items in the page layout, and cross referencing of Table of Contents, page numbers and running heads etc. The proofreader skims the surface. Proofreading happens right at the end of the process, just before a book goes to print.
NOTE 1: Stage 1 and Stage 2 might sound similar, but the sheer magnitude of the changes will make it clear when it’s Developmental editing.
NOTE 2: Don’t worry too much about the different labels. The stages of editing are called different things in different countries, and even at different publishing houses. Call it whatever you want, but just get a sense of the different levels (from deep to more shallow) and the stages of editing (from early to near-publication) that books have traditionally gone through.
From those levels of editing, you need to decide which tasks you’d like your beta readers to fulfil.
2. My suggestion
You’ll get the best value from your beta readers if they complement the role of Developmental and Substantive editors.
Reason 1: Quality
It is Developmental and Substantive editing that make trade books so good. Good copy editing is always a pleasure, but it can only be as strong as the underlying “bone structure” of the book. You want at least Stage 2 for your book, if you can possibly get it. And many of us need Stage 1 as well. I’ve been writing for decades but I’m not at all embarrassed to say that I needed Stage 1 for my first novel Poison Bay. I got it partly from a publisher fellowship, and partly from excellent beta readers.
Reason 2: Value
Stage 1 and 2 editing are the most expensive to buy, because they’re time-consuming and specialised. To give you an indication, the Chicago Manual of Style says substantive editing on a 100,000 word non-fiction book will probably take 75 to 100 hours. That’s the first edit. Second edit in the region of 25 hours. A good editor can cost $100/hour or more. *background music while you add that up* So if you are self-publishing on a small budget, getting volunteers to fulfil aspects of that role is going to be a huge advantage.
Reason 3: First things first
Stages 1 and 2 need to happen before Stage 3. No publisher would be fixing details and typos in a manuscript before the Big Picture editing was completed. It would be a waste of time and effort, because if those earlier stages are done right, the manuscript is going to change substantially. Why fix typos in words that aren’t even going to be in the book?
Reason 4: Better for your betas
Most beta readers will do a better job if there is a narrower focus to what you ask them to do. Many people’s brains don’t adapt well to doing Big Picture and Small Detail simultaneously. They have to change gears, mentally, to adjust between the two tasks. So if you ask them to check for typos, you’ll suck the energy out of their ability to see the bigger issues, and vice versa.
But can a volunteer really do this type of editing?
Yes, I know that these are specialised tasks, and many beta readers will not be highly accomplished at completing them. And I know that usually they are having to move much more quickly through a manuscript than a paid editor would do. But I still believe that by having 3 or 4 carefully chosen and well-briefed beta readers giving this type of feedback, you can get some very useful results.
3. The exception
Ah, yes, you knew I couldn’t just leave it at that, didn’t you? 😉
There are times when the right beta reader can indeed help you with aspects of copy editing. This is particularly true for self-publishers on very small budgets. It can also be useful if you are seeking a traditional publisher, but you want your book to be highly polished before you start querying.
Making the most of potential volunteer copy editors among your beta readers:
- Make all your changes in response to the Stages 1 & 2 beta reports, before you give your manuscript to “copy editor” beta readers.
- Look for betas who have very good attention to detail. The one who was so good at helping you fix your structure and content may not be the right person here, as those tasks tend to require different types of brains.
- Consider keeping special betas in reserve for this stage if you possibly can, as they’ll edit better if they’ve never read the book before.
- Look for someone flexible. A good copy editor doesn’t just rigidly conform everything to Proper Grammar, especially if you’re writing fiction or popular non-fiction. They need to understand “voice”. But if you only have a choice between a grammar tyrant or a dreamer with no attention to detail, go for the tyrant but make sure you have the edit done using Track Changes. That way, you can easily reject anything that doesn’t match your author voice!
Find the other articles in this series here: What is a beta reader and why do I need one?
For a more convenient way of reading, plus lots of material you won’t find on the blog, check out the Beta Reader Superhero Writer’s Handbook.
What do you think? How have beta readers helped you? What tasks were they best at? Will you change your approach to briefing beta readers?