Beta Readers: How to Utilize the Power of Readers

What exactly is a beta reader? Simply put, it’s an average joe reader who gives feedback for an unpublished manuscript.

betareaders

(It’s a betta fish…get it?! …I thought it was funny…)

Betas give feedback and offer suggestions for “suspension of disbelief”/believability, continuity and general flow of the story, any possible plot holes, characterization, etc. Betas who are not writers themselves can make some of the best beta readers, as they tend to not over analyze every minute detail of the story like writers. They can take in the story as a whole and get a better view of the big picture.

Should you consider looking for beta readers? Yes! After working on a manuscript for what seems like an eternity, it’s hard to look at our own work objectively. Betas can read your work with fresh eyes and a completely new, unbiased take on it.

There are some important things to remember when working with beta readers:

  • Be up front and clear about what you are and are not looking for. What kind of feedback are you looking for? Characterization? Plot holes? Descriptions? Voice? Flow? Recurring grammar faux pas like dangling modifiers?
  • Know your target audience. If possible, find beta readers within your target audience. Is your story intended for young adults? 18+ adults only? Businessmen? Stay-at-home moms who need a break from the kids? You’ll get the most useful feedback from betas roughly within your target audience and, in turn, gauge what kind of revisions you may need to make. Avoid having family and friends beta read for you. As much as they insist that they can give you helpful feedback, the fact that they know you personally can influence how they see the story.
  • Edit your manuscript to the best of your abilities. Yes, it’s still an unpublished manuscript, but it’s important to give your betas the most polished writing you can give. Even if it hasn’t been to a professional editor yet, revise and edit as much as you can. Take your time with edits, and don’t rush. Remember, some of these beta readers may end up recommending your upcoming novel to people they know — or worse, telling them to steer clear.
  • Have several file options available. Some authors think it’s all about them, when in reality, it’s about the readers. Make it as easy as possible for them to read your work. Ask your betas if they have a preference for file type and, inversely, let them know what types you’re able to provide, such as .pdf, .mobi, .docx.
  • Be considerate of their time. This goes both ways. Authors, remember that betas are taking time out of their day to read your work. Don’t expect them to read and have their comments/notes written within 24 hours. Also, refrain from asking someone to beta for you until you’re absolutely ready for beta readers.
    Readers, remember that authors may have a timeline they’re working on. Don’t dilly dally or put off reading the manuscript for weeks at a time.
  • Get some thick skin. It sounds harsh, but remember to not take feedback personally. Be prepared for both positive and negative feedback. Never lash out or defend yourself against something a beta reader says. Even if you don’t agree with their critique right off the bat, give yourself some time to consider their suggestions. Again, don’t become defensive. Just be gracious for their time and remember to thank them.

 

There are many places to find beta readers — even sites like the Goodreads forums and Tumblr. I also offer more in-depth editing services such as developmental and substantive editing. You can check out pricing info here or email me at allison@thesentrancedwriter.com.

 

 

Editing Your First Draft: Watch Out for These 5 Grammatical Errors

5grammarerrors
When deep in the midst of writing a first draft, using perfectly proper punctuation and grammar is probably the last thing on your mind. However, once you move on to the editing stage, it should definitely be in the forefront of your noggin.

I’d also like to make a note here. I’m all for breaking the rules and being rebellious when it comes to creative writing, but you have to know the rules before you can break them.

But where should you start when it comes to editing for grammar? There are some glaringly obvious ones that any self-proclaimed grammar nerd will eagerly correct you on if you make an error in an online forum (they’re/there/their, to/two/too, etc.) To start, let’s look at some common (but not always commonly thought of!) mistakes made by writers.

Subject-Verb Agreement
This one probably seems like a no brainer, but it’s actually a pretty common error. Slip-ups are so frequent in spoken English that we hardly ever think about it. Some nouns working as the subject of a sentence can be a bit tricky, such as nouns that mean a group of people or things, but the word itself is singular.
Wrong: The cast are going to a party after closing night.
Right: The cast is going to a party after closing night.

Dangling Modifiers
A dangling modifier is a clause that is ambiguously modifying the wrong noun in a sentence. While it may make sense in your own head, it may actually be grammatically incorrect.
Wrong: After ringing nonstop, Lauren had no desire to answer the phone.
Right: Lauren had no desire to answer the phone that had been ringing nonstop.

Em Dash (—) vs. En Dash (–) vs. Hyphen (‐)
When I first heard these terms back in my English classes in high school, I’m sure I had question marks for eyes. The em dash is the longest, followed by the en dash, and finally the hyphen. Computer keyboards are not well-equipped to differentiate between an en dash and a hyphen, but most word processors should have an option to insert special characters.
Em dash: Used as parentheticals and can take the place of commas, parentheses, or colons for more emphasis or better readability. Example: John had to do something–crazy or not–to save her in time.
En dash: Slightly wider than a hyphen. Used to denote a span or range, such as a span of years, a score in a sports game, and to denote direction or connection. Example: We hold meetings on Saturdays, 8:00-9:00.
Hyphen: Used when two or more words make one collective word. Example: Wizards using “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” instead of using Lord Voldemort.

Comma Splices
A comma splice happens when a comma is used instead of a period or semicolon. Example:
Wrong: He didn’t like her, she was too loud.
Right: He didn’t like her; she was too loud.
If the two thoughts (in this example, the two thoughts are “He didn’t like her” and “She was too loud”) can stand alone and still be complete sentences, then they should be separated by a semicolon or period. You can also correct this particular sentence by adding because: He didn’t like her because she was too loud.

Introductory Elements
To keep it short and sweet: Introductory words or elements require a comma after them.
Example: Luckily, we were able to get tickets before they sold out.

Sure, there are about a million more grammar faux pas that could be lurking in your first draft (okay, okay, maybe not a million, per se, but you know…). These five, however, are some common mistakes. If you’re self-publishing, I do suggest working with an editor once you’ve cleaned up your manuscript to the best of your abilities.

For more grammar faux pas, sign up for our monthly newsletter!  Sign up by 4/14 to get the April edition — all about commas!

Editing Your First Draft: 7 Tips and Suggestions

Before you send off your manuscript to your editor or beta readers, it’s important to get editing, first draft, tips, suggestions, novel, book, writing, self-editingit in tip-top shape. No beta reader or editor wants to slog through careless typos and errors that could have easily been fixed by the author.

I know what you’re thinking… but, Allison! Isn’t that what editors and beta readers are for?!

The answer is no.

I used to do beta reading from time to time on Goodreads. I’ve seen some really awesome manuscripts. But I’ve also seen some really horrible ones, too. I don’t mean horrible as in the story was bad; there were just so many typos, silly grammatical errors, or careless plot holes…so many that it just made me absolutely hate the story itself and internally curse the author. It was very apparent that the author had done zero proofreading or editing.

All authors should take the time to edit their work once the first draft is complete (yes, even if you were self-editing along the way). A sloppy manuscript only screams, “I’m lazy and I don’t care what you think of my writing!” 

Okay, maybe not quite like that. But every sloppy manuscript I’ve read made me doubt the author’s ability as a writer. Every careless error detracted more and more from what could have been a really good story, usually to the point of my being totally fed up and wishing I could just stop reading it.

Editors will also appreciate your efforts. It saves them time from having to correct the little, silly errors such as typos, when instead they could be focusing on the bigger picture of your story — plot and characterization, or the voice and syntax of your writing.

This doesn’t mean you need to have a Ph.D in English. I do suggest picking up a reference book for English grammar. English for Dummies is a good one; it explains grammar rules in simple terms and offers good examples.

Once you’ve brushed up on basic grammar and punctuation, here are some  suggestions for editing your work. I did all of these (pretty much in this order, too) after I finished my first draft of Waiting for You. But do what works for you!

  1. Step away from your story
    Once you’ve finally written those glorious words — The End — take a break from your first draft. After you’ve spent God only knows how many months of grueling over every scene and chapter, it all looks the same. Your brain knows what it’s supposed to say or sound like, so that’s what your eyes see when you proofread. Step away from it for at least a week. A month is great if you have the luxury of time (and not having a deadline). You’ll be able to come back with fresh eyes.
  2. Proofread your manuscript in various media
    If possible, read it in different mediums: print out your manuscript or load it onto your e-reader. If you print it out, mark up that bad boy with colored pens and markers (I’m a nut when it comes to colored pens). If you use your e-reader, load it as a .mobi or .epub file, and you should be able to “highlight” any troublesome passages. Also, make note of any phrases or words that you’ve used too much, as well as those pesky adverbs.
  3. Read it aloud
    Seriously, read your work out loud. You’ll be able to hear any clunky clauses or phrases, or dialogue that doesn’t quite sound genuine.
  4. Read it backwards
    You’ll be better able to pick out errors, as your eyes will be able to read each word on its own, rather than taking in the sentence or clause at once (which, like previously mentioned, your brain already knows what it’s supposed to say).
  5. Use your word processor’s handy dandy search bar
    Once you’ve gone through your manuscript a few times, go back into your word processor (or Scrivener, if you’re in the cool club), and use the search function to find any of those phrases or words you made note of. Reread those passages to see if there’s a more appropriate word or description you can use.
  6. Nix was, said*, very, etc.
    Or any other “weak” verb or adjective. I heard the tip some time ago to search for the word “was” — it was actually very eye-opening. I found that I was using the imperfect tense in a lot of places where preterite tense conveyed the action much more crisply. (i.e. “His hands were trembling.” vs. “His hands trembled.”) This also goes for the word “very.”*A note on dialogue tags: Tread carefully when it comes to your dialogue tags. If you find yourself having to replace a ton of dialogue tags for stronger verbs, or find yourself using a lot of adverbs, you may need to rework the dialogue itself. While using strong verbs for tags can be great in small sprinklings, your dialogue and your character’s action before/between/after should convey their emotion strongly enough that it doesn’t necessarily require a different tag.
  7. Those-Which-Must-Not-Be-Mentioned… That’s right. Adverbs.
    A lot of writers will cringe and hiss at you if you even utter the word “adverbs.” While it’s true that too many adverbs are a red flag that you should find stronger verbs and descriptions, I’m of the mindset that a few minor adverbs here and there are OK. You can’t seek and destroy every adverb in your story; you’ll end up with choppy passages and forced, awkward writing. If you find yourself scouring a thesaurus, just stick with your adverb. In a lot of instances, it’s extremely apparent when a writer had to look up a word.

Be sure to check out Showing versus Telling: 10 Resources to Help You Show, Not Tell

Take your time with edits and revisions. There’s no need to rush through them. Once you’re ready to work with beta readers and editors, be sure to keep an open mind to their input. You might find that all your betas have the same suggestions on a certain character or scene. Be receptive and respectful of critique, but also be sure to give your betas feedback as well.

What other steps do you take to get your manuscript ready for beta readers and editors? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments!