18 Nov 2014

Beta-Readers and the Feedback Balancing Act

As soon as you tell people that you’ve finished the first draft of a manuscript, their inevitable question is “when can I read it?”.  The truthful answer – which always seems to surprise them – is “when it’s published” which still won't be for months/years.  Most people seem to think that as soon as a book is written, it’s ready.

If only that were true!  The editing process almost always takes longer than the initial writing phase and can seem endless at times.  Having waffled many times trying to explain why drafts aren’t generally fit to be seen by human eyes, I've started using what I think is a helpful analogy.


The first draft of a manuscript is like a potter throwing a lump of clay onto a potter’s wheel.  It’s the raw material, but you’d never dream of saying “oh, that’s beautiful!  Can I buy it?”  The clay needs to be worked on first, shaped and given numerous layers of detail, perhaps even painted and fired before it’s ready for use.  Similarly, the first draft of a manuscript needs to be shaped and edited several times, adding multiple layers of detail before it’s ready for general reading or publication.

Beta-readers is a term I came across when reading Veronica Roth’s blog.  Excitingly she was talking about them in the context of them reading Divergent!  What a claim to fame that would be 🙂

I used to call them “pre-readers” as in “pre-publication” (ever hopeful!), but beta-readers is a much more apt term.  It originated from IBM and refers to one of the stages in the software release life cycle.  Beta-testers check the functionality of software, websites and apps, highlighting problems and suggesting improvements.  They're a vital stage in development.

The same is all true of beta-readers for a manuscript.  It’s so important to take a break and a back-step from your work in order to see it more objectively but, as its creator, you can never achieve full objectivity.  I know my characters, their world and the plot better than anyone, and because of that I might occasionally assume that my readers have the same knowledge.  I need a new pair of eyes and perspective to show me the glaring gaps and plotting inconsistencies. 

My beta-readers have picked up many of these!  For example, one beta-reader highlighted a sentence that inadvertently suggested that W had asked T to do something, which – if true – would have thrown a completely different light onto both their characters.  I knew what I was trying to say, but it wasn’t clear.  Unsurprisingly I was very quick to rewrite that section and remove all ambiguity!

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” The Bible.

Many people have offered to read my book and it’s very kind of them.  I have certain criteria for my beta-readers, which changes slightly each time, and it’s meant as no offence to those I don’t ask.  When I want feedback then I’m only going to give it to a max of 3 people.  Advisers cease to be a good thing when there's too many of them!  Three gives me enough of an idea about which areas need work.  A beta-reader needs to understand that what they’re reading is not a finished product, but a work in progress that they have the – potentially dubious – honour of being part of developing.

It’s also so important what feedback you ask for.  With my middle grade kids’ book last year I learnt that it’s essential to ask specific questions rather than request an all-guns-blazing critique.  I also made the mistake of telling a beta-reader at that time of my disappointment they didn’t give more positive feedback.  The relationship is still strained from their side because of that.  Note to self – the best and safest response is just “thank you”.

Nowadays a key question is “what did you like most?” – not just to bolster my ego before the critique begins, but because it’s essential to know which are the best bits so you don’t cut them out in an edit!  It also sets a more positive tone, which is beneficial for everybody.

So, what have my beta-readers for CAF been saying?  One is yet to finish, as they’re currently travelling, but the other two loved it.  My hubby was one of them and it was a massive thrill for me to watch him read it on holiday and be genuinely absorbed, rather than just forcing himself through it in order to help me.  It was especially exciting when he said “I’ll just finish this chapter and come to bed” and when I came back into the lounge a few minutes later he’d gone onto the next chapter coz it was so gripping 🙂

Thanks to all their feedback so far, CAF is, right now, being edited to a whole new level and I’m thrilled with it!  Good beta-readers – or anyone who will help and support you as you work towards a goal or project actually – are worth their weight in gold.  Treasure them when you find them.  There may be 5 "i's" in individual brilliance but there aren't any in success!



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