This post first appeared on Mike Mehalek’s blog, Writing Is Tricky.
So, you’ve written a novel and done your revisions and polished it as best you can. Is it ready to send to an agent or publisher—or to publish yourself? Hard to tell.
Instead of crossing your fingers and exposing your manuscript to the risk of immediate rejection, why not first let someone read your book and provide feedback? If they spot any problems with story, plot, characters, or writing, you’ll have a chance to improve your work before you send it to someone who’ll buy.
Writers have been doing this forever, passing on their finished manuscripts to a close circle of trusted readers. But for the new novelist, it’s one more step along the path of learning to become a published and professional writer.
Whom should you choose? It’s best not to choose someone who isn’t an avid reader, who doesn’t like the genre you write in, or who won’t give you honest feedback (meaning both praise and constructive criticism).
A good beta reader is someone who reads widely, reads in your genre, and can discuss with intelligence the elements of fiction (characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, etc.). Your best bet may be another writer whose back you can scratch at a later date.
If you’re working to deadline, it’s wise to set a date for the review to be completed. Just make sure you give your reader plenty of time to read, and agree on the deadline beforehand.
If there are specific issues you’re concerned about—for example, “Does Mrs. Gulliver seem like a fully formed character to you, and are her motivations understandable and sufficient to fuel the brutal murder she commits?”—you may want to communicate these up front so that your beta reader can be on the lookout as she reads. And make it clear that you’re looking for constructive feedback to make your story better, not just ego strokes.
If you send an electronic file (.mobi, .epub, .pdf, or other), make sure the copy is marked “BETA” on the cover page. Ditto for a printed version. And if your printed version is looseleaf, put it in a binder to keep the pages from getting lost. Invite your reader to make comments in the margins as she reads.
This is your precious intellectual property. You may want to include a copyright statement and warning on the title page and in the footer of every page, along with the specific reader’s name.
On the title page: “BETA COPY 1, date”
In the footer of every page: “Copyright 2013 Your Full Name. Duplication prohibited. Beta Reader’s Name – Beta Copy 1 – date”
This way, if you create more than one version, even if a page is removed from the binder, you’ll know where it came from. Print a fresh version for your next reader with the footer changed appropriately.
Once you hand your reader the manuscript, leave him alone. Don’t call or text every day, asking about his progress and whether or not he likes it. The exception here is inquiring about progress as you near your agreed-upon deadline.
When the reading is done, it’s time for a talk with your beta reader. You may want to prepare and print a list of questions about characters, plot, description, setting, dialog, narration, and so on. If they fill it out, you have their answers in writing.
If you sit down to interview, make sure you put her at ease and encourage her to speak his mind candidly about his opinion. Then, let him talk, and keep your mouth shut. Resist the urge to jump in and explain everything (although you should answer questions when asked, or if you’re unclear about what they’re saying). Above all, turn off your emotions, turn on your smile, and THANK him for the hours he’s spent helping you.
If you get published, a nice touch is to mention him in the acknowledgments section, gift him a signed copy of the book, or take him to dinner. Or all three. If his feedback was valuable, you may want to call on him again.
Then, you evaluate the feedback. It may be a good idea to get another reader’s opinion before you overhaul your manuscript based on your first reader’s input. Fix obvious errors, naturally, before printing a fresh copy for your second reader. But remember that opinions are just that—opinions. No two readers will agree on everything about your book. However, if two or three readers point out the same problem, it’s a good sign that you need to do more work.
I followed this process with DEATH PERCEPTION, my latest supernatural thriller tinged with horror and peppered with dark humor. My beta readers were Kerri Knutson and Gary Reichart, whose feedback I appreciate very much. You’ll see them mentioned on the acknowledgments page with a few treasured others.