Editing a Novel: beta readers

Since last July I’ve popped my editorial cherry by going through the process for the first time with Uncommon Stock. Editing is a painstaking, and often painful, undertaking that has a very different feel from pounding out the first draft. Before starting, I had no idea what the process even involved. After jumping in the deep end I figured it might be helpful to share some of what I learned along the way.

Here’s a breakdown of the editorial life cycle as I experienced it: beta readers -> developmental editing -> copy editing -> proof reading. I’ll make this an “Editing a Novel Series” and will write an in depth post on each stage of the process. Let’s start with beta readers.

Beta readers are unsuspecting victims in your personal network that you ambush with a request to give feedback on the first draft of your manuscript. If you manage them well, their input can be enormously useful as you work to make your story the best it can possibly be.

I sent out the manuscript to four carefully selected beta readers. I spent a lot of time thinking through how many people to send it to and who those people should be. I decided on the number four because I figured that hopefully at least three out of four would read it and that I would be able to balance their input against one another without getting overwhelmed. Then I made my list. I made sure the people on it:

  • Had a high probability of turning it around in a reasonable time frame.
  • Would give their honest opinion minus any rosy tints.
  • Had specialized knowledge relevant to the story and/or editorial experience.
Within a few weeks I had three out of four responses. The first was short and high-level. It was encouraging but didn’t include in-depth advice. The second was extremely detailed. It gave specific plot, character and stylistic tips and referenced the text frequently. The third focused on gaps in character motivation (i.e. Why did Johnny steal a cookie from the cookie jar?) and conflict.

With three beta reader opinions in hand (the fourth person hadn’t had time) I read through the entire manuscript again. Then I weighed their opinions against each other and my own. If more than one agreed on something I made sure to address it. If only one brought something up I would consider addressing it. If they directly disagreed then the tie went to the writer (i.e. me!).

As a startup thriller, Uncommon Stock weaves together business and adventure elements. In the first draft the business elements came on too strong. Parts of it read like an entrepreneurship manual in a fictional setting instead of a story that takes place in the tech world. Some conflicts between the characters felt like they were too easily resolved. The pacing of the story needed to be better balanced so that all the excitement didn’t happen all at once, leaving the rest of the story flat. There were too many “suddenly’s.” There were too many adverbs. The list goes on.

I did two new passes on the entire manuscript, going through every word. Why two? I can only keep so many priorities in my head at a time (ask Drea about my dismal multitasking skills). I chose 3-4 critical pieces of feedback and did a rewrite. Then I chose 3-4 more and did it again. After I made it through the second pass the manuscript had improved a great deal. The plot thickened. The characters deepened. The language tightened.

Now it was time to move on to the next step in the editorial process: developmental editing (detailed post coming soon).

Here is how to maximize the value you get out of beta readers:

  • Choose carefully. You need to be sure they will be candid and not shower you with useless praise that doesn’t give you anything constructive to work on. Remind them that you trust their judgement and that their critiques are much more useful than their kudos. It also helps if they’ve edited things before or are expert in something relevant to your book (i.e. an astronaut reads your story about a trip to the moon).
  • Limit the list. Too few sources of feedback don’t give you anything to balance against. Too many are overwhelming and slow down the process. Right size your list for your own work style.
  • Step back. Writing is an intensely personal pursuit. If you don’t bleed some of your soul onto the page then it’s guaranteed to be boring. That said, you MUST NOT TAKE FEEDBACK PERSONALLY. Remember, your beta readers are doing YOU a favor. You may not agree with everything they say (nor should you) but you should be maniacally thankful for their time and input. If you don’t seriously consider what they say then you’re disrespecting their generosity. Keep your perspective and remember that they’re helping you achieve your goal: crafting the best story you possibly can.
  • Keep a few aces up your sleeve. You’re going to want to tap some additional readers later on in the editorial process to vet later drafts. You’ll need fresh eyes so make sure you save some potential beta readers for down the line.
Good luck!