Calling on Beta Readers to Help Polish Your Manuscript

career indie author

career indie author introduction

It used to be that an author would have one or more people to act as beta readers to look over a manuscript. It was a spouse, family members, a writer friend (who owes you a massive favor), or the publishing company’s editor. Wherever they come from, their job is to read your jewel-like prose and give you their feedback on it.

Like everything else in the writing world, there was no one best practice. Some writers such as Dean Wesley Smith give the story to their spouses (in his case it helps to be married to another writer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch). Writers like Stephen King use a few longtime friends they trust. Many indie writers like Michael Anderle recruit beta readers from their fan base.

beta reader

It might be best to have a number of people whose judgment you trust take a look at it.

There are pluses and minuses to each method, but the answer depends upon the confidence you have in your plotting and writing skills, and with the care you took in editing the manuscript. If you’re uncertain, it might be best to have a number of people you trust take a look at it. If you’re a member of a local writers’ group or a closed Facebook group, you might be able to work a deal where you’ll read their manuscripts if they read yours.

Then there’s beta readers, a unique method which has grown in popularity in the indie world. Call this crowdsource editing. Authors form a team of volunteers to read a book before publishing it. Their job is simply to tell the author what they think. Spelling errors, grammatical problems, plot weaknesses, what they hate and what they love. Simple.

The best use of this I’ve heard of came from Michael Anderle’s interview on The Author Biz podcast (http://theauthorbiz.com/hacking-the-editing-process/). The procedure, which was created by Stephen Russell, consists of sending the book out in groups of three or so chapters at a time, collating the results, and running them by the author, who makes the final decisions. Anderle doesn’t have to use every suggestion, but he knows that if he gets the same note from several of his beta readers, it would be worth thinking about it.

Whatever form you choose, try to get at least a half-dozen opinions.

beta reader

You may find that what one person hates, another reader loves.

If you have 10 people read it, and nine of them object to the same passage, you may feel more confident about dealing with that problem.

Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to thank them by name in the finished book, and give them a signed copy for their help.

Formatting Your Manuscript

Before you pass it over to an outside reader, take a moment to clean up the manuscript. Whether it’s your spouse, a development editor, a copy editor, or the book or ebook designer, a professional-looking manuscript will make their jobs easier.

Here’s a brief checklist:

1. Is the manuscript in one file? Some writers break their books up into chapters. This works for you, but for anyone else, it’ll be easier for them to deal with one file. Combine it.

2. Are there page numbers on it? If not, insert them. Most programs, like Word, have a header or footer function that lets you insert the code for a page number at the top or the bottom of the page. If you know how to add text, insert a hyphen and type the title. Like this:

The Book Title—1

3. Are you using Smart Quotes? Back in the typewriter days, there was a key for single quotes and another for double quotes. When the book was typeset, they were turned into what we call Smart Quotes, in which they’re curled to the right or the left depending on how they’re used.

For dialogue, the quotes curl like this:

“Duck, You Sucker!” he said.

Single quotes curl the same way, but sometimes not in the direction you need them to be. For example, decades use the single quote, but curled in the same direction as contractions to replace the first two numbers of the year. Like this:

Duck, You Sucker! is such a ’70s movie!” he said.

4. Highlight unusual text. Traditionally, When a manuscript was prepared for a typesetter, words that you wanted set in italics would be underlined like this. Words that would be in bold would have two lines underneath like this.

Now that typesetters have been replaced for the most part by computers, we don’t have set rules. The best advice I can give is that whatever system you use, that you are consistent in their use. Don’t italicize some words by underlining them, and other by using the italic font. This could lead to even more confusion if you decide that you wanted some words to be underlined in the finished book. What would you do then?

Since most major word processors allow you to search for words that are set in a certain way, the best practice would be to set them in whatever font you want yourself. Underlined, italicized, or bold, if you tell whoever you’re sending the manuscript to that this is how you’re doing it, they can figure it out.

If you want text set in an unusual way, you’ll have to get creative. Take for example a book by Meg Cabot from 2004 called “Boy Meets Girl.” It was a romance in which the story was told through emails, phone messages, memos, journals, message boards; everything, that is, except narrative. If you’re doing something similar — say, an email exchange between your characters, you’ll want to code the text so that it’s easy to find. Use symbols that are not used anywhere else in the manuscript. It could be fake HTML code like [EMAIL], [/EMAIL] or a row of three asterisks (***).

The important thing is to be consistent.

5. Last but not least, did you run a spelling and grammar checker on it?