Editing for Indie Writers: Preparing for Beta Readers

If you’re just jumping in, you can start the series at the Intro.  You might also want to see my outline.  New entries every Wednesday.  All the series posts are here.

Chapter 3, part 1:

So now your synopsis is done.  If you threw yourself into writing mode instead if being over-rational about it, then you may see a few areas that you want or need to change.  This is the time to come to peace with those changes (you may want to look at the section on how to handle beta-reader changes to help you decide whether to make the changes or not, but I haven’t written that yet): the last thing you want to do is hand something off to a beta reader with the caveat that…well, honestly, that it’s totally pointless for them to read the book now, because you’re going to change something that might totally invalidate their opinion.

But what are beta readers?  It’s a phrase that comes from software testing.  The beta testing phase “…generally begins when the software is feature complete.” (Wikipedia, Software release life cycle).  In writing, beta readers can be friends, family, critique groups, online writing groups–whatever feedback you can get, by hook or by crook.  And your book should be a complete, cleaned-up draft before you give it to them.

Readers are precious, and beta readers doubly so:  do not waste their time.

Here are the things that waste time:

The fact is that your average beta reader only has so much time and attention span: if you have 1001 typos or missing commas, you’re going to use up all that attention on getting feedback on your commas.  You do not want beta readers to worry about commas; you want to use them for telling you:

  • Whether they finished the book, and if not, where they lost interest.
  • Whether they liked the book, and if so, where they got sucked into the story.
  • Who their favorite character was and why.
  • Did the villains work?  How about any romances?
  • If there’s a mystery, when did they figure it out?
  • Any inconsistencies they spotted.
  • Any frustrations with the book.

That is, you want them to be real readers, reading a real book.

That means before you send a book to your beta readers you should (in this order):

  • Complete your first draft.
  • Check that your first draft is really complete by following a checklist, writing a synopsis and making changes as necessary, and/or just closing your eyes and declaring it “done.”
  • Spell-check.
  • Read through for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and any other known writing issues, like “using too many be-verbs” or “mixing up past and present tenses” or “head-hopping.”

You should also make sure the document is in standard manuscript format or a reasonable approximation thereof.  Why?  Because it’s standard, and you want to have zee-ro things distracting your beta readers from your story.  If you throw in weird fonts–they’ll talk about your fonts, not your story.  Page numbers missing?  They’ll point that out, rather than the fact that your main character is unrealistic.

Stop any issue that you can stop from coming to your beta readers’ attention.  ANY.  The more professional your manuscript is when you hand it off to them, the more likely you’re going to get the comments you need instead of stupid stuff that you could catch yourself.

Once you have all the issues you can possibly catch yourself caught, then you have a cleaned-up first draft.  Do not send this draft to editors, agents, or self-publish it.  Even if you choose not to have beta readers, there are more things you should do before you go forward (and of course I’ll talk about them later).

Here’s my checklist for preparing documents for beta readers.  As you learn your own personal writing weaknesses (usually from your beta readers), add items to your list.  But here’s what I do:

  • Format entire document in standard MS formatting.  If only sending certain pages, make sure page numbers match the numbers in the main document (because inevitably chapters will be mixed up later, or you’ll have to rewrite a chapter, or…or…or…).
  • Spell-check the document.
  • Check all indents and returns; check for “big uglies,” that is, stuff that makes paragraphs and/or pages look weird.
  • Do a line edit to catch spelling/grammar/punctuation issues.
  • Check opening and openings of chapters/scenes for excess backstory or other blah blah blah.
  • Make sure names are consistent and spelled consistently.
  • Do a sample for excess be-verbs, especially toward beginning of story.
  • Remove instances of “saying things twice,” or describing things more than once.

Names are my bugaboo, for some reason.

Next Week: Integrating Comments: The Tears, The Fears, The Bull@#$%.


Review: Radical Equations by Robert Spiller


Ebook Formatting 101 (part 1)


  1. Great post, all useful information. I would also add that one should make sure to find Beta readers who read your genre regularly.

  2. Names seem to be my bugaboo, too. I’ve started using a stylesheet to take care of that problem, so thank you, thank you, thank you for that.

    My problem with beta readers is that people tend to be too nice to me. They say, “This was great!” and then I say, “Okay, but what could be better?” Their response is always something like, “Nothing, it’s great! Really.” I don’t want nice. I want people to tear my manuscript apart. That’s why I go to my writers’ group. The problem is, it’s at my community college, so there are frequent breaks, or times when I just can’t make it because of scheduling conflicts (it depends entirely on staff). So if I can’t have my group look at it, I rely on friends and family, which I’ve discovered just doesn’t work. I used to have a friend who I’d trade manuscripts with and we’d critique. I desperately wish I had someone like that again.

    • De

      Okay. I can see that next week, I’m going to have to include something on what the beta readers should be doing and how to know when to get new ones.

  3. Great post full of helpful items. I especially like the “question list” since that directs Beta readers to be more specific in their criticism. Also, that’s three “Elizabeths” commenting in a row. We should get t-shirts made or something.

  4. De

    Good point. Would you rather be witches, ghosts, fates, harpies, or talk show hosts?

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