The court of public opinion can be a scary place. Writers spend an inordinate amount of time and resources putting their thoughts onto paper. It would be heartbreaking to reach the end of that long journey and discover that your character is unlikable, your plot doesn’t make sense, or that you have an unsatisfying ending. These things should be caught in the editing process, but massive overhauls of your narrative can be costly in both time and money.
Fiction writers have found that an effective way to resolve these issues is to identify them before the editing process. Many fiction writers have turned to the “beta reader” to solve this problem. Some editors also offer a “manuscript review” that occurs before the official edit for the same reason. But what are they? What benefits do writers obtain from a beta reader or manuscript review? What is the difference between the two?
What Are Beta Readers?
Many products on today’s market are assessed by “beta testers” before they are available to the general public. A beta reader uses the same concept. Beta readers are people who volunteer to read your book before publication so they can critique your book. After they have read your manuscript, they will tell you which parts worked, which didn’t, and possibly make suggestions for improvement.
Beta readers can be anyone – your mom, your dad, your boss, or a stranger you found online. For the most part, beta readers do not request any sort of monetary compensation for their time and opinion.
What Is A Manuscript Review?
A manuscript review is a service that is sometimes offered by editors or other service providers within the publishing industry (including My Word Publishing). It is sometimes referred to as a “professional beta read” because it serves much of the same function. You are paying for a professional opinion about the development of the content of your book.
The key difference is that you are engaging a professional who is active in the publishing industry. This person is up-to-date on industry standards, expectations, and specific audiences. Since many of them are writers themselves, they are aware of what sort of feedback is useful and are better equipped to give meaningful suggestions. The amount of feedback you receive from a beta reader will vary wildly, but a manuscript review will provide you with about 3-5 pages of professional insight.
How to Use Beta Readers
Because they are so diverse in expertise and experience, using beta readers is a surprisingly controversial topic. Many service providers will use the same phrase when talking about beta readers: “take their opinions with a grain of salt.” There is no guarantee that you will receive quality insights from a beta reader. Overusing beta readers is risky as well. No two beta readers will have the same opinion of your book and can significantly slow and befuddle your progress. However, My Word Publishing consultant KB Jensen says “There’s definitely a place for them – if you are careful and use them right.”
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with a beta reader is if you use friends and family. Because you are close to them, they will be biased. They might not be truthful about their perception of your book. They could attempt to spare your feelings and give you encouragement instead of constructive criticism. Of course, I don’t mean that a beta read should be discouraging, but some beta readers might exchange honesty for tact.
One of the ways to avoid this is to choose your beta reader carefully. As KB Jensen says, “evaluate who is evaluating you.” This entails researching your beta reader’s background. Are they an avid reader of your genre? Are they a writer themselves or do they have experience in the publishing industry? Do they fall within your target audience? The answers to these questions will assist you with assessing the quality of this person’s feedback. That is not to say that a person who falls outside of this category can’t give quality feedback, but it will certainly give you better odds.
Lastly, set expectations for your beta reader. Tell them what kind of critique you are looking for or what questions you want them to answer. Some writers provide forms to fill out that highlighted areas of concern the writer wanted help with. This can be immensely helpful in the sense that it filters out information that you might not find useful.
How to Use A Manuscript Review
Frankly, it is a lot easier to use a manuscript review from an editor or a publishing services provider. Because they are professionals, it is much more likely that they will give constructive feedback you can trust. You can spend a lot less time worrying about the quality of their suggestions.
This can give you room to experiment a little. KB Jensen explains “You can use it as an opportunity to test the relationship with your editor.” Using the same editor for your manuscript review and your developmental edit gives the editor an insight into the evolution of your narrative. This can give you a higher quality of a developmental edit and possibly shorten the lengthy process.
However, it is not required that you use the same person for the manuscript review and the developmental edit. More than one pair of trained eyes on your narrative will give you more diverse opinions. If more than one person identifies an issue in your manuscript, it is more likely that your readers will see it as an issue as well.
When Not to Use A Beta Reader or Manuscript Review
It might not be necessary for you to use either of these options. Most of the issues that can be identified by a beta reader or a manuscript review will be caught in the developmental edit. So why use these services at all?
Beta readers and manuscript review are most commonly used by fiction writers. This is because of the length of their manuscript and how long it takes to write the first draft. They might start their book with a completely different vision than what they end up with. The editing process for these books can be significantly longer than it is for nonfiction. Beta readers and manuscript review should be used as a tool to possibly shorten or improve the editing process.
Because nonfiction is shorter than fiction, service providers will rarely recommend these services. The only genre of nonfiction where a manuscript review or beta read could be beneficial is for a memoir. This is because memoirs focus on a personal narrative where real people become characters. Overall, nonfiction writers do not need to worry about this at all.
Finally, you do not want to conduct a manuscript review or beta read after the editing process has begun. This is because your manuscript is now subject to change. The beta reader or reviewer might comment on a passage that is not going to exist soon. You especially do not want to use a beta reader or manuscript review after editing is complete. Once editing is finished, your book should be considered “done.” At this point, beta reads will only confuse you and cause you to write more content that needs to be edited again. It’s a costly mistake.
Ultimately, the decision is yours. You have the artistic license over your book and can decide whether a beta reader or manuscript review is right for you. If you have any more questions about these services or would like to request a manuscript review, contact your My Word Publishing consultant to learn more.
This post was written with assistance from KB Jensen, a bestselling crime novelist and a publishing consultant with My Word Publishing.