July 31, 2018
Once you’ve finished revising your manuscript, set it aside for a few days (maybe a week). Then go back to it. Reread it from beginning to end. Is it as tight as it can be? Or are there weak spots that could stand a bit of snugging up?
Now’s the time to do those last fixes, to ensure your story flows well—with no plot lines left hanging—and to pull together any loose, straggly bits you might not have noticed earlier.
When you’re honest-to-goodness, 100% positive you’re done, you may experience a sense of letdown or emptiness. Don’t fret. It’s pretty normal. You’ve been at this for so long, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to feel kind of hollow inside.
To quell that unaccustomed “What do I do now?” sensation, give yourself a small window of time to bask in that feeling. Notice I didn’t say “wallow” or even “marinate.” This is your down time. You’ve earned it! It’s uncomfortable, but you know what? It’s yours. Embrace it! You may find yourself wandering (seemingly) aimlessly about your living space, flopping onto the couch to watch mindless TV shows—even crunching way too many Cheetos and licking tenacious orange crud from your fingers for the next 20 minutes. Good. Do that. Just don’t get mired there. You’ve got things to do, writer!
Pouting Time is Over, Punkin!
It’s time to get back to work.
Give copies of your manuscript to several beta readers. What’s a beta reader, you wonder? Good. You’re paying attention. I do love it when you pay attention. Beta readers are like non-geeky software testers. When computer programmers (the good ones, anyway) finish writing a software program, they send “beta” (test) versions to select users, who try to shake out all the bugs.
Years ago, my husband led a team developing shopping-cart functionality for a footwear retailer. One evening, he sat me at his computer and said, “Break this.”
Before long, I’d driven the site to its knees (inasmuch as websites have knees).
He stood over me, made audible thinking noises, scribbled notes and asked me to replicate the issue.
I found multiple ways to break it—but never the same way twice.
So, What—Exactly—Does a Beta Reader Do?
Beta readers “test read” your story, to uncover issues and determine whether it works. They usually provide written feedback, so you can improve your work in advance of its release (or submission). Some beta readers develop a written report, outlining where they felt your story’s strengths were, where it fell short, or where confusing elements might lurk. It could be an overarching review, or a chapter-by-chapter evaluation, depending on the readers. Of course, you may want to ask beforehand how they do feedback. Some will follow whatever format you set out (especially helpful if you’re seeking input regarding a specific facet of your writing).
Sometimes, authors ask beta readers to look for things left hanging, such as situations we’ve set up and never really resolved, or descriptions that aren’t clear enough (we may fill in details in our heads but don’t set them down on paper for the reader), or characters who are badly fleshed out and we’ve inadvertently neglected to mention a quirk that’s key to their personality—without which the whole premise of the novel unravels. Because we’re so steeped in our writing, we overlook potential glitches that may trigger readers’ disappointment, disillusionment, and one-star ratings.
Where Can I Find a Beta Reader?
When soliciting beta readers, draw from a broad cross section of people: folks in your target audience as well as those who may be less inclined to pick up your book. You could glean valuable feedback from varied readers’ observations.
In my writers’ group years ago, we used cover sheets with a few questions posed about the writing. We’d write directly on members’ cover sheets, jotting additional comments in the space at the bottom. The most helpful folks would respond in essay form, often continuing on the back of the cover sheet, in addition to having penned copious notes in the page margins.
We’d ask basic questions—about dialogue plausibility and character interactions, or gauging reader interest—and more-specific questions: How else might Steve have reacted to Jo’s news on page seven? When might have been a better time to discuss the bank heist? Or, What complications do you foresee with the plot thus far?
After each chapter, you might want to include a simple yes/no checklist that stays the same throughout the manuscript to evaluate reader interest:
Are the characters believable?Is the dialogue plausible?Did the story hold your interest?
A Few Things to Remember:
Your readers are doing you a huge favor, often within a tightly specified period of time, so you don’t want to overburden them with too many questions. Ask a few critical, open-ended questions, as those encourage readers to respond in depth.
Solicit more than you think you’ll need, so if some decline, you still have plenty.
Ask each reader to answer, say, six in-depth questions, but let them answer as many (beyond that) as they wish. Some folks enjoy providing feedback and will answer each question posed in well thought-out mini essays. But some might enjoy answering questions as much as I like weeding my hosta beds, and will respond in as few words as necessary.
Some folks may hedge because they don’t want to offend you; they also might not want to spend a lot of time crafting tactful answers. Make it easy for them. Tell them to be as forthright as possible. Given that freedom, folks are more likely to write openly … which is what you’re looking for anyway.
A final thought on answering questions: If you give your readers a list of questions to choose from, place the most critical ones at the top of the list. So if they lose steam partway through, you’ve still got your most-important questions answered.
Finally, give your beta readers clear deadlines. Allow at least a month’s lead time, if possible, so they won’t feel rushed. You might want to set a preferred return date (soft deadline) and a hard deadline, by which you absolutely must have the manuscript returned—which may be an editorial or production deadline. If readers know you have a hard deadline to meet, they may be more inclined to help you meet it.
Good luck! Let me know how it goes
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.
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