Recently, I’ve taken on quite a few beta-reading and editing projects and I’ve found I quite enjoy the process. I love reading a new story, being surprised by something I didn’t think I would be surprised by and helping fellow authors polish their work.
However, more than half of the works I have taken on as a beta were not ready for my eyes. These stories were less than half polished, some with multiple grammatical errors, and even more with serious POV issues that could have been easily noticed had the author 1) taken the time to work seriously on the second or third draft or 2) ran the manuscript by an alpha first.
I understand the impatience to be published, especially if you’re going the route of self-publishing: a wait of five months to a year after ‘The End’ can suddenly be a matter of days, but wait! You owe it to your work to edit it meticulously. To check for stereotypes, cliches, flat characters, and every other red flag your reader will pick up immediately. If you can’t spend the time to polish your work to your utter satisfaction, it will not be satisfying to your reader either, I assure you.
I have also heard a multitude of excuses for the lacking quality of a work: “I did it all by myself”, “Editing is expensive”, “I meant that; it’s edgy”, “I just wanted to get the action moving”, “My other betas loved it!”, “But it’s good, right?” and my personal favorite “I see nothing wrong with that sentence”. (The last taken from an example of a self-published author who went ballistic over a two-star review.)
First, I don’t need justification. I just want you to know what I see. What your readers will see. In response to most of those common replies, most people can’t do it all by themselves and there are people willing to help you. Sometimes it’s just because that person simply doesn’t have the understanding of English’s complex grammar rules (which I am happy to correct, as I did for one of my first betas who explained their reasons for it). Sometimes, as with the last example, they just can’t see what’s wrong. I feel bad for authors who jet line for the publish button, not realizing they are not only inviting a poor representation of their work, but also permanent, scarring reviews.
Second, if you’re looking for a pat on the back, just say so. Don’t ask for a beta, or an alpha, or a review. Reviews also represent your friend’s tastes and ability to judge. People can not trust a reviewer who gives everything they read four or five stars. If you need the encouraging words of a friend (especially if you’re very concerned about the work or not confident with your writing) then say so. If you feel the need to preface your need for a beta with justification as to why it’s good, that’s a warning sign to me. Your readers will never have the benefit of your justification. The work needs to be able to stand on its own.
In my own mind, I see the process to beta as follows:
- First draft
- Second draft (fix continuity, dialog, character flaws, flesh out or thin, etc)
- Third draft (copy-edit)
- Alpha (alpha checks for grammatical issues, spelling, verb tense– your unofficial copy-editor)
- Fourth draft, fifth draft if needed (revisit issues raised by alpha; recheck flow of story)
- Polish (add wit/humor/suspense, rework dialog into something memorable, check for style, etc)
- Really polish– Get one of your most critical friends to read it and blast it with whatever they’ve got.
- Polish again- get a friend who you know will encourage you to read it.
- Beta (perhaps several of these; Beta checks for likeability of story/plot/characters. Gives impressions, finds last few ‘bugs’ in the work)
- Final polish
- Publish! ….or find an agent, depending on your route.
Now that I’ve ranted a whole bunch, I will say that I have received many a beta project that have been fully polished and a true joy to read. But the author took the time to work on it themselves first. They handed their baby over to me, told me to either be gentle or as hard as I needed to be, and I did my job in those parameters. Many of those projects surprised me, and I developed a wonderful relationship with the author. I look forward to those works being published.
The second thing I feel I need to mention about beta-reading, is that finding a beta is easy, but finding one that you can trust might be hard. I tend to take on the projects of people I don’t really know, and when I open that document for the first time, I have no knowledge of their writing style, or even if I will like it. So, a suggestion, if you’re looking for a beta, include a few paragraphs of your polished writing style in the query, so a beta can see if it works for them.
Beta reading takes time, and alpha reading takes even more. As a writer, I take time out of my own life and my own writing time to beta or alpha, and that time is precious to me. All the more reason I get frustrated when I hear justifications. Of course, I am not god. My opinions are just opinions- please, take them or leave them, but don’t justify.
I really like beta reading speculative fiction, particularly short stories. If you have a work that you feel is totally ready for a beta, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to take a look. My betas are free, for now, and if I really like your work, you might even get a review from me posted on the websites you’d like once the work gets published.