Is there a better feeling in the world than writing “The End” in your manuscript? It’s a moment to be celebrated: you’ve done it. You’ve written and completed an entire book. Not everyone can say they have.
But you’re not finished. No, not even after you wrap up your self-edits.
It’s time to pass your manuscript off to beta readers — volunteers who provide feedback on your book. If you’re thinking about skipping this stage and just hitting “Publish,” you might want to reconsider.
Why beta readers?
Software companies release beta, or test, versions of their programs to work out kinks and bugs before releasing to the general public. Businesses offer beta versions of their courses so they can tweak the content to ensure it serves the needs of their students.
Authors need beta readers to understand how people read their bookand, like software companies and businesses, to identify confusing or irrelevant spots. Every author has weaknesses. You do too — but you’re blind to them.
Beta readers won’t be. And soliciting feedback from beta readers is your chance to address the weak spots of your manuscript before you publish and share it with the world.
Who you want as a beta reader?
As easy as it is to get them to help, best friends, significant others and family members are the worst beta readers. They know and love you, so they’re predisposed to loving whatever you write — no matter how good it is. While you might enjoy their glowing comments on your work, it won’t be the feedback you need to improve your manuscript.
Here’s who you want to enlist:
An acquaintance or a friend of a friend. People close to you can muddle through confusing sections or sentences to guess what you meant. That won’t give you useful feedback. Pick someone who doesn’t know you well enough to figure out your meaning.
A member of your target audience. If your book doesn’t resonate with your readers, you’re not going to sell copies.
Someone who’s not afraid to be honest. You need positive andconstructive feedback.
Someone who’s reliable. This seems obvious, but people can overcommit. Be conscientious of your betas’ time and priorities.
You need more than one beta reader. There’s no set number, but three to five is a good start. If you’re bootstrapping your book, find even more betas: good beta readers can mean forgoing the cost of a developmental editor.
After you have an idea of who you want, it’s time to find them.
1. an inopportune occurrence; an embarrassing mischance: He caused a minor contretemps by knocking over his drink.
Pan had been amongst them--not the great god Pan, who has been buried these two thousand years, but the little god Pan, who presides over social contretemps and unsuccessful picnics.
-- E. M. Forster, A Room with a View, 1908
Contretemps is a loanword from French. Its initial element is the combining form contre- meaning "against," and its second element is the French word meaning "time." It entered English as a fencing term in the late 1600s.
It’s not only quite possible but also quite common for what initially appears to be a well-written sentence to turn out to fail to express what the writer intended. Readers may be able to understand that intent, and may not even notice the error, but confusion is likely. Here are three sentences that don’t quite say what the writer thinks they say, followed by discussions and revisions.
1. Jones teamed up with another future Hall of Famer named John Smith.
This sentence literally states that Jones’s name is actually John Smith; “another future Hall of Famer named John Smith” implies that the previously mentioned person shares that name. To eliminate this distraction, simply replace name with a comma: “Jones teamed up with another future Hall of Famer, John Smith. (Alternatively, change another to fellow and delete named: “Jones teamed up with fellow future Hall of Famer John Smith.”)
2. Gillian Anderson was offered half of David Duchovny’s salary for the return of The X-Files.
Here, the take-away is that half of David Duchovny’s salary was taken away and offered to Gillian Anderson—obviously not the intended meaning, which is that Duchovny was paid twice as much as Anderson to return to the television series. The fact that Duchovny’s salary is mentioned only for comparative purposes should be emphasized: “Gillian Anderson was offered half of what David Duchovny was paid to return to The X-Files.” (Alternatively, write “Gillian Anderson was offered half as much as David Duchovny was paid to return to The X-Files.”)
Note, too, the rewording in each case of the end of the sentence, which originally was written as if to suggest that she gave the series back in exchange for taking half of Duchovny’s salary, rather than that in exchange for reprising her role in a new edition of the series, she is earning half of what her male co-star is being paid.
3. I managed to pinpoint the location of his first housing development, but finding the first house he built was about as easy as locating men who worked on his construction crews.
To compare one difficult task (finding the first house a housing developer built) with another (tracking down his contractors) by writing that one was as easy as the other could confuse readers. (As it is, only the counterpoint conjunction but provides a clue that the second and third objectives were a challenge to achieve.). For clarity, replace “as easy as” with “as difficult as”: “I managed to pinpoint the location of his first housing development, but finding the first house he built was about as difficult as locating men who worked on his construction crews.”