Following my last few posts on editing, I’ve gotten this question: What’s the difference between an editor and a beta reader?
Beta readers are not professional editors and professional editors are not beta readers. Before someone finds offense, let me clarify this is most often the case and there are exceptions to every rule. For example, an editor may offer to work as a beta reader on a friend’s book or as an author’s fan. However, to confuse the experience and jobs of the editor and the beta reader or to settle for working with one over the other is a mistake, which sacrifices quality. Both serve a valuable role in the writing, editing, and publishing success of a book.
First, editors have professional experience and cost money. Professional editor is a career. There are several levels of editors. Some types of editors work on a manuscript prior to beta readers getting it. Please refer back to the past few weeks of posts for more detailed information on different types of editors and what to ask an editor before hiring.
Beta readers are non-professionals who read a manuscript prior to publishing or read a pre-release of a book. If a beta reader is provided a manuscript they’re often asked to read for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors. They may comment on parts of a story that are confusing or things that don’t make sense. The writer may decide to make changes at this point based on beta reader feedback. A beta reader who is given a pre-release copy of the book is asked for an online book review in exchange for the book.
One strategy is to provide a draft paper/printed copy to trusted friends, family members, or co-workers. Give the beta readers permission to circle spelling and grammar errors, make comments (things they liked and didn’t like), and ask questions in the margins. Select beta readers who will be honest and won’t just say, “That was awesome.” This response may feed the ego, but doesn’t strengthen the manuscript quality. People who read the book later may not be as kind.
For the beta reader: Critique in a positive, helpful way. Couch trouble spots with a request to check on this, rather than, “You’re wrong about ____.” Explain character specific concerns with details and reference pages. If you hate a character explain why, because some characters are designed to be hated, therefore, your hatred is a good thing. But if you hate the bad guy because he/she is wishy washy, say that and be specific. Maybe make a suggestion for how you might make that character’s reaction or words different. Beta readers are asked to give feedback due to the writer’s trust and respect, so don’t be afraid to make the comments count.
I know an author who uses beta readers for all of her books in a series. An astute beta reader mentioned the way a character reacted in a specific scenario didn’t seem right. It was not true to who the character was. The author reviewed that section and said the beta reader was absolutely right. Another beta reader caught a discrepancy of setting description. A pretty major one. The writer took the opportunity to fix it before the book was published.
For the writer: Give beta readers a clear understanding of the deadline. Give clear instructions. Remember beta readers are giving the gift of time invested in helping make your manuscript better. Therefore, if asking another writer to serve as a beta reader, if ever asked to return the favor, commit to doing so.
Where does a writer find beta readers? Beta readers can come from a fan base who receives draft copies of a book in order to read it and prepare reviews prior to sales or early in the sales process. Fans as beta readers are a very valuable resource for feedback and reviews.
Here’s an exception to the target market beta reader rule. If you’re writing a memoir, select trusted friends who know nothing about the topic. For instance, if writing about domestic abuse, ask someone with a long-time, solid marriage who never experienced domestic abuse read the manuscript. They will ask questions about “How do you explain _____” But that’s great insight and feedback that may need to get addressed in the writing.
From my book, Face Forward, Move Forward, a beta reader asked: “Why do you think your mother stayed with an abusive alcoholic?” Hmmm, I think I knew, but didn’t think to add it to the story. But the beta reader didn’t understand and wanted that insight. I added it and I think it did add value to the story.
But again, beta readers are not professional editors and professional editors are not beta readers. Both serve a valuable role. To confuse the two or settle for working with one over the other is a mistake. A successful writer uses all possible tools to create a top-quality book!