One of the most invaluable resources a writer can ever have is a second pair of eyes.
Called a beta reader (like a beta-tester in programming), a secondary reader, or sometimes just a straight up editor, having someone else read through your work is an invaluable step in the editing process.
This is important because while writing a story, writers live very deeply within them. We can be blind to all sorts of mistakes – little ones like typos, or big ones like failing to close a plot gap, or to make a Chekov’s Gun payoff, or changes to a character’s appearance, or simply forgetting to write a whole chapter. I’ve done all of these things. It’s easier to miss than you’d expect, because you think you’ve done the thing and when you re-read the story, you can easily see what you intended to put on the page, instead of what you really did put on it.
Of course, putting a story away for awhile and coming back to it with fresh eyes is a great way to find errors and ensure the book you’re working on reads as intended, it’s still easy to miss things, or to assume something works when it doesn’t. Afterall, it’s nearly impossible to be fully objective about writing we ourselves put on the page.
To this end, that second pair of eyes is a vital part of the process of turning a first draft into something professional and legible. Especially if you want to make sure that characters come off the way you intend them to, twists happen at the right moment and the right pace, and nothing is too predictable or too gonzo or simply doesn’t make any sense.
Secondary/Beta readers are also great because they may clock onto something that you missed – an opportunity to explore a way to tell the story better, or introduce a twist, or broaden something that they say in the book but you didn’t realize you’d put there.
The number of times I’ve said “Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean to put that in there, but that’s a much better idea than what I was going to do!” is nearly obscene. ~_^
And the truth of it is that as much as people would like to believe we are special and talented enough to be above needing those second set of eyes, not one of us is. Not a single writer.
So, I usually run my books/short stories/screenplays/(and sometimes even my fanfics) through three to five levels of secondary readers, depending on the intended use of the story:
- A friend/someone from my writing circle who likes my work
- Why? This is someone who’s read a lot of my work and knows my patterns and habits, both good and bad, and help me spot them and work with them. This is
- A friend/someone from my writing circle who hasn’t read much of my work or doesn’t often read in this genre.
- Why? Because someone who likes my work, or loves the genre I’m writing in, may be blind to the flaws of the story that come from me leaning too heavily on genre tropes or my own habits.
>>This is where I generally take the feedback from these folks and go do a re-write or a second draft.
- An editor
- Why? This is someone whose sole job it is to find errors, both structurally and/or line-by-line (depending on which kind of editor you’re working with), and help you as a writer improve both the manuscript and your craft. They’re trained professional storytellers.
- If the book is already contracted, then this person generally goes last on my list, because it’s the editor at the house that’s going to be working on it and carrying it through to the end of the project. I’ll give it to my agent before this editor to get her feedback.
- If this is a book I’m self-publishing, then I skip my agent as she’s not working with me on this particular project, and hire a freelance editor to work with me.
- If the book isn’t already contracted and I am giving it to my agent to shop, then I usually work with a freelance editor in some capacity at this point to give it a look-over before it goes to my agent so I’m certain that the version going out to houses for consideration is the best that it can be.
>>Another draft usually goes here.
- My mother
- Why? She is the Queen Of Finding Typos. She won’t comment much on the story, but boy howdy if I spell something wrong her eyes go right to it!
>>Another another draft goes here.
- My agent
- Why? Because she knows what’s saleable and marketable, and she might ask me to make changes to make the book easier to sell.
- Depending on whether the book is contracted or is going to be shopped around, it will go to my agent either third or last.
While securing Editors and Agents may not be the easiest thing, there’s lots of information out there on how to do it, so I’m going to skip straight to talking about where to find those friends/people in your writing community who are likely fellow writers and can act as your beta readers/secondary readers/extra set of eyes. And you, of course, for theirs.
- Did you take writing classes with any friends? Do you have people in your life who just love to read and do so a lot?
- Have you met any other writers online, via blogs, or communities, or contests, or sites like Archive of Our Own or Wattpad?
- Have you cultivated a group of fellow writers you can ask?
- Is someone in your family in creative writing, or teaching, or journalism?
- Do you have family members who love to read and can be helpful but objective about your writing?
- Local Writer Community
- Check out local writing contests, bulletin boards at libraries or campuses or bookstores
- Does your school have a writing or book club?
- Attend book launches to meet a wide variety of authors, not just the one launching – we usually go and support one another.
- You can also meet fellow writers in the crowd at literary festivals, or conventions.
- Is there a local social group – like a local horror writers association, or a monthly meetup for a group, like a YA Author’s Pub Night?
- Does the writer’s union/collective in your area have nights open for non-members, or if you are a member, socialization nights?
- Online Writer Community
- Check author websites and FaceBook pages to see if they foster a community of writers or hold contests, like Miss Snark’s First Victim or Gail Carriger.
- Join your local NaNoWriMo Forum on the website, and follow their social media accounts. Many have a forum where you can post your search for a beta, and answer someone else’s.
- Check out the forums and community boards surrounding your favourite conventions, fandoms, or fiction archives.
- Does your local writer’s union/collective have an online community, facebook group, or posting board where you can search for betas?
- Classes. Schools, and Courses
- Take a course or after-school or community class in writing. You’ll make friends and find great support there.
- Professional Editors / Betas
- Consider hiring a professional to give your book a read at some point, because their job is literally to make your book better. And they have the education and skills to catch a lot of what you may miss or be unaware of.
In the end, no matter how you choose to find a Beta Reader, I cannot recommend one highly enough. And keep in mind that it is expected that their service will be reciprocal (unless you’ve hired a professional); if they read your book, at some point they are probably going to ask you to read theirs and offer critique and feedback in return. Be prepared to support and help them in the same way.
The Writing community is an awesome one, and we’re all ready to help one another succeed!
Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.