I'm Rebecca Mahoney, a freelance journalist, fiction writer & manuscript editor who likes to chat about books & writing, share editing tips, and muse about the freelance life. Visit my full website at rebeccamahoney.com.
The email began, as so many seem to do these days, with a confession: “Nobody else has read my manuscript. I’ve been working on it for the past two years, and I think I’m ready to send it out to agents, but I just need a proofread first.”
On one hand, it’s the kind of email I love. Here’s a writer readying to share his writing with the world, to take that brave plunge into publishing. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing a writer take those first steps towards becoming an author.
On the other hand, this writer is about to make a huge mistake—a mistake so grave it could squash his publishing dreams right out of the gate. A mistake, unfortunately, that is incredibly common among both novice and seasoned writers: Skipping the beta read.
A beta read is when you give your completed manuscript to a trained reader or editor who has not read any part of the book before, with the purpose of soliciting constructive feedback, so you can identify the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript and revise accordingly.
It’s one of the most critical steps in the editing process, a way to test your book before you begin the querying process or pursue self-publishing. Just as a new piece of software or a new device gets a beta test among selected users in order to identify and work out as many of the kinks as possible before releasing it to the general public, a manuscript in the final stages also needs to undergo that same test, a way to make sure your book is the strongest it can be before pursuing the next step.
So why does a beta read so often go overlooked?
For one thing, a lot of writers don’t know they need this step. Aspiring writers sometimes think the writing process has three steps: write, proofread, publish. But writing is rewriting. It’s a cyclical process involving drafting, revising, gathering feedback, revising again, and again and again. Even writers who understand and embrace the revision part of that cycle often forget the feedback part. But that feedback is actually the most important part of the process; it’s what helps you see if what you mean to say is actually coming across on the page. It helps you identify plot holes and improve your dialogue and develop your characters, helps you see where the story slows down or where it’s moving too fast. Writing itself might be a solitary process, each writer hunched over his or her laptop in the lonely hours of the night—but turning those pages into a book has to be a group effort. Feedback is essential.
Second, writers who do solicit feedback often get their feedback at the wrong times or from the wrong people. It’s a great and helpful thing to get feedback on sections of your manuscript from a writing group or editor while you’re developing the manuscript; in fact, I recommend it. But that cannot replace a beta read, a full and critical read of the complete manuscript. That’s like trying to design the next iPhone based on an single app under development.
Other writers rely on friends or spouses for feedback, either during the drafting process or after the full draft is written. Bad move, partner. The odd of getting unvarnished, critical feedback are indisputably slimmer when we have to share a home or bed with that person. They love us, and we love them, and that makes it much harder to give and receive honest, thorough feedback. It’s just too easy for it to become personal.
The best person to do a beta read on your manuscript is an experienced editor or writer who has not read any part of the manuscript before. You need someone who has industry insight, who understands your genre, who can look beyond the subjective experience of reading to offer true, thoughtful feedback on the elements of writing and how they’re working in your book: plot, structure, setting, dialogue, characterization, pacing, narrative tension and so on. And they need to read the book fresh, with no background information, no insight as to how the book has changed or developed since it’s original iteration—in other words, they need to read it like a reader, with the insights and experience of an editor.
So when should you pursue a beta read? Any time you think you’re “done” and ready for the next step—whether you are readying to send the book out to agents or pursuing self-publishing—or if you’re just stuck after the first few drafts and need to figure out where to focus on revising. Often, the feedback from a beta read is the kick-start you need to truly complete your manuscript and ready it for querying or publication.
Don’t get me wrong– you can (and probably should) do a proofread after the beta read. But proofreading alone isn’t going to identify or fix major flaws. That’s like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.
Sending your work into the world is a scary step. It’s certainly easier to stay in that solitary world forever, typing away as the characters in our minds come to life on the page. And for some writers, that creative process alone is enough—after all, J.D. Salinger was okay with it.
But for most writers, writing is a performance art. We want our words to be read, to share our stories, to send our darlings out into the world. The writers I know who have successfully made that leap from writer to author are those who have embraced the beta read. If you’re serious about achieving your dream—your book, in print—it’s a step you don’t want to miss.