An American Editor

August 31, 2018

The Value (or Not) of Beta Readers

Carolyn Haley

Many novelists enlist the aid of beta readers after completing the first draft of a book. A beta reader, according to Wikipedia, is:

  • a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues . . . . so that an uncolored opinion of an average reader can be obtained. Usually, a beta reader will be unpaid. The feedback is used by the writer to iron out remaining overall issues with plot, pacing and consistency. The beta read also serves as a target audience test to see whether the book has the intended emotional impact and feel.

Beta readers usually precede professional editors in a novel’s path to publication; sometimes they replace professional editors for self-publishing authors on low budgets. A few professional editors offer beta reading as one of their services. I don’t, preferring to offer manuscript evaluations or developmental edits for work in its early stages.

Beta reading, in my opinion, is more subjective and freestyle than professional editing should be. I engage in it only with my writers’ group, whose members return the favor. Through long-term, piecemeal, opinionated back-and-forthing, we help each other convert our messy first drafts into manuscripts coherent enough to be professionally edited.

While beta reading can be immensely helpful to authors, it can also throw them off course or even change their progress to regress. The old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” might come into play. The following two cases illustrate the possible effects of multiple contradictory responses to a person’s first novel.

Case #1: Counterproductive Overload

One of my clients, whom I’ll call Henry, has been working on his book for several years. It is the first volume of a science fiction adventure series aimed at young adults, set in an alternate world with lots of action wrapped around a social injustice theme.

Henry hired me for copyediting and paid his deposit. In the weeks between scheduling the job and its start date, however, he had an unknown number of adult friends beta-read the manuscript. Their feedback knocked him from self-assurance to quivering uncertainty. He decided to postpone sending the manuscript to me so he could recast sections in response to the beta reader commentary.

Good idea, in theory. Copyediting is supposed to come at the end of a book’s development, giving it the final polish needed before sending it out the door. Henry was discovering that his story needed more development than he’d thought. His initial two-month postponement stretched into two years.

Eventually Henry finished the book to his satisfaction and delivered the manuscript. Since he didn’t want to change our original scope of work, I copyedited the novel. I thought he was still a long way from his goal of being traditionally published, but you never know, so I gave him my best effort and wished him the best of luck.

Two years later, he came back for a second copyedit of the same novel. Not only had my editing inspired him to make significant revisions, but also, while I had been editing, he’d been having another crop of people beta read the book.

Because of that response overload, Henry spent months revising in different directions. The conflicting information caused him to lose sight of his original vision and eroded his confidence. He started to wonder why he had bothered trying to write the book in the first place, and despaired of ever succeeding.

Eventually he bounced back, reaching a point of satisfaction and deciding to self-publish. That’s when he hired me for the second copyedit. But history repeated itself: During the weeks of waiting between hiring me and the job start date, he took in yet more beta reader feedback, which thrust him back into indecision. This time, he postponed copyediting for six months. (And this time, I inserted a cutoff clause into his contract, so if he bailed out again, he would forfeit his deposit.)

Luckily, I was able to fill the holes in my calendar caused by both of his postponements. It distresses me, though, to see an author get undermined and derailed by an invisible crowd of others whose opinions outweigh my professional observations, explanations, and encouragement.

This author is willing to pay twice for a service he doesn’t seem to believe has greater value than unqualified people’s feelings. He’s also willing to possibly lose a substantial amount of money if he can’t set priorities and boundaries, and hold tight to his own vision, before the time limit on his deposit runs out.

I question whether he will ever be able to own his work and find the courage to expose it to the world through publication, never mind acquire the storycraft skills to convey it. As well, the money he has already laid out would have covered a professional developmental edit. Had we done that in the first place, perhaps by now his book would be several levels farther along and he’d still be excited by its prospects. Even if I’m not the ideal editor for him, he would be making progress rather than riding a merry-go-round, trying to satisfy all readers in all things.

Maybe his time on the merry-go-round will ultimately result in a finished novel. Sometimes that happens, as it did with a member of my writers’ group.

Case #2: Productive Overload

This author, whom I’ll call Henrietta, has also spent many years on crafting her first novel. Unlike Henry, her book is a stand-alone story, set on contemporary Earth. Instead of action and adventure, it presents a deep character study written in a literary style.

Henrietta is trained in the commercial graphic arts, which gives her a seemingly infinite capacity to reformulate a concept. Like Henry, she’s new to creating personal art through words and is insecure about its validity. Also like Henry, she can’t resist the temptation to gather opinions. Thus, she’s had beta reader after beta reader, and goes through much psychological hand-wringing in trying to decide whose opinion matters, seeking to accommodate all of them in her work.

My opinion holds extra weight for her because I’m a professional editor. I provide my services gratis in this case, because in this writers’ group, we all volunteer skills in mutual support. Our personal creative works exist on spec — no guarantee any of us will publish, or earn a dime if we do — versus professional services provided under contract, where performance and delivery are part of an economic exchange. In the writers’ group, we are friends exchanging favors.

Regardless of my professional status, Henrietta routinely ignores my opinion because it disagrees with her vision. In this regard, she differs from Henry, who struggles to hold his vision at all. Her professional training enables her to weigh and measure and ultimately assimilate diverse opinions, while my professional training lets me leave her free to do it (copyeditor’s mantra: “It’s not my book, not my book . . .”). I serve instead as sounding board and devil’s advocate, with my real contribution being copyediting and proofreading.

Henrietta’s willingness to consider options kept making her book stronger — until the day came when she had incorporated too many opinions, and both the story and her writing voice began to unravel. That not only added months to her writing time, but also burned her out on the project. I invested a lot of time in pushing her to embrace her work and believe in herself.

After many more revisions, some of which brought sections of the book back to where they’d started, her manuscript was ready for submission to agents and, in my opinion, worthy of being published by a Big Five house. (I also believe that if she wants to skip the agent and submit directly to smaller publishers, she could sell the book in five minutes. If she chooses to self-publish [an option she is rejecting because she understands the huge and long-term marketing work involved], she could probably make some serious money.) But she knows what she wants and is staying her course.

Problem is, she can’t stop collecting beta reader opinions. Even as I was mechanically editing the “final” version, she continued to run every little late idea past multiple people. It took coercion to get her to send out her first query letter, after which she immediately started second-guessing how an agent would react to dialogue and scene details, and sneaking her fingers back to the keyboard. I’m hoping her future agent and house editor can manage this tendency, so the book can make it to publication.

Positive Outcomes

Most of my clients claim to use beta readers, without providing details. Occasionally they also refer to a writing class or a previous editor. A recent author mentioned using all three resources. He, like Henry, had signed up with me and paid his deposit, then suddenly postponed for two years. But when he came back, both his book and his confidence were strong. Like Henry, he’s launching a science fiction adventure series. Unlike Henry, I expect him to be a self-publishing success.

Another self-publishing client revealed that his novel, volume two of a historical fantasy, had been through developmental editing with a high-end professional I recognized. The investment showed, in that the manuscript I received for copyediting needed nothing more than token spit-and-polish.

I do not know if this client ever used beta readers. Possibly not, because unlike many authors, he has the wherewithal to spring for pros at each stage. He went through the same developmental-editor-to-copyeditor sequence when self-publishing his first volume, which came out beautifully and has been well received. I expect volume two will build his audience.

Yet another client seems to have the complete writing skill set hardwired into him. He cranks out one or two novels a year without help, and all of them are exciting, well-crafted stories ready for copyediting. He’s another self-publisher, and his sales are growing.

In general, whichever publishing path my clients choose, the newer they are to writing and publishing, the more beta readers they’re inclined to use. I believe there has to be a limit, though. As Henry and Henrietta show (and I can confirm from my own creative-writing experience), beta readers can be helpful or harmful. It’s important to restrict their numbers, and select readers who can couch their personal opinions in writerly terms. Otherwise, the author is just getting consumer reviews too soon.

Reviewing only should occur after publication, just as copyediting should only be done on a manuscript ready for submission or production. It’s tough enough for an author to weather a storm of diverse opinions once the book is finished; being hammered by that storm while still writing can impair an author’s creativity and zeal — right when those attributes are most needed to give a book its voice and vision.

Voice and vision are what make a novel unique, and, ultimately, draw the audience that defines an author’s career. Beta readers, like editors, may not be the book’s target audience no matter what their relationship to the author. They can inhibit or confuse authors by pushing them to satisfy the readers’/editors’ personal tastes. Beta readers and editors alike need to remember whose book it is, and work within the author’s frame of reference. Their collective goal should be helping authors achieve their individual goals.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

August 24, 2018

Helping Clients with Version Control

Ælfwine Mischler

I am interrupting my series on indexing (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) because a distressed client last week left me thinking about how to help authors with version control.

It is hot in Cairo. Daytime temperatures have been 100° F (38° C) for weeks and many of us, myself included, do not have A/C. It makes some of us fuzzy-brained and sometimes our computers overheat. That is what happened to a client (I will call her AB) when she called me repeatedly to help her with a file.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

AB, an active woman in her mid-seventies with a PhD, was having problems for several reasons. First, she could not maintain version control. Second, she told me that as she is getting older, she is still good in her work field but gets more confused by technology. Third, her aging computer was acting up, probably as a result of overheating. (The next day, she wrote to say that it performed better after she turned it off for several hours.)

As a result of this confluence of problems, I spent two unpaid hours “hand holding” over the phone when I really wanted to work on another client’s book. AB had “lost” the file I edited and returned four months ago. I told her to find my email, redownload the file, and then save it as ED 2. She had problems doing that. I sent her a copy of the file with SECOND EDIT as a prefix to the name, but she had problems downloading it, finding the Downloads folder, and then finding the folder she wanted to put it in — because she had several folders with similar names.

I was starting to get impatient and I wanted to tell her that I was going to charge her for my time on the phone, but we had never agreed to such a thing. Did I have the right, then, to ask for it? Would I have actually been able to collect it? I could hear in her voice that she was getting more and more frustrated. She really needed someone to walk her through what should have been simple procedures. I found it difficult to believe that she really did not know how to do basic things like downloading a file and putting it into another folder. From what she was saying on the phone, it seemed that she was opening the file and copying the text of it rather than copying the file itself from its folder. Did she really not know how to do these things, or was the combination of age, heat, and computer problems overwhelming her?

I have had clients who did not understand some things, such as using Track Changes, but I can send them instructions or send them two versions of an edited file, one with tracking visible and the other with all changes accepted. This was the first time I had to attempt to walk someone through basics. Should I have done anything differently? What would you have done? I welcome your answers in the comment box.

A File by Any Other Name

AB’s biggest problem was version control. This was not the first time she had called me while looking through multiple folders or files with similar names. She had been working on translating a book for many years, and in the end, she sent me the manuscript for copyediting in two parts. Now she had multiple versions of each part and several different folders, and she could not figure out where she had put the one I had edited or which file it was.

When I edit for clients, this is my work pattern:

  • I open the original and use Save As to make a copy with “ED 1” prefixed to the filename.
  • I don’t make any changes in the original (though I might look at it) while I edit version ED 1.
  • When I return ED 1 to the client for review, I tell the client to use Save As to put “ED 2” as the prefix to the name, to work only in the ED 2 file, and to return it to me for checking.
  • I open ED 2 and use Save As to make a copy with “ED 3” added to the name instead of “ED 2.”

Another recent client (“CD”) keeps adding new material to his book — but he follows my early instructions to save the file with a higher version number. He knows that files to me should have an even-numbered version number, and I return an odd-numbered version to him. CD recently sent me ED 10, but before I could get to it, he wanted to add still more lines. I instructed him to call the newest one ED 10.2 so that we could maintain the pattern of even numbers from him and odd from me. We have not had a problem with version control with this work pattern.

AB, on the other hand, has multiple versions that she cannot distinguish from one another. When you have several files with names such as these, how do you know which is the latest?

ABnancybooktranslation_aardvarks

nancybooktranslation_aardvarks

nancy-book-translation_aardvarks_newer

nancy-aardvarksbook_most recent

Is Your Computer Drafty?

If you tend to retain older drafts of your work, you need to systemize your naming of different versions. Keep the basic filename the same — not with different names as AB did — and add a number and date to each version. (I once joked with a managing editor that she had kept the same spelling mistake in the filename of volume three of a book I was about to index, having indexed volumes one and two with the same misspelled file. She replied that the spelling mistake was the designer’s, but she retained the same filename rather than mess up the designer’s system.) You can, of course, put the version number at the end of the filename, but I find it easier if the number is at the beginning.

Once you have more than two or three drafts, ask yourself if you really need to keep the earlier versions. If you cannot bear to delete them just yet, put them into a folder marked “early drafts” or “older stuff” so you do not confuse them with more-recent versions. You can also use an option described below to hide files so you do not accidentally work in the wrong ones.

Get a Better View

I did not think to tell AB this on the day I was helping her stave off a total meltdown — with her computer problems and distress, she probably could not have absorbed it anyway — but did you know that you can change the view of the files so you can see information about them, including when they were created and/or last modified?

If you open a folder and click on the View tab, you will find options for showing the contents of the folder. Many of the people I have worked with like to use medium or large icons, which display across the screen in rows. The icon view is easier if you like to drag files into subfolders because your “target” is bigger. In this example, I have also turned on the Navigation pane on the left side, which allows you to scroll to quickly find other folders.

My own preference is usually for List — I have shown it here without the Navigation pane.

If version control is a problem for you, try the Details view, and play with the Sort by options until you find the one that is best for you.

It seems that Date Modified, Type, and Size are the default details, because these are the ones that have always appeared when I chose Details view without making any changes. I will talk about some of the options below. You can resize the columns by positioning the cursor on the barely visible line between the column names and dragging. You can also choose Size All Columns to Fit to show the most information.

If you go to the top of the folder under Current view, you will find many more options.

If you click on the triangle under Sort by, you can choose to sort your files by something other than name. Date created or Date last modified would be good choices for version control.

The Add columns menu lets you choose which details to show. Use this along with the Sort by options.

Another useful option is Show/Hide. You can select one or more items, then click on Hide selected items. The files will still be in the folder but will be invisible. This is useful for version control so you do not accidentally open and modify the wrong files. If you want to see hidden items, you can check the box next to Hidden items. Their icons will appear faded in the folder. If you no longer want to hide them, select them and click on Hide selected items, which is a toggle switch, to “unhide” them.

A Word to the Whys

If you have problems with your filenames as AB does, I hope you will now understand why it is important to maintain version control. Keep the basic filename the same and add date or version number to the filename of each new version. Delete older versions that you no longer need. If you really cannot bear to part with them, or if they contain ideas for later works, put them into another folder with a clear name or hide them from view. Play with the folder view options I have described here (and the ones I have not, such as panes) to find the options that work best for your working style.

And stay cool.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

August 13, 2018

On the Basics — All the Backups

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter 

A recent Facebook group post from someone whose computer conked out when she was on deadline for a project reminded me of the importance of different kinds of backup. We’ve talked about backing up files, but that’s different from backing up equipment — perhaps because equipment can be so expensive, while backup systems can be free, or at least less expensive than buying an additional computer.

Because our ability to meet deadlines and keep our commitments to clients is essential to a freelancer’s business survival, it’s worth assessing what kinds of backups we need to make that happen. These suggestions might seem obvious, but should be useful reminders of practical basics for a freelance business.

The Ephemeral

First, the easy — and inexpensive — stuff. To make sure files and documents don’t disappear mid-project, open an online backup account on Dropbox, Box.com, Google Drive, or something similar so you can stash items as you go along and once you’ve finished them.

If you believe in “belts and braces” (both a belt and suspenders to hold up a pair of pants, even if just one or the other would do the job) as I do, back up to Time Machine as well as an external hard drive, disks, or any other physical backup system that you find easy to use. Backups to your backups are essential, because you never know what will continue to work and which providers will stay in business.

Make sure your essential software programs are live and licensed on every computer you have, and that you have the original disks or downloads so you can reinstall them as needed. That way, if the software goes wonky on one machine, it should still work on another, or you should be able to reinstall it on a new one (or maybe even on a friend’s loaner, temporarily). Keep in mind that many, if not most, programs can be licensed for more than one computer. Know about those options before you need them.

Oh, and save-save-save! Remember to save as you work, the more often, (usually) the better. With lengthy and complex documents, consider doing a Save As with a different filename before Word gets cranky. You’ll have several versions of the document, but that’s better than losing even a few minutes’, much less several hours’, worth of work. The client only has to see the final version, and you can ditch the interim versions once you’ve turned it in.

The Physical

The reality is that computers are not infallible. Even the most-respected brands can develop problems, and my experience — as well as what I’ve observed among colleagues — is that they will break down when we have the fewest resources in terms of money, time, contacts, and material to deal with a crisis. In budgeting to launch or maintain a freelance business, the ideal is to save, set aside, or maintain enough funds and credit so you can have at least two computers with the same software on them, just in case one of them goes south or you can’t use one of them. If you have more than one computer, you can send current files to yourself so they’re accessible on both or all machines, and you can work on them no matter which machine is handy or which one goes rogue and stops working.

I have an iMac desktop computer and a MacBook Air laptop, with the same software programs on each, so I can switch between them as needed. I also have an iPad that my brothers gave me a few years ago that I can use for e-mail and some rudimentary other programs in a pinch. I even have an old MacBook Pro that doesn’t hold a charge on its own but still works when plugged in, just in case all of the other three give up the ghost at the same time. Not that I’m a pessimist, but you never know.

I’ve usually maintained two current computers because of needing to work in different locations, either within my apartment or on the road versus at home, but the old iMac conked out recently, making the laptop even more essential to keeping my work going than usual. I was lucky enough to have funds in hand to replace it right away, but if I couldn’t have done so, I could still get my work done and meet those deadlines.

The Collegial

There’s yet one other option to develop and maintain: offsite ways to work through colleagues. In case your electricity goes out, for instance, or something other event makes it difficult or impossible to work at home for a while, have alternatives already in place.

That can mean knowing where the nearest public library is with computers you can use, a cyber café, co-working spaces, etc. It also can mean having friends who might lend you a computer or let you come over and camp out at their place to get the urgent work done.

It also can be a lifesaver to belong to a local computer users’ group. Once you’re active in one, you can usually count on other members to help with troubleshooting, equipment loans, repairs at less than what retail vendors might charge, and similar hand-holding in a crisis.

If you’ve had a software or equipment crash in mid-project, how did you handle it?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, and companies worldwide. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

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