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.

March 21, 2018

On the Basics — Tackling the Other Kind of Writer’s Block

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

There are two kinds of writer’s block. The one most of us are familiar with is when you have trouble starting to write something, whether it’s an assignment or just for yourself. You sit in front of the screen (or at the typewriter, or with your pen and pad; some of us still like the old-style writing implements) and nothing happens. If you write nonfiction, you have interview notes and background material, but you can’t put them together. If you write fiction, your imagination has fled, your ideas have dried up, your characters are flat and stale. Nothing flows. It’s terrifying.

A block can be caused by fear of rejection, feeling intimidated by a prestigious assignment, and any number of other emotional issues. Plenty has been written about overcoming writer’s block. Most suggestions involve stepping away from the project. I don’t avoid writing if I get blocked, though.

I’ve been lucky to rarely experience true writer’s block. I might procrastinate on starting to write something, but that’s a little different from actually being blocked.

The few (thankfully) times I’ve had to cope with traditional writer’s block, the easiest way to break free has been to write a letter, usually to my mother. Even after I moved back to my hometown and there was no need to write letters any longer because she was either across town or right downstairs, and even since she died, I would write letters to her if I couldn’t get started on a writing assignment.

There’s something about writing to someone who will be completely accepting and uncritical that frees up my mind and my muse. After a couple of paragraphs, I’m ready to plunge back into my current assignment and get it done.

Another Type of Block

The writer’s block that is less well-known and less-discussed is one against revision — the inability to rewrite something you’ve actually managed to write. Not so much for yourself, but for an assigning editor or client. I’m lucky again that I’m not often asked to do any major revisions on what I write, but it does happen on occasion, and I hate it.

Once I’ve done my interviewing and research, crafted a draft, edited myself, proofread the result, and sent off the article, I’m done. It’s out of my head and heart. I’m eager to see it in print or online, but I don’t want to revisit it (unless I have ideas for repurposing it somehow). Being asked to revise is frustrating at best and feels impossible at worst.

I’m not talking about minor details where an editor might question a turn of phrase or ask to confirm a factual detail. I’m talking about substantive revision for some reason. Usually that reason is that the editor or publication has decided to take a different angle than originally planned. It isn’t that I didn’t do a good job or didn’t fulfill the requirements of the assignment; it’s that someone wants additional information or to have the information approached from a new direction. (This is when, by the way, contract language protecting against change of scope is invaluable. If I get paid more to do a substantive revision, that helps oil the wheels of my brain and unblock my ability to respond.)

Several years ago, I pitched an article to a magazine for writers that I would love, love, love to be published in. I did something I rarely do: wrote the story and sent it on spec (that is, on speculation — without a contract or agreement, in the hopes it would be accepted; more about that in a future essay). They liked it, but asked for extensive revisions. It’s been sitting in a folder ever since. I was and still am totally stuck; I just can’t wrap my brain around what they want. The problem probably is that the revision request isn’t specific enough for me to respond to it. I can answer actual questions, but taking a whole new approach to the subject seems to have jammed my gears completely.

Every once in awhile, I take out that typewritten manuscript (that should tell you how long ago this happened) and think about re-crafting it for re-submission. I’m not sure if I could even reach the person who was the subject of the article; he might not be alive any longer. The editor who responded to the original submission is no longer at the magazine, which might actually work in my favor; the current editor might like the unrevised version! But the thought of that unfinished, and thus unpublished, piece is like the irritant in the oyster, and I want it to evolve into that bright, beautiful pearl.

It’s quite possible that just writing about how difficult it can be to revise what I thought was a finished work might do the trick and help me find a way into a new version of this article. One approach might be to go back to my original notes and start as if I hadn’t written the first version at all. One can hope.

The Blocked Editor

Writer’s block, obviously, applies to writers — but editors get blocked, too. A very dry or complex manuscript, a first project for a prestigious client, a huge manuscript that takes longer than expected, the need to learn a client’s wacky house style … an editor can get stuck and feel unable to keep going with a demanding project. Even an enjoyable project can push an editor into a work blockage if it collides with something less-interesting to work on, requires using a different style from your usual one, or arrives when you’re struggling with health or personal issues.

Traditional approaches to writer’s block can work for blocked editors.

  • Step away from the computer and your desk or home office, and go out for a walk.
  • Play a game.
  • Treat yourself to a meal or movie with a friend or family member.
  • Switch to another project.
  • Post to a friend’s or colleague’s blog.
  • Spend an hour or two on a craft project.
  • Envision how good it will feel to get it done — or how you will spend the fee.
  • Write a letter to someone.
  • Switch to another project for a while.
  • If the deadline isn’t imminent, give yourself a couple of days or the weekend off.

Just as I was writing the first draft of this post, I got a message from Writer’s Digest magazine with a mention of what might be a useful resource for anyone else stuck in this situation: Write and Revise for Publication by Jack Smith. I just might get a copy and see if it can help. In the meantime, I might take another look at that folder. The subject’s organization doesn’t seem to exist any longer, but maybe I can revise that story and get it out to the world — an updated version might look good to another market entirely.

Have you been blocked on a project? If so, how did you get yourself jump-started so you could finish it up?

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, associations, not-for-profits, and companies worldwide. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues. Ruth can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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