Finding the right beta readers – Randall Klein

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By Randall Klein

I’m certainly not alone in this attitude, but for me, a book doesn’t begin until the rough draft is done. Once I have (usually too many) words on the page is when my job as the author starts. The first step in this revision process can often be to get that outside read. Who you choose to read your writing, and why, can make the difference between a productive revision process and one that makes you hate writing the stupid book in the first place.♥

First, a couple of ground rules just to get the ball rolling:

  1. You need someone to read your writing in between when you finish however many solo drafts you’ve done and when a “gatekeeper,” be it an agent or editor, reads it. An outside perspective is always essential.
  2. Sharing your writing isn’t a formality. You’re not asking someone to read your draft to bask in your prowess, but because you value her or his opinion and plan to take notes.
  3. There’s always a next step. If your reader says “I wouldn’t change a single word,” then you’re going to want to hand this off to another reader. Ideally, you want to have some notes on revisions you can make, even minor ones, before you get the next draft out for submission.

Those are my three beliefs going in. I’m a professional editor, and while I advocate for using an editor to get your manuscript prepped, I wouldn’t go to one first. I wouldn’t pay for the read, unless you have no other resource. First, a professional editor is going to give you a much more thorough read than you might want at the moment, and it’s going to be a greater expense than would be wise to part with before you feel very, very confident in your draft. Instead, who to do you go to?

I advise writers against going to family, especially partners. Simply put, they will put your feelings before your work, as well they should, but that’s not going to help your next draft. You want someone who will divorce the author from the work and read your writing without any thought to how late you stayed up working on it every night, or how you based that character on your own sainted aunt. Let’s also just allow that there are exceptions to everything. Certainly, if your manuscript is a novel about climbing Kilimanjaro, and you and your wife did that, she could be an ideal reader to say whether it felt true. If it’s non-fiction about your battles with addiction, and your brother was there the entire time, then he should give it a read, of course. So…many grains of salt!

For my own beta-readers, I consistently ask the same two people to read my drafts after I’ve revised a couple of times. They are both friends of mine, and they are also novelists in their own right. They aren’t invested in my feelings as much as they are in helping me to develop my manuscript to its best shape. My beta-readers write me blunt, but extremely productive notes. They also give detail behind the notes, so it’s never just prescriptive, but articulates why they believe something should be changed. They offer ideas beyond their takes.

It’s not as important that my beta-readers are novelists as much as that they are writers, but barring that, I’d want someone who reads a lot, and ideally reads across a number of genres. So, if you are in a writing group, find the people you are most comfortable with and ask to trade reads. Or, look into online writing communities. If all else fails — if you know of no one else who writes, and has some understanding of the craft, then ask people who you know are well read. Down the line, I do recommend hiring a professional editor, especially if you are new to the process, to read your manuscript and give you an evaluation, but that should be more comprehensive, laying out a set map on how you can proceed, rather than these initial reads, which should ideally be more of a gentle push in a direction for you to explore further.

Whenever I hand my readers the manuscript, I also always give a specific list of where I’d like extra focus. One of my readers is a mystery novelist. She is an expert on plotting. She is also a fantastic prose stylist, but I ask her to really pay attention to the architecture of the plot. When she writes me back, she notes where she can see the weaknesses, and how I can shore them up. She also touches upon other elements, and gives me general notes, but by asking her to focus on that one area, I make sure that if I didn’t do my job in an integral part of the manuscript, someone who has expertise beyond my own is keeping an eye out for me.

My other reader is a master chef with language. She’s right now writing primarily flash fiction and she does translations, which both require immense concentration to every single word choice. She is able to break down sentences and isolate the words that either make the whole apparatus soar or sink. When I hand my manuscript to her, that’s what I ask her to focus on. She comes back with notes about a lot of elements, but gives me a clear view of how I can improve upon the stones of each sentence.

Between my two beta-readers, I get a cohesive view of where I can go with my next revision. If I make significant changes, I’ll go back to my beta-readers, depending on their availability. Or, I’ll get a fresh read from someone else, again with a few points of focus.

Then comes the most important, and difficult part — being willing to change it all up again. Should you get an agent, that agent may want further revision before she or he submits to editors, and that editor may, in turn, want changes before she or he will make an offer. By this point, however, you will likely be so immersed in the world of your book that you know where all the points of flexibility are located, and now it’s just a matter of your willingness as the author to bend. By going through a lengthy revision process already, though, you will have previous drafts to return to, to bring in elements that may have fallen by the wayside and now can be reincorporated per the wants of your agent or editor.

Randall Klein is a writer and book editor living in Charlottesville, VA. Little Disasters is his first novel.

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