AUTHORS: When is it time to let beta readers/editors read your work?

frustrated-girl-writingSome authors feel self-conscious sharing their work, because they fully understand how deeply their novel is part of them and reflects their inner self. Other authors might be perfectionists, and want to get everything just right, every period and comma in place, before letting another soul read.

For whatever cause, many of us who write find it difficult to take that next step and send a work-in-progress off to someone else for a once-over. Or a deep read. Or even something else.

Today’s post is timely for me, because I have been sitting on/developing my draft from NaNoWriMo 2012 since November of that year. I have taken long breaks, and am trying to figure out how to develop the story’s action into a series that will extend beyond the ending I’ve written. Because of that, I’m not quite ready to find beta readers…. even though I’ve spent so much time on this piece.

This begs the question…. How do you know when it’s time to find beta readers or an editor? What are the clues that you genuinely have more work to do first, rather than signs that you are dragging your feet and procrastinating?

The answer will be different for every author, because honestly, we all write differently. We all have a unique combination of steps that form our particular approach and process. Because of that, my signs might not be exactly the same as anyone else’s.

Still, there are some definite tendencies you can look out for. These are hints that it might be time to get outside input, because you’ve done all you can at this point without such feedback.

I say “might” because, again, everyone is different. But if you’re like me, you’ll know it’s time to send your work away when:

1. YOU SEE-SAW EDIT.

You might know a see-saw as a teeter-totter. I’m from New Orleans, and I grew up calling a toy that lifts one person and brings another down, and then switches positions as the person who’s down pushes up, a see-saw.

See-saw editing is when you change a small something–maybe the wording of a passage, or the punctuation of a sentence–to something else. Then, in the next editing pass, you change it back. You may do this one or two more times after the initial back and forth.

This is always a big signal that I need to send off to betas. I try to figure out why neither option has me completely happy. Something must be off…. sometimes nothing felt right because the passage in question doesn’t need to be as long as I have it. I can cut a fair bit of material and improve the manuscript.

Other times I’m being overly critical and a bit too hard on myself. Whether I cut what I keep changing or not, though, before involving other people, see-saw editing implies I’ve done all I can with my work as it is. I can’t do more on my own.

2. YOU ARE AGONIZING OVER POSSIBLY MAKING A BIG CHANGE

Character choices drive novels. Sometimes, after writing and editing a draft, we begin to doubt one or two of the choices our characters have made. Maybe we are regretting killing off a character. Maybe something stops making as much sense to us as it originally did.

At this point, it can be a great idea to let beta readers in on the story. That way, you can relax and destress knowing you are getting outside opinions. You can ask beta readers after they finish–perhaps put the questions at the end of the novel-

  • What did you think about X/Y/Z?
  • Do you think X/Y/Z was believable? If not, why not?
  • Would A/B/C have made more sense to you than X/Y/Z?

This approach gets you concrete, honest feedback from as many sources as you would like (assuming you can find enough betas to fit your preference. And they are easy to find in the blogosphere and on social media.)

Just as important, this approach prevents you from tinkering with your novel and making a big, unnecessary change too early. If you don’t need the change after consulting betas, you can leave things be and not have taken time to rewrite what doesn’t need rewriting.

If you do need changes, you can make them with more confidence and self-assurance, because your betas agreed that they were good ones. You will know that you know what you’re doing, and that makes rewriting much easier on a psychological level.

Of course, sending off your work to betas because of reasons 1 and 2 implies that:

3. YOU HAVE EDITED YOUR WORK MULTIPLE TIMES AND PROOFREAD AFTER THAT.

This is common sense on one level, but don’t sent first drafts to betas. The time for a beta reader is when you have cleaned and polished everything as much as you can.

Think about the role of a beta reader:

  • To assure you of what works
  • To let you know what doesn’t
  • To point out when you are unclear or confusing
  • To clue you in that you’re saying too much or too little
  • To point out parts of your novel that intrinsically fit but could use a bit more work to flow better

First drafts always have small holes. They always need cuts and additions that an author doesn’t need help to identify.

Also, first drafts generally are riddled with typos. A reader’s attention is a limited resource. You want your betas focusing on content. On your story and how it’s developing. On how you are phrasing things.

When beta readers are focusing on all the typos they are finding, they aren’t focusing on content, and you are missing out on some great commentary.

The solution is simple, as stated above: edit and proofread before you send your draft out. Your story will be tighter and cleaner: closer to its eventual final form. You might still have some typos, but fewer is always better.

Depending on how severe are the changes your betas suggest, you might go through a second or even third round with them. You might just send them a chapter or two to reread and comment on. For purer input, you might seek out beta readers who were not among the first batch and did not read the pre-edited version.

So, what is your process of deciding when to send off to betas or editors? Do you base it on a number of drafts? Do you bring in betas when it “feels right” to do so?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League.” She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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33 responses to “AUTHORS: When is it time to let beta readers/editors read your work?

  1. Reblogged this on Carving Out A Space and commented:
    Do you use Beta readers? How has the experience helped (or hindered) your editing process?

  2. I used to just edit until I was making changes for the sake of making changes. Then I’d hand it off to a few people who would point out typos and rarely tell me how the actual story was. Now, I write the first draft and send it to an editor. Once it comes back, I go over it myself to check the overall story and characterization. That way I’m not focusing more on typos than the meat of the piece.

    • A great way to show how everyone writes differently. I said don’t send off first drafts…. I personally would never send out a first draft because mine just don’t hold water. But everyone has a different process. If something works for you, it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t work for some other people πŸ™‚

      • I thought so too. Now, I’m kind of realizing how another set of eyes looking at a first draft can help. It gives me a break between finishing and editing, so I look at it with fresh eyes. The ‘return’ also makes me feel more driven to get into the editing, which I find so tedious these days. So it really does boil down to personal preferences of both author and editor.

  3. Great post. I know it took me quite some time before I handed my manuscript over, and then I agonised about it the whole time it was with the readers πŸ˜€

  4. I send out to readers when I think I’ve FINALLY got it as perfect as possible, after about twenty rounds of edits. I tell them not to worry about proofreading, but give them a list of my worries. Then, naturally, then let me know how imperfect it is, and I go back to rewriting and editing.
    For my latest book have two sets of readers: my beta readers and my “delta” readers–those who read my book after I made all the changes my beta readers suggested. Having a couple of readers see the revised book with fresh eyes is showing me where new issues may have cropped up, after I cleared up the old ones.

  5. I try to get my manuscript as perfect as possible before handing it off to betas. The pros: I’m more confident about sharing the work and receiving feedback. The cons: By then, I’m sick of the story and weary of revising! Once, I turned my almost-good draft over to betas and they liked the story so much that they overlooked the “wordiness.” Therefore, I now edit until I’m cross-eyed before giving the manuscript to anyone else.

    • I definitely get what you are saying here! I am the same way, Or at least similar. I don’t think I edit quite as many times as you say you do, but I edit a TON first. It gets exhausting and I do get sick of my story!

  6. These are great reasons. I love the way you’ve described the situations. Adding a link to this post in my series on writing a book (from the editor’s POV). I think you’ve given highly beneficial advice.

  7. Some of my friends know that I’m an author and ask what I’m doing, so I give them a synopsis and they as if they can read it yet. So I tell them it’s still in rough draft and they don’t mind. So I tell them, “if you see any mistakes or if it doesn’t read right, let me know,” and they do. It helps me out a lot. I then go back and re-read the updated second draft. It helps me a lot.

  8. I usually go through 2 drafts, then put it down for a week before making a third draft. Next it’s off to a critique group. Makes changes according to that feedback and then it’s off to beta readers.

  9. I have spent a lot of time see-saw editing. I’ve always thought there should be a term for that. Thanks!

  10. I’m not there yet, so I don’t have any personal experience with this. I found the article so helpful though, so I did share it on Twitter and Google +, which will automatically post to my FB.. πŸ™‚ Thanks again, Victoria!

    • Glad you enjoyed this post! Maybe it will help you notice the signs when you do get there πŸ™‚ I’m telling you, it feels some days like I have a LONG way to go before I get there again πŸ™‚

  11. A great post, you remind me of me! πŸ™‚ Although for me, if I complete a novel and feel happy with it overall, I will send it for someone to read. I actually have a critique partner who does it for me and she has been invaluable. When I’m happy with it, I know it’s time for me to move on to the next stage. Because if I keep reading it over and over again, making changes and editing when I don’t need to, I start doubting myself. So I’d rather get someone to look at it immediately and then make changes based on their feedback from there. πŸ™‚

    • that approach makes a lot of sense when you are happy with what you have. I’m glad you described how you go about reaching betas because it’s so different from what I do. I guess I’m just never confident enough in my first drafts. They never hold up and I know that even as I finish them. I write willy-nilly, with no outline, so I have lots of cleaning up to do first πŸ™‚

  12. I’m a bit odd in how I use my beta readers. When I first finish a piece, I think it’s the greatest thing ever, and have a hard time editing. So after doing a quick edit of the first draft (checking for typos, fixing whatever errors I do find, etc), then I toss it out to the betas, i.e. my other author friends.
    Most of them are super busy–so am I, we all have school and jobs and lives–but I invariably get one or two back while the others keep plugging away at the draft. They poit out things I can change, and that helps me realize, “I still have a lot to do!” I start getting ideas on how to change and rewrite scenes, a few complete chapter overhauls…and that’s how I start on my second draft.
    So, tldr; I send it out when I can’t figure out what needs editing. Which is usually as soon as I finish it. Different strokes, different folks, eh?

    • Definitely! There is never one set way that works for all authors. Our job is to figure out the process that works for us, no matter how many other people do things differently. πŸ™‚ Glad you know how you write best. Thanks for sharing your process, because it IS very different than mine πŸ™‚

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  15. I was just thinking about this the other day! I think I relied on beta’s too early in my first manuscripts development, so I’ve been thinking over how I’m going to organize the beta reading/editing for my next draft (once I finish it Gah! I hate first drafts). And I think it’ll be at the point when I just can’t move forward without feedback.

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  18. Great article. I’m not qualified to comment as the only writing I’ve done doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

    I’m not a writer, I’m a reader. I read to be a part of another world, to meet and hang with people who don’t exist and to escape from real life’s, leftovers.

    I am a sensitive reader. I admire the author’s choice of words and can feel their flow like music. Chopsticks writing is pretty common and the author’s, projects are still a treat, but when interrupted I can lay that book down. Symphonies block out the world and are impossible to put down.

    I’m not a picky reader. Reviews written by people who must have a counter in one hand and report exact numbers of typos need to get a hobby. We stop reading their review when they tally and go on to the next review. Those who enjoy those statistics must’ve never enjoyed a story and live in their own self centered world.

    I think, I’d like to be a gamma or iota reader. I sense the tiny blips and can use a simple highliter never skipping a beat, enjoying the wonderful song.

    Author’s, be proud of yourselves. It appears real musicians, are a dying art.

    Lisa B.

  19. Elizabeth Foster

    Great post. I know it is time to stop tinkering when my son reads my ms and says – “These changes you’ve made don’t make it any better mum, just different.”

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