I knew it was a mess — the kind of mess I know I’ll find when my kids are alone in a room and it’s been silent for more than seven minutes. My latest short story tumbled off the rails at some point, and I knew it, but I was cross-eyed from looking at the screen and out of printer paper and more than slightly defeated.
“Send it over.”
The offer came from a somewhat-unexpected source; my husband’s cousin is a writer, but we’ve never done much exchanging of work. I pressed send before he could change his mind.
His reply came by the next morning, lengthy, honest notes about where the story wasn’t working and questions about where I wanted to go with both the plot and the motivation of one of the two main characters. I answered, and his next reply let me know I wasn’t all the way off the rails; though the story was precariously close to a mess, it was definitely fixable.
When I began editing again, purple gel pen adding and crossing out and making a thrilling mess all over my printed copies, his thoughts were close to the front of my mind. In front of his thoughts were my own notes and clearer vision about how and why I needed the story to both grow in scope and change slightly in voice. That vision wouldn’t have been realized without the comments and e-mailed conversation about the bridge between what I wanted to say and what I was actually writing.
Beta readers, first readers who read a story with an eye on improving the story in terms of plot, consistency, character motivations, and authenticity, are a crucial part of the editing process.
Beta readers aren’t editors; they aren’t reading your work in progress for line edits and shouldn’t be expected to catch all errors. If you’re planning to hire an editor before shopping or self-publishing your work, beta readers are a first step that can save you some money and make the editing process work a little more smoothly.
Having a trusted group of beta readers, like a writing group, is an invaluable resource for a writer. Fresh eyes can read through your piece and let you know if you’re portraying the story you want to tell. They can let you know if the first third is too slow while the last third is reading like Speedy Gonzales on Adderall.
If you’re interested in even greater objectivity than a writing partner can provide, consider hiring a professional beta reader. Their cost-per-word is generally under that of a professional editor, so you can work out the major kinks before sending it over for final editing. Bannerwing Books offers beta reading (and other publishing services) if you’d like to look into whether it would be a good fit for you.
Thanks to trusted eyes and a different perspective than my usual writing partners, I was able to strengthen my story and take another step towards completion.
Do you use beta readers during the writing and editing process? How have they helped you with your work?