You’ve finished a novel and taken a few victory laps round the park, or perhaps you’ve poured yourself a strong margarita to celebrate. Who knows, maybe you’re both a hedonist and a health nut and have done both! But once the adrenaline high and the booze wears off, a terrible realization settles on you. Now what? Nobody has read this thing. You think it’s great, but what will other people think? More importantly, is the story compelling enough to entice an agent to represent you? What you need is a second opinion. But should that come from a beta reader or a professional editor?
My advice is to always start with the free option. Chances are your book is far from being finished. You have spent way too much time wandering through the woods to have any idea of the overall lie of the land. Or to put it another way, you are so enamoured with all the little decorative touches you’ve added to the text, that you’re no longer sure whether or not the underlying narrative structure is stable. You need a fresh pair of eyes to tell you that. Scratch that, several fresh pairs of eyes. You need beta readers!
What’s a beta reader?
A beta reader is a friend who is willing to read your novel and give you their honest opinion. Unfortunately, close friends and family make awful beta readers. Because they love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings, they’re far more likely to gloss over the negatives. Needless to say, this is not helpful. You need someone who’ll tell you the unvarnished, gnarly truth. You’re looking for avid readers and more ideally writers who are at least one step removed from your inner circle.
But why would someone you only have a passing acquaintance with want to read your unfinished book in the first place? They’ve never seen your work before. You are as yet an unpublished author, an unknown quantity. For all they know you may be a terrible writer. Why would they commit to reading an entire novel? What do they get out of it?
You scratch my back…
The best way to find beta readers is to join a writers’ group. In fact, if you’re serious about becoming a novelist, you should already belong to one. By meeting other writers, you’ll not only make connections that will stand you in good stead in the future, but you’ll also get access to a huge pool of critique partners. They’ll read your work and you’ll return the favour. Start by exchanging excerpts and short stories. This way you’ll get a sense of who gives balanced well-thought-out critique, who is way too nice for their own good, and who has a giant axe to grind against the world.
Once you’ve weeded out the sycophants and the psychos, it’s time to cultivate your critique partners. This relationship is a two-way street. When you read their stuff, work hard on giving them your equally well-thought-out balanced opinion. Nobody likes the bearer of bad news, so do cut your critique with equal amounts of praise. Writers grow by identifying the bad, but also by embracing the good. They, like you, need to know what’s working as well as what isn’t.
Hand it over
Hopefully, by now you’ve nurtured a crop of willing beta readers. I say a crop because you want a variety of different opinions, ideally, that’s three or more people. Now it’s time to send them your book and start something new. Don’t try to impose strict deadlines, these people are doing you a favour, so you should always respect their time. That being said, a two-month deadline is more than reasonable, as is a nudge if you haven’t heard anything from them by then.
When you hand it over, you should also give them a short questionnaire to help them structure their feedback. There are probably some bits you have your doubts about, so ask them outright if those parts are working for them. In addition, the following is pretty standard:
- How did you feel about the novel overall?
- Did you notice any factual inconsistencies?
- Were there any parts where you began to lose interest?
- Were there any moments when you felt the pace moved too fast?
- Were there any moments when you felt the pace moved too slow?
- Did you like the main character? If not, why not?
- Was the antagonist convincing?
- How was the descriptive detail? Were there places where there was too much description? Were there places where there wasn’t enough description?
- Did the dialogue ring true?
- Did the first three chapters pull you in?
- Were you satisfied with the ending?
- What did you like about the book?
- What did you dislike?
The results are in and…
They’re mixed. Some people like the bit with the monkey, others found it offensive! However, there will be some consensus on certain issues. These are the things you absolutely have to change. With the rest of it, you need to trust your gut instinct. That’s usually pretty easy, because when you read what they’ve written, your inner critic will be nodding furiously away at the parts that ring true. Deep down, you knew that the monkey was a bad idea!
Work out how to fix things
Beta readers are great at identifying problems, but terrible at telling you how to fix them. That’s down to you. You’re the artist and this is your vision. You might find that the answers don’t come easily. If that’s the case, carry on with your new project. Don’t try to force things. In general, an answer will arise naturally. This is especially true when you’re thinking about something else.
However, if you’ve waited and waited and the solution hasn’t presented itself, you might want to think about hiring a professional editor. While beta readers are great, they are usually not the best people to tell you how to fix a book. That’s because they’re writers too and they have their own ideas about how the narrative should go. They may be happy to take charge, but unless you’re writing a collaborative work, you should never hand over creative control.
An experienced editor takes a different approach. They will carefully read your novel and give you some hints on how to solve what’s not working along with detailed feedback. Usually that comes to about five to ten pages. Once you read and digest this, they’ll have a chat with you.
Sensitive to your vision, they won’t try to impose their ideas on your book, rather they’ll help you to see the solution to the core issues that are clogging up the narrative. On top of that, they can help you develop your voice by giving you some detailed insight into what’s working and what’s not with your prose. However, do always bear in mind that a critique of a novel will not include copyediting or proofreading, these are very different services. If you choose to self-publish you will have to enlist the help of a professional to handle this.
Skipping straight to an editor
As I mentioned earlier, your first move should ideally be to consult beta readers as it’s really beneficial to get the widest range of opinions possible. On top of that, if you’re self-publishing, it’s better to save your money for copyediting and proofreading. However, I do acknowledge that cultivating a tribe of beta readers takes time and if you’re a little impatient and have the funds, by all means go ahead and hire an editor. They will certainly be able to identify any issues with the text and help you to formulate solutions before launching into a rewrite.
If you need an experienced editor, I’m available for hire. All prospective clients receive a free sample edit which allows them to get a sense of my editing style with no obligation to proceed. Once I’ve completed the edit, I will provide you with a quote.