You’ve read your story so many times that you’ve gone cross-eyed and you’d rather throw it in a river than read it once more. That means it’s time to share with beta readers—a term for readers who review and critique your manuscript before it’s finalized.
Over the years, I’ve curated a wonderful group of beta readers (and I was actually in the same room with three of them last week even though we live in four different cities!). It takes time, and a bit of trial and error, to find readers who give you what you need.
Some readers may be really good at general proofreading, while others don’t worry about line edits and focus on the big-picture stuff. This is good, because you need both of these. They don’t have to be writers, but you want someone who will do more than tell you that you’re the next JK Rowling. Because while that’s really nice to hear, it isn’t going to improve your story or make you a better writer.
At the end of the day, it’s your story
That said, this is still your story. When reading through your readers’ edits, you may experience one—or all—of the following reactions:
- Oh my goodness, YES! This is so obvious! I can’t believe I missed it myself.
- I guess maybe this section could be stronger with these changes.
- I guess maybe this section could be stronger with these changes, but I’m not really sure it’s worth all the effort it’ll take.
- I don’t agree with their suggested change, but two other people suggested changes on this same section, so maybe I need to revisit it and figure out what isn’t working.
- No, I absolutely disagree. There’s no way I’m doing this.
- Is this person on crack?
I’ve thought all of these at some time or another, and the point is that feedback comes in all shapes and sizes. When the criticism is harsh, my immediate reaction may be to brush the person off as a crackpot, but I remind myself that there’s a reason I asked them for their feedback in the first place so maybe I should sit on it for a few days. I’ve received comments that REALLY pissed me off, but deep down I knew they were right and what I was really afraid of is how much work it would take to make my book better.
But that’s what all this is for—to make our books better.
I do want to call attention to the 4th bullet point. There may be passages that several readers comment on, and while their suggestions may differ, what it tells you is that something isn’t working. You may decide to utilize one suggestion, combine several, or come up with something completely different, but it’s important that you edit the passage—then run it by another reader.
That said, don’t blindly make every suggested change. Follow your gut—but make sure you aren’t discounting something because you’re afraid of doing the work. If I receive feedback and I just can’t decide if I agree with it, I’ll run it by another reader who’s familiar with my manuscript (without disclosing the other person’s identity) and see what they think. The final decision is still mine, but at least I know I’ve made an informed decision.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Keep doing what you’ve been doing!
Send to more beta readers!
When you’ve exhausted your readers and feel like you’ve done everything you can to make your story shine, give it a final close read. Yes, I know that at this point you are so sick of it that you’d rather clean grout with a toothbrush (an excellent procrastination task, btw), but you MUST do it.
Here are a few ways to make errors jump out at you:
- Print it out
- Read on an ereader
- Read it out loud
- Read it backwards
Printing it our or reading on an ereader makes your manuscript look different than in your writing software, and the other two tricks help you catch mistakes that your eyes skim over—especially when you’ve already read it 57 times.
Believe in Yourself
No joke, I have this written in on my whiteboard in my office where I can see it every time I sit down to write (or edit). You can have the best cheerleaders in the world, but if YOU don’t think you can do this, it won’t happen. As I’ve said before, writing is a solitary endeavor and you have to believe that you will succeed.
Is there anything I’ve missed? I’d love to hear other techniques you use when editing a story.