Copy-Editing And Beta Readers

After some major rewrites based on my Editorial Review from the Steve Parolini, the Novel Doctor, I gave my thriller novel ‘Pentecost’ to seven beta readers and asked for their feedback.

This is one of my honest, personal posts! I hope it helps you on your writing journey.

Who are beta readers anyway?

Review copies printed locally for beta readers

Beta readers read your book prior to it going to the printer. You could also use them before submission to an agent or publisher. They read the manuscript for comment on the structure, characters, plot as well as grammar/spelling or anything else they notice that may need revision.Their comments will generally result in another rewrite although of course you don’t need to action everything. Beta readers should be people who like the genre you write in, and also need to be able to give honest feedback. There is no point in just hearing praise at this stage. Criticism only makes our work better!

The practicalities of working with beta readers

I selected five of my friends who read in similar genres as me i.e. fans of thrillers, crime, mystery and fast paced novels. I also asked a writer friend I respect, the lovely Alan Baxter and also my copy editor (who just happens to be my Mum – lucky me!)

I gave them a hard copy A5 version of the book I had printed locally (above) so it was easier to review and make comments on. I also included a letter indicating the comments required i.e. grammar and spelling would be done by my copy editor but I wanted feedback on character, plot, any parts they skipped over or found jarring as well as general comparative notes on other books vs mine.They had three weeks to read it and provide feedback.

I received feedback in the form of marked up A5 books, an interview style discussion and brainstorming as well as phone calls, during which I took copious notes with page references. The most heavily marked up version was from my copy-editor (to be expected).

For the next step, I took my own hard copy of the novel and added comments and notes from all the beta readers. Blue writing is for word changes, tense issues and grammar. Red is for more rewriting needed. Finally, I went through another full rewrite fixing everything from that master draft.

Feedback and lessons learned

Hard copy with edits

I had a few depressed days as I considered the extent of the feedback! I had thought I was 95% complete but it was actually more like 85%. Going through another full rewrite was not on my schedule and by this stage, I was pretty sick of the manuscript! BUT/ the whole point of the beta reader review and copy edit was to ensure that a quality product is released in Feb 2010.

Some of the good feedback included:

  • Great idea for the plot, believable and unsure what was real and what wasn’t
  • Fast paced with no time to rest for the reader (this was also given as a criticism but it’s how I like my thrillers to be)
  • Good settings, vivid descriptions made it cinematic in scope
  • Learned a lot about the Apostles and also Carl Jung which made it interesting
  • Good beginning and good ending (with obvious potential for a sequel)

In the spirit of full disclosure and learning for us all, here is some of the constructive criticism received:

  • Overuse of particular words e.g. now, just, was, then as well as using the same word in consecutive sentences
  • Wrong tense often used
  • Dialogue stilted in places
  • Point of view moves into third person omniscient when it shouldn’t, especially when settings are described as if from a travel book instead of character’s POV
  • Protagonist name change was needed. Morgan Stone as a character came to me when the book was called “Mandala” back in Nov last year. Then the plot morphed to be about the Pentecost stones and her name was too much repetition. I chose Morgan Sierra and rewrote some back story to explain the history of her family so it makes sense.

Not a page was untouched in the edit

One of my beta readers also came up with some brilliant additions to the plot which I’m adding in with his consent. It made me think that I need to give the book to readers earlier so I can expand on the plot at an earlier stage.

From this I learned a few very important points:

  • I need to study the craft in 2011 so I can fix all the basic stuff myself next time. I’m happy with the story but upset at how much blue is all over the book. Thankfully my copy-editor is brilliant and will go over it again now it has been rewritten so you can expect all this to be fixed in the finished product!
  • I understand why editors, agents and publishers hate to read the slush pile. If people don’t use editors, copy-editors and proof-readers before submission, the work could be definitely be improved.
  • To all indie and self-publishers, we MUST use editors, copy-editors and proof-readers. Quality in our publishing is especially important as the most annoying criticism of self-publishing is the lack of quality. Yes, it costs money but it definitely improves the finished product!

Have you used beta readers and copy editors? What have you learned from the process?

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  1. says

    Hang in there, Joanna. This part sucks, but finishing & knowing you went through all of this to make it great is the coolest feeling *ever* (especially when it’s out there for sale, and people actually *read* it). 😉

    I do use beta readers – normally a couple writer friends I trust to tell me the bitter truth. They get my first draft, then I revise based on their comments and my own notes. After I revise, I send it to my editor, who does a complete content/copy edit, and then I do my final edits based on that (am doing that with my second book now). Then formatting, order proofs, and send copies out to a few friends for proofreading.

    Honestly, I’m sick of the book after the first revision pass. LOL But the most important thing I’ve learned is that I really don’t see things that I *know* are mistakes when they come back marked up…when I’m reading, even things that should jump out at me are invisible. So even simple line-editing from someone else is an absolute must to make my prose as clean as it can be.

    Good luck – I’m excited to read your book when you’re done… :-)

    • says

      Thanks Jamie. You’re right of course. As I read it again, I wonder how I missed some of the mistakes in my own read throughs, but our brains just fill in the gaps!
      I was listening to some writing pros on a teleseminar and they said there will always be mistakes, no matter how many times the manuscript is checked. There is also a law of diminishing returns related to how many times you read it!
      I am definitely very happy to have an excellent copy-edit and another round next week after I’ve finished this (hopefully) final draft. I expect only minor sentence/punctuation changes after this run-through.
      I definitely feel that next time I will use beta readers earlier in the process, and an editor later on. Thanks for your help! (and I know the second novel will go more smoothly!)

  2. says

    Awesome post, Joanna.! Thank you so much for sharing this experience.

    I’m not planning to self-publish, but when my novel is semi-finished I’ll be looking for beta readers. My worst nightmare is finding out that there’s a gaping, unfixable plot hole in my story that cannot be fixed without starting from scratch!

    But, like you say, it’s better to find out sooner than later.

    Thanks :)

  3. says

    Thanks for sharing this Joanna.

    I’m still on my first draft and it shows me the hard road ahead of me. As an aspiring novelist, it’s really good to know the realities of this.

    Thank you and good luck with completion


    • says

      I absolutely wish I’d known that earlier!
      But also, part of me is happy I waited until the book was a “book” that I was happy with myself. I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time reading a half-finished novel.
      Now I have a particular friend who will act as a plot consultant for me. He likes the same type of books as me, and had a great idea I’m using now. I’ll give him the earlier stages next time :) Thanks Livia.

  4. Mary says

    Joanna, I learned more from this post than I have from the last three self-publishing I read.Thank you so much.
    I’m sure Pentecost will be a great success.

  5. says

    Beta readers are imperative, even if you’ve had the book professionally edited or doctored, as you did. I’ve got a group of 10 beta readers–my writing group. We often read full manuscripts for each other and the critiquing is invaluable. I’ve also shared your experience of feeling I was done and then learning I wasn’t. But after finishing the changes, I knew I had a better book.

    • says

      I’m so glad you agree Charlotte. I think there is a huge difference between a book that an author originally thinks is finished vs a book that has been through other people’s hands. I am on a crusade to ensure that all independent authors get external editing! Thanks.

  6. says

    I have not used readers yet. I did create a letter to send to a couple women that I want as beta readers. Hopefully, they will sign on and provide feedback.

    Thanks for sharing your process and thoughts.

  7. says

    What a great process you are establishing with your beta readers, Joanna. Setting specific questions and defining expectations is so much more helpful than simply asking your beta readers, “What do you think about my book?” (And secretly hoping they will say it is perfect just as it is…)

    Early feedback can be very helpful in directing your efforts and may save a whole heap of rewriting later on down the track.

    As an editor on the receiving end of “final” manuscripts, some of which are simply not even close to being ready for publication, I have to second Joanna’s advice to seek out good editors, copy editors and proofreaders along the way.

    I love to work with authors to help them produce the best possible outcome, to smooth off those rough edges until their words and stories shine!

    Keep up the good work, Joanna!

  8. Amy says

    A question:

    Do beta readers ever get paid for this? I’ve been beta’ing for several women’s writing groups on a purely amateur basis, and I enjoy it immensely, but are you looking-to-be-published writers paying for this? (That’s as opposed to those it’s-cheaper-than-therapy writers, who aren’t. LOL)

    • says

      Hi Amy,
      I think you could definitely offer that service to people and be paid for it, as long as you offered testimonials of people who were happy with what you did and expressly say what you offer e.g.
      5 pages of feedback, line by line comments – on paper or with Track Changes etc.
      There are many different kinds of beta reading in my experience :)
      Thanks, Joanna

  9. says

    This gives me an idea of what the Beta reader does. I had one who said keep writing and to italicize the speakers, but that’s as far as we went. I probably should have asked more questions.Where do you find Beta readers? Your article was an inspiration.

    • says

      Hi Barbara,
      You can find beta readers a few ways. When I started, I used friends who liked the genre I was writing in. They are readers, not editors, so their comments are from the reader perspective – like, “what the hell happened there?” and “I skipped over that part”.
      Since I have expanded my network, I use other thriller writers whose comments are more nuanced. You can also use a critique group, as long as the criticism is actually constructive. I hope that helps. Thanks, Joanna

    • says

      Check out writer’s groups for people who write in a similar genre to you. Or network with other authors online and see if you can reciprocate with each other.

    • says

      Have you had any experience with beta reading? What kind of books do you
      read? I write historical fiction set in 1900 New Orleans. I find that people that
      are not familiar with this type of writing do not understand my creole characters. Most of my characters are quadroon (1/4 black) and one critique
      partner even told me not to use the word quadroon because she didn’t know
      what it meant. My whole book is about quadroons, so I can’t avoid that word.
      If you may be interested in reading my type of book, please Email me. I have had my book professionally edited. If you can find any typos or inconsistencies, I would love that.

  10. says

    I am glad I found this article, I’m going through round three of edits and I was super frustrated last night. This isn’t even the fiction book, it’s the non fiction book. I thought I’d have more edits in the fiction but that’s not the case. I commend you Joanna because toggling back and forth between fiction and non fiction is not the easiest task.

    I was told yesterday by a reader, after the feedback from my editor that I can be my own editor. I told her it was impossible and she insisted that it was. I just let that comment slide because she really has no idea what she’s talking about. Editors are an essential part of the book writing process. If you think you can edit your own work to the extent that it needs to be edited, I have a bridge I can sell you.

  11. says

    If you’re looking for beta readers after you have copy-edited your work, try contacting a local Book Club where groups of readers get together on a regular basis to discuss and critique works of fiction or non-fiction. You will need to print the relevant number of copies of your work. The simple spiral bound A5 copies that Joanna had printed locally are perfect. I believe that finding a group of readers who are not necessarily into your genre of writing produces surprising commentary about character and plot, in a addition to which these people may not know you personally and will less likely hold back on their more brutal criticism.


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