Tag Archives: beta reading

Beta reading, editing, proofreading, reviewing

A novel has to pass through many stages during its lifecycle. In my job I get to do all of them, although not usually more than two on any one project, as otherwise I start to see what should be there rather than what is there. So what’s the difference?

Beta reading

A beta read is for the author’s benefit. It provides feedback on the pace, the characters, the setting – anything that impacts on the structure and style of the story is fair game. When I beta read, I’m aiming to give the author an idea of the strengths and weakness of both story and style, and spot any plot holes or major omissions early in the publication stage, so they’re not too painful to fix.


Sometimes the beta read can be very tough (or, strictly speaking, an alpha read), and that’s when it’s even more important to really get stuck in and figure out what the problem is. As I make a small charge for a beta read, I’m going to make every effort to read the whole manuscript, and give you whatever advice I can.

What doesn’t get looked at

At a beta read stage I will not be worried about sentence structure except to comment on any style issues, or where the meaning is unclear or confusing. Nor will I be picking up on spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, unless to comment on those that are frequent/misleading.


An edit involves pulling the manuscript apart, to a greater or lesser extent. A structural edit can be very thorough, while a copy edit will be for consistency of plot and style. At this point I’m not only pointing out every error I see, but making suggestions on how to fix them. This is accordingly the most expensive and time-consuming of the types of read.


At the editing stage, depending on the level of editing booked, everything in the novel should be looked at.


A proofread is the final stage before publication. When proofreading, the aim is to pick up any last remaining errors and check for issues with layout. Because of this, the proofread should be carried out on the final file, or as close to that as possible, because every time the file is converted/changed there is the possibility of introducing errors – such as incorrect page numbers in a print document, or blank pages in an ebook file. The purpose of a proofread is to make sure the work is as error-free as possible, so that the reader does not get distracted by any issues with either the language or the layout.

What doesn’t get looked at

Style and structure.


With a review, the focus has changed. A review is not for the author’s benefit (although having public reviews of a book can help sales). A review is for the benefit of readers, to help to know what the book is about and to give them some idea of the strengths and weaknesses of it. When I review a book, I’m looking at how well it entertains and how well the style, structure, characters and setting work towards the end product, or if it’s non-fiction I’m looking at the purpose of the book, how useful it is and what sort of reader it would help best.


I very rarely review anything that I’ve worked on in earlier stages, because I’m too familiar with it, may have had a lot of input into it already and because my time is limited and I would feel the need to reread in order to check I’m reviewing the published version. However, as a member of the Amazon Vine programme I’m often offered books to read and review, and if I read anything for pleasure I will often review that as well.

What stage does your manuscript need?

At various stages in the production cycle, all these stages are needed. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming beta readers will deal with all the other stages. You might be lucky and get a brilliant beta reader, but even so, they are unlikely to have the experience and knowledge that an editor/proofreader brings. As an author, it is your responsibility to your readers to produce the best piece of work you can, and this involves making use of professionals in the process where appropriate.


Self publishing is not producing a book cheaply. It is taking on all the business costs yourself, overseeing the project yourself and collecting more of the income from it.



How do I beta?

Please note that this is how I personally work – it isn’t a rigid way that the job must be done. I suspect there are as many different ways of working as there are beta readers. Also, this service is bordering on an alpha read or critique, rather than just a beta read.


When an author contacts me I’ll book them in and let them know when I expect to get to their project. Sometimes I can take one on immediately, while at other times I’ve run a waiting list of up to six months. When I receive the file, either in  Word or PDF version, I start an Evernote file for the work, giving title, author and page count (with word count if known). I add any synopsis or other information I’ve been given, plus any specific things I’ve been asked to look out for. I put the date I received the file and any deadline or estimate for finishing. I also confirm to the author that I’ve successfully opened the file and saved my own copy to work on. It helps if I also have some information on the writer’s experience and their intentions for the manuscript (generally, seeking an author or self-publishing).


As I read, I make notes in the project file – like a running commentary, on something I don’t understand, something that makes me laugh, something that’s inconsistent… I’ll also add general comments in the Evernote file under heading such as Setting, Plot, Characters, POV.


At the end of a session I’ll note in the Evernote file where I’ve stopped, and I’ll also summarize what’s happened in this session, so it’s easier to pick back up after a day or so away. This is also a good way of assessing the plot – is it easy to say what happened in each chapter? Did too much happen to explain quickly? Did things just drift along with nothing really happening at all? Is it clear at this point what the main character wants and what’s standing in their way?


I try to read at least 50 pages from a project in a session. Any fewer and it takes too long to get through, and it also becomes bitty in my mind and hard to keep straight. Any longer and I lose concentration – although if a book is close to the end of the development cycle and there is less to comment on I can become more involved and get further in the session. I might switch projects and continue if I still have time available, but I have to be aware of other work that has to be done as well, and in order to keep the beta fee as low as I can, I have to prioritise the higher-paying work.


When I’ve finished a project, I’ll wait until the next day to compose a report for the author. This allows my thoughts to gel. Sometimes I’ll go back and re-read the opening, adding a couple more comments – things that were unclear to start with sometimes come clearer on a second read, or things that seemed unimportant are noticed more – or important things are missing.


I’ll then write back to the author, attaching the project file with the comments, and include a general report as well. Sometimes the author has further questions for me, and I’m happy to carry on the conversation with them, and clarify anything. However, it’s entirely up to them what notice they take of my feedback. I also focus on finding and explaining problems, rather than how to fix them.

Beta reading is not like normal reading

For a start, I can only beta read either on my computer or on my laptop, so I can add comments. Beta projects are often unpolished, and therefore do not flow as easily as finished works, and this can slow down the reading considerably. I’ve had projects where I’ve had to train myself to ignore punctuation because, the use of commas, is fairly arbitrary making it, impossible to use it to, help with understanding.


I often have to go back and re-read sections, especially in the first few pages. What have I taken in? What have I missed? Has the author introduced too many characters too quickly? Is there too much background information given, rather than getting straight to action?


I’m constantly questioning what I read, and this means that I have to check facts – what exactly was she wearing? Did we get told she changed clothes? Is it possible she changed but we weren’t told? How many days have passed? What day of the week does this work out as?


This means that beta reading takes far more time and concentration than normal reading. It is not a way to get free books to read! It requires time and patience, and a good understanding of how books should flow. It requires tact and patience in explaining issues to the author. I am not – at that point, at least – the book’s editor or proofreader, and I will not point out every single mistake (more on the different roles in another post) but I will point out consistent errors and issues, and I will point out when a sentence does not get its message across clearly. I can pick up dictation errors if the author has used dictation software. I will point out where punctuation/grammar obscures the meaning. I will also point out general writing weaknesses, such as inconsistent points of view or over-reliance on adverbs, if necessary.


The read is focussed on the structure of the story, and while it is not in the depth required by a developmental or structural edit, it should provide plenty of information to help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your novel and point you towards how to improve it.


All this makes for an enjoyable but challenging way of helping authors to produce their book. It is also a good way for the author to get to know the way I work, and for me to get to know the author and the story, before discussing any further editorial/proofreading work they may require. Part of the beta fee may be deductible from the final fee.


How can a beta reader help?

It’s important to understand how a beta reader can fit into the development of your writing. Making the best of all the resources at hand will lead to a higher quality end product, and after putting all that effort into your book, it makes sense to follow through properly.


A beta reader isn’t a proof reader. They aren’t an editor. They do not even need a high standard of written English themselves. But the one important thing about a beta reader is that they are a reader, and preferably one who enjoys the genre of books you’ve written and understands how stories* work.


You should expect a beta reader to read your novel* and give honest feedback. They should comment on characters, plot and flow of the novel. They should leave you with a better understanding of how your novel works for a reader: which bits are unclear, which bits are boring, which bits really help the reader imagine the scene, whether the characters work well. They should point out any inconsistencies they come across, and any plotholes they notice. Some might offer to correct errors for you, but please remember that they are not professional proofreaders, and as there are likely to be plot/structure changes needed as a result of the beta reading, it’s a little early to worry too much about spelling errors and typos. Some writers like to give a beta reader a questionnaire to fill in, or a set of targeted questions, but you should not expect a fully detailed critique of your novel. Remember that the beta reader is reading for free, or for a very small fee, and is not necessarily a writer themselves. They should, however, be able to explain whether a book works for them, and give reasons to justify their answer.


You can find beta readers via a site like goodreads, or kboards, or you could ask friends or family – but if you know the beta reader personally, you need to make it clear that you’re not looking for a cheerleader (although they can serve their purpose!) but for constructive criticism. Some established authors have websites or facebook pages where they have built up a network of people who may be called on to help out, but at first you might need to try out a few people and see who responds in good time, who gives useful feedback and who really isn’t worth the effort of sending your work to. As long as they respond in reasonable time and you find their observations helpful, it’s worth putting them on a list for future runs. Remember that they are reading in their spare time; don’t nag them daily, but you should be prepared to set a deadline and/or give them a nudge if you hear nothing for more than a couple of weeks. Usually you would be expected to provide either a Word document or a PDF format, but some beta readers prefer an epub. Personally I prefer to add comments to a Word document or sticky notes to a PDF. This does limit my reading to the computer or laptop, but it means I can add comments as I go through.


A beta reader should be contacted once you have a complete draft you want feedback on, but before you start to consider an editor. You can choose whether to build up a close relationship with one beta reader or use several, which gives you the benefit of a variety of opinions but can be more time-consuming to manage. You aren’t obliged to implement everything a beta reader might suggest, of course, but if two or three people suggest a passage drags then that’s an area you should definitely focus on, and likewise if a passage is confusing or unbelievable, or if there are plotholes noticed, or repeated issues with a character. 


If you feel you want more help than a beta reader can offer, some editors are willing to work closely with you on the plot; this is called substantive editing, and can be expensive, depending on the experience and ability of the editor. Bear in mind that you are expecting this person to spend a lot of time with your work, and to go through it thoroughly; all this is time-consuming, and the editor has to charge a sensible amount in order to make a living. On the other hand, you should make sure you are happy with what they offer before agreeing to the work. Most editors will give a free sample edit so that you can see how compatible you are. Some editors might be willing to provide a cheap beta read/critique along with a sample edit. This will provide you with basic feedback and allow them to see whether they feel they can help you. Again you are not obliged to follow their suggestions, unless the editing is provided as part of a publication deal, but why pay for someone’s advice if you are unwilling to follow it?


Once you have considered carefully all the feedback from the beta reader(s), it’s time to redraft, and depending on the amount of changes made you might feel you need another beta read. Take your time, and redraft/rebeta as often as you feel you need, but remember that you will never, ever reach a point where you feel your novel is perfect! Just make sure you have done the best you can before you hand it over to an editor for a final polish.


* I have spoken here about novels and stories, plotlines and characters, but of course what I say applies to other types of writing as well, for example memoirs and other non-fiction. You may, however, find it harder to find beta readers willing to help you out for these other types of writing. This is one example of where a paid beta might be useful or necessary.


For further information see my article How do I beta?