You Can Help
by Nann Dunne
In this age of minimal editing help from publishers—by necessity
rather than desire—many authors have turned to beta readers. So what
is a beta reader? A beta reader is a friend, fan, or maybe a family
member who will read your story, usually while it is in progress,
and comment on it for you. The idea is for the beta reader to make
suggestions for improvement.
At first glance, this might seem an easy task. But a lot depends
on just how knowledgeable the readers are, how thoroughly they are
willing to scrutinize the author's work, and how brutally honest
they can comfortably be. I tend to think of beta readers in
categories of my own fashioning.
Those who read the story for any glaring
errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, or plot, and let the
author know whether or not the story captured their interest. Did
they like the characters? Did they want to read more? If not, why
not? This is the easiest way to beta read, and it's fun because
you get to read a work before most others see it. The author gets
some help cleaning up the copy and also receives opinions that
probably reflect the average reader's reactions.
Those who, in addition to No. 1, pay
greater attention to the character development, plot structure,
and dialogue. Does the protagonist have a perceivable goal that
he/she is moving toward? Are the main characters changing and
growing in a credible way? Can you tell one character from another
by their dialogue and mannerisms? Is your point of view
consistent? Is the plot moving along or is it stagnant? Has too
much time been spent on one aspect of the character (or plot)
while another needs more attention? This type of beta reading is
more difficult, and it takes an analytical reader to accomplish it
well. But he/she can be of enormous help in keeping the author on
- Those who do everything in No. 1 and No. 2 and also are able to
point out possible improvements to difficult areas. Recognize
illogical constructions, poor paragraph structure, misused or weak
words. Watch for repetitive words, phrases, and ideas. Make sure
spellings of people's names or towns, etc., don't change. Does the
heaviest drama occur in the proper places or are some minor scenes
blown out of proportion and important turning points virtually
ignored? Have all plot points been tidied up? Have all questions
been answered? Has every important character been accounted for?
This beta reading takes more than an analytical mind; the reader has
to be downright picky—and organized. And willing and able to spend a
lot of time on an author's story. If you are fortunate enough to
find a reader like this, hang onto him/her! They are few and far
Having several beta readers may be advisable, because in the real
world, beta readers are not divided so "perfectly." Some are very
good at several aspects and weaker in others. Sometimes, for
instance, the people who are best at plot and story structure may
not be especially good at spelling, punctuation, and grammar. But
they usually know their own strengths and weaknesses and will tell
an author that.
In the same way, some authors are outstanding in some parts of
the craft and can use some help in others. And no matter how good
you are, having extra people look at your work always has the
potential to improve it. I've been an editor for many years, but I
would be the first to admit that I don't catch everything. Each page
of 250 words has approximately 1000 possibilities of a wrong letter
in a word, and that covers only spelling! Dozens of other things
could need attention. I'm very thankful for my beta readers.
So far, I've had decent success from the input of a couple of
knowledgeable beta readers, plus asking an author friend whose work
I respect to give me the benefit of her beta reading. Since authors
work nearly every day with story elements, they have a practiced eye
and can see what may not be apparent to others, so if you can get
additional help from a fellow author, by all means do so.
When I had need of particular information beyond what I could
research, I asked someone who had that knowledge to beta read
relevant parts for me. For example, when we wrote True Colours, a
friend who owned a horse farm beta read all our horse/vet/barn
information, and she helped us fill in some spots we weren't sure
I think it helps to let your beta reader know some specifics
about what you want to discover. Here's a list of what I asked one
of my beta readers to look for in my current story. You'll see it's
not all-inclusive, but at this point, I'm just trying to hit the
high spots. Maybe it will give you a starting point to which you can
add your own needs.
Things to look for:
1. Beginning—Does the beginning hook you,
i.e., make you WANT to read more?
2. Character delineation—Do these people seem real
(major and minor characters)? Who doesn't and why?
3. Description—Do I describe scenes well enough to put the reader in
them? Which ones need help?
4. Pace—Are there scenes where the
story drags? If so, please pinpoint them for me.
the story interesting? Do you want to keep reading it, or are there
places where it would be too easy to put it down? In other words, do
I need stronger cliffhangers in some spots? Again, if so, please
pinpoint them for me.
6. Plot, again—Is there any part of the
story you don't like? Scenes that you think should be removed?
People I should terminate? <half-joking>
7. If you see a
place you think a better word would work, by all means suggest it.
Or if a sentence seems too awkward, let me know.
I explain to my beta readers that I might not accept all of their
suggestions, but I certainly will give them full consideration. I
prefer people to be frank. You need to let your beta reader know
that you value improvement over ego, or he/she will be loath to hurt
your feelings. People will always have differences of opinion, but a
willingness to discuss them openly without taking offense will make
things easier for both of you…and increase your chances for a better
Dunne's Fiction-Editing Handbook (a work in
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