Talk Me Off My Beta Reading Ledge

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“A beta reader is someone who agrees to look over a piece of fiction for spelling, grammar, characterization, and continuity errors. Unlike a true editor, a beta reader is typically unpaid, and he or she sees the work at a very rough state. Many authors like to use beta readers to improve the quality of their work before they submit it for professional editing and critique, and beta readers are usually profusely thanked in acknowledgments, in recognition of the time and energy which they invested in the work.”  (wiseGEEK, 2013. What is a Beta Reader?)

Is a person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and a general style of the story prior to its release to the general public.
Is a person who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and a general style of the story prior to its release to the general public.

I have been asked to beta read several books for independent authors.  They contacted me after receiving a personal email from me about how their book impacted me, read a review I wrote for another book, or as a favor.    When I read, my life and work experience become part of the process.  I have held more than one professional job and several career changes, so I am able to pull from an “eclectic” background.    Authors will receive honest, in-the-moment feelings about a passage or plot twist, in addition to continuity and writing errors.  I want them to see through my eyes.   I prefer to keep chapter notes, rather than editing notes on the document.  It is a personal choice.

Once I send my reading notes and summary comments to the author, I move on to the next thing.   After all, it is not my work.  I am not responsible for ensuring the errors and corrected and facts are double-checked.  I am merely providing an opinion, based on what I read.

What happens when I see the published book has the same errors I flagged as I was reading four months ago?  These were not spelling, punctuation, grammar or even usage errors.  No, these were poorly researched “facts” that may have added “drama” to the story, but were simply untrue and easily verified with a Google search.   Unfortunately for me, the errors were glaringly blatant because I had first-hand knowledge of the material, having worked in the field.

My first reaction was, “WHAT?!!  I TOLD you that was wrong, why didn’t you change it?!,” followed by “Well, it’s not my book so…oh, well <shrugs shoulders>,” to “once this gets into the readers’ hands, they will tear it apart.”  (In this case, “readers” are the general public – people who did not receive ARC copies, are not book bloggers or other authors.)

For when a facepalm is not enough.
For when a facepalm is not enough.

Now, I feel ambivalent because I have been asked to “recommend” the book to people.  I cannot, and will not, do it in good conscience.  I used the excuse that I was a beta reader and my recommendation would be “biased.”  Then, quickly walked away from the discussion.

Author and Author/Reviewer Friends, I know you use beta readers, or at least hope you do.  (If you don’t, we need to talk.  Right. Now. Seriously.)   What happens when the beta readers find something in your plot that is wrong – not something they disagree with – but just plain wrong?   Do you rewrite that part?  What if is a major plot twist?  What if it is something you are counting on, to draw your reader in?   Tell me what you would do.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional beta reader and do not receive compensation for pre-reading any material. Beta/ Draft and advance reader copies are sent to me by authors who want my opinions.

10 thoughts on “Talk Me Off My Beta Reading Ledge

    Julie Richman said:
    July 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    I think it is incumbent upon the writer to be doing the research up front or as they are writing. Generally, research has been made so easy through internet channels, that not doing it is really unacceptable in today’s world. If there are major factual issues – then a rewrite of that portion is necessary. I think for the most part, once someone has the correct data, tweaking will generally fix the problem. Leaving glaring factual mistakes in a work would personally drive me apeshit.

      Michelle responded:
      July 15, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      I agree, Julie. If I were writing a book, research would be nonnegotiable and done BEFORE submitting it to beta readers. Otherwise, I would not consider it a “review draft,” merely a “for author’s eyes only” draft.

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

    Kristen Geist said:
    July 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    I am not a beta reader, but I am a total bookworm and I do write reviews. In this situation, I would be offended and pissed off. You take the time out of your day to really read and pay close attention to the book then they blatantly ignore factual errors. While I know it is fiction, do your research! Google, Bing, Yahoo……there are so many great resounrces out there and a little research can make a book that much better! By the way, I love the “headdesk” graphic, so fitting!

      Michelle responded:
      July 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm

      I was offended, initially, because it almost felt like I had wasted my time. And, you’re right. There are too many ways to do research that are inexpensive, or free, to allow factual errors be printed. But, alas it’s not my book. I take it with a grain of salt as a lesson learned: each beta reading experience makes me a more well-rounded beta reader. I doubt my mini rant will be of any consequence, but I’ll fly under the radar for a few days, or don a disguise when I go to the grocery store. LOL

      I appreciate your comments, Kristen!

    Hayson Manning said:
    July 21, 2013 at 4:02 am

    I’m an author and would love to use beta readers to get feedback on a story. Where do you find these mythical creatures?

    Interesting post, Michelle. I’ve been in critique groups and have been pulled up by something totally out of place. One was a location that I’d actually lived and the writer waxed lyrical about the massive sand dunes. There’s not a sand dune in sight. She kept it in because it was pretty but it totally annoyed me and along with other abnormalities she wouldn’t change because it was hard work, I stopped critiquing with her. No hard feelings but when someone has pointed out something that jars them and isn’t right then I totally go back and look at it. They are spot on. Sometimes we writers get so stuck in our heads that we can’t see the mistakes, especially if we’re on draft seven hundred and five. Yeah, it’s hard to go back and change stuff, especially if we love it, but then it becomes about me not the book and slap me with a spade if it ever becomes about me and not the book.

    Hayson

      Michelle responded:
      July 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

      Hayson,
      Precisely why I quietly stepped away from the situation. I consider the beta reader to be another “tool” to help the author make the story better, clearer and more concise. As you mention, it is about the book. Or at least, it should be.
      Michelle

      P.S. I would love to beta read for you, luv. :)

    Melissa Veracruz said:
    October 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Are you accepting new reads? Or have you jumped the ledge? I have a YA that needs some checking! I’ve had a cheer mom check it and various readers have looked it over. I’d love to see what you can find fact-wise.

      Michelle responded:
      October 8, 2013 at 5:55 pm

      Melissa,
      I’m back in school for my final semester of RN school, but could recommend a couple of beta readers for you. Let me know.

      I typically do not read YA, because I used to work in Youth Development and knowing all the “popular” children’s literature was my “job.” However, I would be happy to beta read for you after Thanksgiving, when my life becomes less hectic. :)

      ~Michelle

    Rochelle Weber said:
    January 27, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    I stopped freelance editing because of two authors who refused to change things in their manuscripts that really didn’t work and I couldn’t get past those issues. I dropped the books and never got paid for my work, which was extensive because of course their grammar and spelling were as bad as their plots. One never described anyone above the waist and had the corpse walk out of the morgue on tape and say goodnight to the Coroner before the hero was arrested. The author said, “Well she’s not really dead. They’re framing him.” I explained in that case, they should swap a similar-looking female corpse on the way to the morgue, but they couldn’t arrest the guy when the “corpse” was walking around on tape and conversing with people. He refused to fix it, and it was so simple.

    The other had a woman working for a reputable drug company for a flat payment of a million dollars but she couldn’t tell anyone where the money came from or where she went every day. The plot smelled like “The Insider” to me, and the product sounded like Chantix. He only had one copy of the book, which I actually lost. Our contract had a kill fee that he refused to pay, and I refused to return the disk he’d given me. But then I couldn’t find it until several years later when I was looking for Christmas music and I found it among my music CDs. I probably saved him a grunch of money in lawsuits. I would have loved to have gotten him on Judge Judy.

    You should, indeed, be angry. You may not be getting paid to be a beta reader, but that doesn’t mean your time is not still valuable and when you point out that something is downright WRONG and the author does not fix it, s/he is wasting your time.

      Michelle responded:
      January 27, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      Rochelle,
      I appreciate the feedback. I have greatly curtailed my beta reading list to those folks who use editors and beta readers to help them produce the best product. It has been an “interesting” learning experience, but I am happy to have gone through it.

      Wow. Just wow. I am stunned at what you’ve been through, although I suspect it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The world of books seems like the old, unregulated, wild West sometimes.
      Thank you for stopping by!
      Regards,
      Michelle

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