The Benefits of Beta Readers
by Traci Lawrence
I grew up in Southern California, USA. Obviously, there’s a surfing culture in that area. I wasn’t a part of it. I went to the beach every so often, but I didn’t surf. I know little about the following:
- Advisability of dry suits versus wet suits
- Location of rip tides and tidal pools
- Popularity of the specific beach (Is it so crowded it’s hard to find enough space to surf?)
- The effect of low tides and high tides on the sport
- Species of sea creatures native to my chosen spot (Which of them are dangerous?)
Are your eyes glazing over yet? I know mine are, and I’m writing this. This is an illustration of the need for other individuals to view our work before we publish.
We need to ensure all details are described in a manner comprehensible to people unfamiliar with our theme. The other challenge will be to keep the facts down to only the amount necessary for understanding. For instance, if I’m looking over a story about surfing, I don’t want to see multiple paragraphs describing each person or sea creature at the beach.
How Can a Beta Reader Help Writers?
Beta readers analyze pre-published manuscripts. They look at the big picture. They will tell you if your information is overwhelming, insufficient, unclear, or sloppy. This is the most vital part of the writing process next to writing itself.
How do we Find Beta Readers?
They can be found anywhere: in your home; online; and, at your place of business or worship. In other words, they can be anybody who is willing to give you honest, unconditional feedback.
What is the Purpose of a Beta Reader?
1. Catch general grammar and punctuation Issues
These self-sacrificing people can do part of the job of professional editors. As these volunteers are reading, they will come across various concerns that interrupt the momentum of your work. They will notice typos and unclear grammar. For instance, my beta readers have told me I repeat words too much, and I use too, many, commas.
2. Supply a Fresh Eye
To return to the surfing analogy: an avid surfer may be accustomed to communicating with others who are familiar with her idiomatic language, specialized vocabulary, and references to equipment and locations. However, if she is writing for people unfamiliar with the sport, she needs help to make sure her writing is comprehensible to this new audience.
3. Help Organize Your Thoughts
Everybody’s way of thinking is unique. There are similarities within religions, cultures, ethnic groups, and geographical divisions. However, this is the age of almost instant global connectivity. Readers come from anywhere in the world. They might be unfamiliar with the situations you mention in your work.
In fact, we cannot assume those who live nearby will understand our every thought process and motivation. Intimate friends don’t even have the same life experience as us. I understand what’s inside my head, and I know how to put it down on paper. That doesn’t mean my words are clear to others. More than one beta reader has informed me they were confused about my motivation for writing a given section. They wondered how and why that part is important to the reader. That’s why authors must make sure they explain thoughts which may seem elementary to them.
4. Catch Idiomatic Language
Every writer risks confusing their readers; we don’t all have the same training and experience. It’s a diverse world out there, as I mentioned earlier. Here is a list of some of our variations:
- Value systems
You might be surprised how the above categories infuse almost every word we speak and write. We don’t have to write lengthy descriptions of particular elements. Our knowledge shines through the simplest communication. Yet, we need to make our meaning understandable to the reader. We cannot assume they have our same background. Words such as the following may be unfamiliar to some:
- Shrug (the article of clothing, not the lift of the shoulders)
- Maxi dress
- Je ne sais quoi
- Family values (We hear it often, but what does it really mean?)
- Vegan vs. vegetarian
- Grace (according to the Bible)
Non-native speakers of English may be especially vulnerable to unfamiliar idiomatic phrases:
- “What’s up?”
“Reinvent the wheel.”
“Over the top”
Beta readers may suggest adding a few words, or a sentence, will help to explain certain unfamiliar terms and expressions. If a particular phrase would require too much clarification, they’ll probably recommend we choose another one.
5. Watch for Flow and Continuity
Our helpers will give us constructive criticism on the overall lucidity of our work. Pre-publication Readers are indispensable for highlighting parts that are:
Too long–I chopped down many passages in my book based on the advice of my helpers. In these days of busy lives and short attention spans, conciseness is always appreciated. I am amazed when I look at classic works including paragraph-long descriptions of a single object and five-line sentences. Our writing style today is more suited to current society: clear and concise.
Confusing –My friend, Sally, pointed out a portion of an article I wrote. She didn’t understand the purpose of including the section, and she was baffled by some of the wording. I deleted the whole segment.
Inappropriate—I wrote a small booklet for which I miscalculated the target audience. I didn’t know consumers of the work would include males as well as females. Also, I made comments that might have offended some of the female readers. In the end, only half of my original manuscript was used in the final copy.
The end result of our writing, with the help of beta readers, should be near perfection. The goal is to keep our readers’ eyes moving down the text without a break. They should be able to scroll comfortably down the page/s at their normal reading speed. From that point, professional editors can evaluate the nit-picky details of punctuation, grammar, and so forth.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of having as many individuals as possible analyze at least part of your manuscript before you publish. Each person will bring their own perspective and ability to your work.
Beta reading is complicated and unpaid. It also requires an immense focus of time and energy. Since the process of beta reading is so crucial, these wonderful volunteers deserve our gratitude and devotion. Have you thanked your beta readers lately?
Traci Lawrence writes about her passion:
Communication, relationships, the value of individuals and rising above verbal bullying, or trash talk. She lives in the Northern Virginia area of the United States and teaches English, among other subjects. Please find more on her blog, and read her book: Accept No Trash Talk: Overcoming the Odds. For more information on Traci’s editing services, please click here.
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