Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Art of Self-Editing, Part 3

by Henry McLaughlin @RiverBendSagas

So far we’ve discussed several areas in the art of self-editing our work. You can find the links to other posts in the series at the end of this post. 

Beta Readers
This week, I want to introduce a valuable tool in the work of self-editing: beta readers. Beta readers read the entire second draft and give us feedback, but they don’t edit the work. They can point out things, but we want them to read as readers. 

What makes a good beta reader? For me, it’s someone who is reader, a lover of books and story. Being familiar with our genre is helpful, but not crucial as long as they’re comfortable reading it. 

They don’t necessarily have to be writers, but again, it helps. 

They don’t have to be family or friends. And probably shouldn’t be. I would be especially cautious if you’ve included a relative as a character in your novel. Your reader may recognize them and tell them. The repercussions may not be pleasant. Although it might boost sales within your family when the book is published. 

I’ve always appreciated a quote attributed to Anne Lamont. “If my relatives didn’t want me to write about them, they should have been nicer to me.”

You can find potential beta readers in your network of writing buddies. I’ve seen some solicit beta readers on Goodreads.

I’ve used people in my critique groups as beta readers. A couple of downsides to this are 1) those you don’t choose may feel hurt; 2) those you do choose may be so familiar with your story, they may not pick up issues and concerns as well as someone bringing fresh eyes to your writing.

Besides wanting a reader as a beta reader, I also look for someone who I respect and who I trust to give me honest feedback about my story.

I recommend limiting beta readers to three to five. More than that may result in too much conflicting input. Trying to incorporate everyone’s ideas could lead to the manuscript being a mess beyond recovery. 

When they’ve finished, surprise them with a thank you, such as a gift card to Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Or agree to be a beta reader for them when they’re ready for that step.

When I’ve recruited my beta readers, I send them the manuscript along with specific questions I want feedback on.

Here are a few suggestions:
  • Does the hero’s character transformation seem complete and believable?
  • Where did you get bored and want to skim pages?
  • What pulled you into the story?
  • What threw you out of the story?
  • Are the characters believable? Did any character strike you as particularly memorable? (In a good or bad way?)
  • Is the story world believable?
  • Does the plot hold together throughout the novel?
  • Is the conflict and tension sufficient to carry the story?

This seems like a lot of questions and we don’t want to overwhelm or disrespect our readers. On the other hand, we do want to give them specific points to focus on. I usually select no more than five questions. They’re based on areas I’m not sure about and need input. But I also don’t want to limit my beta readers. One approach is to include the list of questions and ask them to answer the three to five that strike them as the most important.

The more specific we can be about the feedback we’re looking for, the better response we’re going to get.

We also want to give our readers freedom to be honest with us. Not only on specifics we may ask, but also about any area they want to comment on. 

Next week, we’ll discuss the next revision and when it’s time to seek a professional editor.

What’s been your experience with beta readers? What did you find most helpful? Not so helpful?

Don't Miss the Other Posts in this Series
The Art of Self-editing, Part 4
The Art of Self-editing, Part 5

The Art of Self-Editing, Part 3 - Henry McLaughlin, @RiverBendSagas on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Thoughts on how beta readers help writers with self-editing from Henry McLaughlin, @RiverBendSagas on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest.

Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers.

Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.


  1. I always enjoy your posts, Henry. Always. I used Beta Readers earlier this year. 2 major concerns I had were whether I had too many characters and whether there was any confusion during the big "showdown" scene towards the end. I was relieved to learn the none had confusion over the showdown scene, but was surprised that most confusion was in chapter 1. And it had to do with keeping straight which of the 3 characters said what. I was guilty of being too familiar with the story and characters, yet the readers were hitting it cold. The feedback was extremely eye-opening.
    One thing I did was to send them the manuscript without the last chapter and asked them who they thought dunnit. The 5 readers gave me 4 different characters - one I hadn't even thought of. I didn't change the ending, but I did go back and introduce one more red herring involving that new suspect.
    I like your idea of asking more questions and having them respond to the 3 - 5 they feel are the most important. I especially like your question about their opionion of whether the main character's transormation seemed complete AND believable.
    Thanks for this post.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

    1. Thank you, Jay. Your experience with beta readers highlights why they're so important in the self-editing process. And I appreciate your kind words about enjoying my posts. You are an encourager to me.

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