Zoe is Managing Editor of Ventura Press, a small independent publishing house in Sydney. Ventura Press publishes adult fiction, children’s picture books and non-fiction including memoir and self-help. Zoe has been with Ventura since 2016, having previously worked as a freelance editor and an in-house editor for a small educational business. She has also been President of Editors NSW (formerly the Society of Editors (NSW) Inc.) since March 2015.
It's been a long time since I've done a 5 sentence review. I do have two to include later tonight in another post, but the month of April also included reading 4 books that are still in the development stages, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to comment on what beta reading is like, some of the pros and cons, and how you can become involved as a reader or a writer.
What is beta reading? Beta reading, like "beta testing" anything, involves reading something that is pretty well developed but not quite ready for publication, in order to give the writer feedback. A beta read is not the same as an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of a book that will more or less remain unchanged. ARCs are for reviewers and booksellers to make a judgment on, for the sake of other potential readers. Beta-reading is for readers to become part of the editing process, to help the author ensure their characters are well-developed, plot holes are filled and kinks are ironed out.
Nor is it the same as a first draft critique. Books often go through dozens of drafts before they're put in a reader's hands. For me, I have a team of writers who read along chapter-by-chapter each week and offer me feedback as I'm developing the story. This is when the drafts are rough, bits of earlier chapters change (affecting the plot) as they're reading based on their advice, and spelling/punctuation/grammar mistakes and typos haven't been caught. That team puts up with a lot of sludge; they're angels. Then there's an "alpha read" where the reader will get a finished draft, but books still need a lot of work. Alpha readers find what works and what doesn't, what's worth keeping and what can be cut out. They give big picture feedback on content, characters and themes.
When a book is semi-polished and has run through a few clean-ups, it's ready for a beta read. There, readers catch mistakes or places where it still doesn't quite "work"; they tell the author whether their book is ready to be submitted (to agents, publishers or self-publishing) or if there's something that stands out and really needs to be fixed soon.
Why be a beta reader? Free books! Also, you get to be involved in the process of creating a book, without coming up with your own story ideas and writing them. It's pretty cool to be able to affect the final outcome of a story and have your opinions taken into account, especially if you also end up on the acknowledgments page. Have you ever finished a book and thought "that was great, but it would have been better if X didn't happen" or "I wish there had been more of Y's thoughts and feelings in that part" or even "wow, great book but terrible ending"? The best you can do with that after a book has been published is write a detailed review. But when you're beta reading, authors want your criticisms, the more specific the better, and you can nitpick as much as you like.
Sometimes a book will have a few beta readers at once (such as the April "beta swap" I completed last month) followed by a group discussion about it. This is a little like being part of a book club where the author of the book joins in the discussion. The round table discussion is priceless for writers and (I find) enjoyable for readers as you get to chat with others and share opinions. If you're a writer, an added bonus of beta reading is often a one-for-one trade off with another writer, where they'll critique your work in exchange for your feedback on theirs.
Why submit my book to beta readers? As writers, constructive criticism is how we grow. When you've been writing and re-writing for a long time, it gets hard to look at your story with fresh eyes. Even regular critique partners or writer's groups can bring their understanding of your characters from past drafts in to what they're reading, if they've been working with you for more than one or two edits. Beta readers are a great way to get "overall impressions" feedback while you still have time to do something with it and make necessary changes. And unlike family or friends, their feedback isn't influenced by what they think of you or what you're doing, and they know your genre well because they're choosing to read the book, not the work of a person they care about.
What's the downside? When you finish reading a published book, you can go on with your life, read something different, and think about the book as much or as little as you like. While no one can force you to give your feedback, with a beta read it's understood that you will take the time to really think about what you have read and articulate that for the author. Also, if you dislike the book, there's a stronger sense of obligation to read to the end - although as a writer, being told where you stopped reading and why can be incredibly valuable in and of itself. I do find that when I've been reading to critique for a long time, it gets harder to get lost in a new book without that "red pen" voice in my head as I read. The reading process itself also generally takes quite a bit longer.
There's also the problem of different people with different opinions. A writer has to work out which suggestions to take on board and which to dismiss, and finding a majority consensus can sometimes be tricky, especially if you don't have that round table discussion where beta readers can listen to each other's thoughts and take the opportunity to agree or disagree.
Should I pay for a beta reader? There are readers out there who will offer their services for a fee, which is understandable given the time it takes them. However, before hiring one of these paid beta readers, you need to ask yourself what skills or experience they can offer to make their feedback worth more than a free reader. If I were to spend money on a reader, personally I would look for a professional editor and ask for a structural edit or manuscript assessment, rather than a paid amateur. But that can also be a matter of budget. Some paid beta readers will offer a sample, where they read the first few chapters for free and send their feedback, so you can decide based on that whether it's worthwhile going ahead. Ultimately it's up to you, but be aware that you can find beta readers without opening your wallet if you look hard enough and are willing to give up some of your own time in return.
Do I still need to hire an editor after a beta read? It depends. If you are pursuing traditional publishing, that is, submitting to an agent or publishing company, I would say no. Publishing houses hire editors after they have accepted a manuscript, and they will do this regardless of how many changes it went through before landing on their desk. A manuscript assessment service might be worthwhile, but I wouldn't suggest paying for a structural edit, copyedit or line edit. On the other hand, if you intend to self publish then yes, spend the money on a qualified editor. Beta readers are great, but they don't give you the line-by-line feedback that you need to make your book shine.
How can I get involved in beta reading? There are numerous ways to find writers or readers for your unpublished manuscript. Websites such as betabooks are specially designed for alpha and beta reads, and other writing communities such as scribophile often have groups to set up novel exchanges between writers in a similar genre. Social media can also be a great way to make those connections - I recently saw another writer on twitter post asking for YA authors to exchange manuscripts with, and from there it was as straightforward as DMing my email address. If you're interested in beta reading and don't have your own writing to exchange, one tweet and you'll likely find yourself inundated with requests from eager and grateful writers.
Tell me about your recent beta reading experience There were 4 of us, devoting a week per book to reading, followed by a group discussion at the end of the week. The quality of writing was varied, with one manuscript easily as good as a published book and another needing a lot more clarity on the major plot points and intentions of the writer. I was able to read on my phone at night while breastfeeding my baby, or in the car waiting to pick my son up from school. All of my feedback was met with appreciation and I got to read some good stories. I have a clear sense of where to take the next draft of my book and what the major changes need to be, but I still felt very encouraged by the kind words of the other readers and their interest in my work.
I can't review their books for you, partly because I don't have permission from their authors and these are unpublished works, but also partly because if the books are published at some point, they will change! And that, really is the beauty of beta reading. Much like teaching, I get to not only see someone grow, but be a part of that.
Back in 2012, before I knew much about submitting to literary magazines, I sent a piece off to Spark, which at the time was brand new and tiny. When I got the inevitable rejection – seriously, that story was not ready to be sent anywhere - the email included the following line:
If you are not already a member of a writing group, we highly recommend Scribophile (http://scribophile.com) as an excellent place to build relationships with other writers and get high-quality constructive feedback.
It was almost two years before I took the advice. In that time I finished writing the early drafts of my novel, sent it to a few friends, attended an editing workshop at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and thought “yep, it’s pretty much ready to go”. I sent it off to an editor for a manuscript assessment as a sort of last minute sweep through. While I was waiting for her to read it and get back to me, I pulled up some of my old short stories and thought about submitting them again, but I wasn’t sure where to start. That’s when I found the old email from Brian Lewis, editor-in-chief of Spark.
That was August 2014. In the 9 months since, I have:
received 27 constructive critiques on the first chapter of my novel and revised it a further 8 times.
written over 100 000 words in 159 critiques for other writers.
received 246 critiques of my own writing, across 36 works (short stories, novel chapters, a query letter and synopsis).
befriended writers from all over the world.
chatted with professional copy editors, an agent and 5 editors-in-chief of different literary journals.
learnt where to submit my work, how to format it, and what to look out for in scams that target writers.
I’ve been just as productive (if not more so) than when I was doing my Masters.
There are plenty of others who have not found Scrib as useful, which is understandable – not every group is right for every person. But in an attempt to break down what makes it so effective, I’ll share what worked for me.
Scribophile works on a currency they call "karma", where you earn karma by critiquing others and you spend it by posting your own work for critique. You have to earn karma before you can post your own work, which is probably the most common aspect of Scrib that I read complaints about. I love it, because it weeds out any writers who want feedback but are unwilling to spend their own time helping others to improve – i.e. you’re expected to give to the community, not just take from it.
Karma is earned on a word-count basis, but those words should be useful – what worked, what didn’t, places where the story lagged, characters who seemed inconsistent, settings that could be better described, phrases that really struck a chord, as well as any spelling/grammar/punctuation errors. This scares some people off, because they’re not sure if they’ll have anything useful to say. That’s okay. There’s an article on how to write a critique, and the function to report a “bad critique” is only used when it’s obvious that the writer was trying to pad out their word count (e.g. by copying and pasting) or not making a genuine effort to be helpful. Scrib is also full of writers who recognise that critiquing, like writing, improves over time.
Over the course of my life I’ve received feedback from all kinds of places – teachers in high school and at university, fellow writing students, family, colleagues, friends, and a professional editor. I don’t regret getting a single piece of feedback, even the bits that hurt at the time. Most of the time, what I want from a critique is simple: how did you, as a reader, react to this part and what did you like or dislike?
Scribophile is structured so that you earn more karma by critiquing works in a “spotlight” than other works. Works don’t stay in a spotlight for a certain amount of time; they stay there until they’ve received a certain number of critiques. With a basic membership, every work you post is guaranteed at least three critiques. As I’ve spent more time on Scrib and built working relationships with individual writers, the spotlight has meant less to me and I’ve got an oversupply of karma. That’s okay – it still serves as a useful tool for jumping in to the site, getting your first critiques and building those relationships in the first place.
There are hundreds of groups on Scrib, some more active than others. Several sound wonderful but I don’t have the time to join them. Others are specific to a purpose that doesn’t meet my needs – memoir, or fantasy writers, or poets. These are the three that I use most often.
One-for-One This group works as the title suggests – trading critiques one-for-one. Every couple of weeks there’s a thread in the group forums where members post a couple of lines about what their work is and what kinds of works they’d be interesting or willing to critique in return. People match up with one another and can make as many “deals” as they have the time and effort to do. You don’t have to commit to anything on a week where you won’t have time, and on a productive week you can get dozens of people reading your work as long as you read theirs.
The Ubergroup The Ubergroup is really a series of smaller groups, with its own subset of group moderators. It’s run by Jerry Quinn, who outlines the whats and whys on his blog. This group exists for novel writers. You’re assigned to a “team” of people – usually between 3 and 8, but each team decides for themselves how many writers they can handle – and everyone on your team commits to reading and critiquing each other’s novels. It’s like a long-term one-for-one commitment. The best part of the Ubergroup is the timing. There’s a group of people who are all reading the same chapter of your book at the same time and they’re talking to each other (and you) in the forums – that round table discussion is incredibly useful.
Each team decides for themselves what pace they work at. If you’re writing an early draft, that might be one chapter a week. That means in week 1 you read the first chapter of each of your team members’ books, and they all read chapter one of yours. If you’ve got a finished, edited, late draft or polished book ready to go, there’s the “beta team” and a few other similarly styled teams where team members read and critique at a much faster pace, focusing on one book at a time and devoting a week or two to each book. Regardless of pace, all Ubergroup teams read each others’ novels from beginning to end so you get that all-important big picture feedback.
The 100 Credits Club The goal of the 100 Credits Club is to help each other get publication credits. Where the Ubergroup is best suited to novel writers, 100CC is best suited to writers of shorter works who still want to see their name in print. This is where I learnt all about literary journals – what’s out there, what kinds of writing they take, how long to expect a response, if they give feedback or not, if they pay or not etc. Some of the members of 100CC run their own literary journals, and there's something strangely encouraging about the fact that they get rejection letters too. The members congratulate each other over every acceptance or publication. They help each other to pick up and resubmit elsewhere after a rejection. If you’re having trouble finding a home for a piece of writing, they’ll suggest likely markets. And, of course, they critique each other’s work to ensure it’s the best it can be before sending it out.
As I said before, Scribophile isn’t going to be perfect for every writer. If you are lucky enough to have a productive real-life writing group, the idea of an internet group might not appeal at all. But if you’re desperate for more feedback on your writing and can’t find a decent group, I strongly encourage you to check it out. I’m glad I did.
Back in the early days of my teaching degree, as soon as I had room in my timetable and credit points to spare, I picked a creative writing subject. It was the first class I sat in that didn't follow the traditional "lectures and tutorials" model; instead, it was a workshop. The general format was this: we were given the topic in advance, we'd write and self-edit before class, bring several copies, then sit down with half a dozen people and a case full of red pens, taking turns scribbling corrections, encouragement and suggestions.
I was terrified. It was the first time I had received regular feedback from someone other than the teacher. More importantly, it was the first time I had ever been required to give constructive feedback and have somebody listen to me. What if I got it wrong? What if I told them their story didn't have enough suspense, only to have the teacher tell them that they spent too long on the build up and not enough on the climax? What if I corrected a grammatical error that they'd included deliberately to reveal something about their character? What if it wasn't a grammatical error at all - what was an Oxford Comma again? What if I just didn't get what they were trying to say? Would I be the one who looked stupid?
As it turns out, this was great practice for me as a teacher. I had always known that marking student work came with the territory, but I think I'd expected it to be easy, somehow. That because I was older, more experienced and more educated, I'd have more confidence in offering them feedback. A year or so later, I started doing education subjects that went in to the specifics of assessment and reporting: "sandwiching" criticism between slices of encouragement, pointing out a repeated mistake the first two or three times only, suggesting a possible solution to the problem you've found, using different coloured pens because red is "negative" (someone should tell the new iTunes logo). And I started thinking "why didn't I learn this stuff beforeI took creative writing"?
In the classroom, students spend a lot of time reading good writing - the classics, "literary" novels, award winning books. And when they do, they're being taught to notice what makes the work good. But rarely are students given the opportunity to point out what doesn't work in a story, or to engage with a first draft other than their own. They don't have a clear idea of the work that went in to making those great texts shine. A question for the teachers out there: when reading contemporary texts with your class, how often do you talk about the acknowledgements page?
I remember my Extension II English class in high school. I shared my work with other students oncein the entire year, otherwise trusting my teacher to give me all the feedback I might need. She was a great teacher and helped me to improve my work, but this practice led to a false belief.I saw "feedback" and "criticism" as the job of the one in authority, the expert. In the writing community, that means professional editors and agents. But the harsh truth for a 21st century writer is that publishers and agents don't have the time or resources to work with everybody who has a skerrick of potential. And even if your work does get published, you're still going to be met with readers who have a variety of opinions.
Critiquing other people isn't just about getting good critiques in return; it also has these benefits:
Ideas like "rhythm","pacing" and "flow" are intuitive concepts that are difficult to make rules for. When you stumble over the words in someone else's writing, it's useful to zoom in on that sentence and think about what the writer has done that pulled you out of the narrative.
You practice looking for simple errors, which in turn hones your grammar and punctuation skills for all forms of writing.
You are given a space to own your opinion and to compare with different opinions of the same work. This helps you to realise which kinds of comments are based more on the preferred style of person giving it than the work itself -useful knowledge when it comes to reading your own reviews.
The things you notice in other people's work (inconsistent characters, an unclear message, unbelievable plot points, changes in setting) may not be things you notice in your own work, because you are too familiar with it. Having a critical eye helps you to transition out of "writer mode" and into "editor mode" to improve your own drafts.
If nothing else, critique commitments mean that you are consistently immersed in written language - after all, you are reading every piece you critique.
I know there are English teachers out there who make peer-to-peer editing a much more regular part of their teaching practice than I experienced. For the most part, the emphasis seems to be on what some of us refer to as "SPaG" (spelling, punctuation and grammar).But the benefits of critiquing are not limited to fine line edits, nor are they only for creative work. It's a simple way to boost literacy across the whole school and to see collaborative learning mean something other than group work. More than that, it creates a change in attitude. Students who believe that their classmates are their competitors will miss out on the opportunity to improve themselves and lift the overall grades of their school.
I love the idea that one of the books I'm beta reading might be published. I'd like to be able to see, first hand, how far it has come. I'd find it encouraging to know that the writers who pushed me so hard are out there reaping the rewards of their own hard work. You never know, I might even make it on to an acknowledgments page!