Beta readers for your manuscript serve the same function they do in software development: giving you feedback on what works and what doesn’t, so that you can release a product that serves your market. As with software, you are offering them free use. In return you are saving some of the cost of a professional editor.
Whom to Invite
For non-fiction, most of the people you invite should be somewhat familiar with your content. Colleagues are good. If your book will appeal to people new to your content, invite a few beta readers who fall into that category. Only invite people you are close with and whose opinion you respect. It is a time consuming process for the reader, and you don’t want to waste time of people whose comments you won’t use. Because of the time required, well-known professionals who are not friends should be asked only for endorsements.
Invite more people than you need. Some will not have time and will admit that. Others will not have time but will not say so, so you’ll never get the feedback you expected from them.
What to Ask
You will have questions specific to your content and audience. Beyond that you will want to know:
- Does the content work? Is any content missing?
- Does content address needs of the intended audience?
- Is that the best audience?
- Is the style of writing appropriate to the content and the audience?
- Is the structure logical and engaging? Is information presented when needed?
- Are there gaps in the content that lead the reader baffled?
- Does the word choice need help?
Do not ask for text editing (except from your partner, mother, or intern). That is a huge imposition of time.
What to Tell
Give beta readers a succinct statement of your intention for the book. This is, ideally, what you write for the back cover. State the content, what readers will gain from it, and what impact you want it have on the world.
Set a Deadline
Do not expect beta readers to drop everything to read your manuscript. On the other hand, if there is no deadline, they will never begin. I suggest three of four weeks. Ask if that works for them. Send them a reminder at that time, but don’t expect to see it for another two weeks. After six weeks, tell them not to finish because you have to move on with the next step – but if they have some notes, ask them to send them now.
What Format for the Feedback
Specify what format works best for you. If that doesn’t work for reader, take it however you can get it. Written notes are useful, but you may need to ask for clarification later. Dialoguing with them individually or in a group allows you to go deeper by asking questions as you are receiving information. You will want to record the session so that you are not distracted taking notes. For groups, scheduling will be a challenge, and some people may not be comfortable responding in a group, so their reading time will be wasted.
How to Utilize the Responses
As you set about incorporating suggestions, the most important factor is to remember your intention. Any feedback that does not support that is not useful (unless you are willing to reconsider all that you’ve done already).
Second most important: send your inner critic out for ice cream – you do not need it undermining you again, saying, “I told you you couldn’t pull it off.”
Third most important: You are not obliged to use any of the feedback (despite your inner critic in its Jewish Mother incarnation – but they did it for YOU).
Now you can consider what feedback to incorporate.
Your Obligation to Beta Readers
Copy of the finished book, inscribed to them
Do You Still Need an Editor?
Editors serve two functions in producing a quality book. For non-fiction, a developmental editor will ensure that the structure gives a logical flow of information, and that sections of the book are parallel in their structure. The most efficient time to bring in an editor to help with this aspect is before you start writing. They will help you develop (or review your initial attempt at) an outline.
Many of my clients don’t understand the importance of this function. If they do understand, they usually assume they have accomplished good structure. Unfortunately if you hire someone for only the second function – copy editing – they may not have the experience to discern the structure. Or if they do, their task is made complicated because attending to structure and to the writing itself require two different parts of the brain. It is a challenge for an editor who has agreed to a price for copy editing to find themselves confronted with structural problems. The agreement about cost will have to be renegotiated – which is invariably uncomfortable for both editor and writer. And if the copy editor doesn’t have the skill to consider structure, your book will suffer.
Copyediting, beyond reviewing grammar and punctuation, ensures that word flow is efficient, as well as in a language appropriate to the defined audience.
But begin with Beta readers. And delight in the process.
Editor David Colin Carr has been freelancing fiction and non-fiction since 1988 with writers as far flung as Beijing and Johannesburg, as well as doctoral candidates around the US. He works collaboratively with clients to bring forth their passion – with clarity and coherence, while preserving their distinctive voice. David values outlining to develop logical structure; strives for lively, efficient language; and uses humor to turn bad news into an exciting challenge. He is dedicated to projects that manifest the beauty of this planet and the mystery of our hearts – offering compassion, counseling skills, and creativity to bring forth the brilliance of both the writing and the collaborative relationship. www.DavidColinCarr.com