According to Wikipedia:
An alpha reader or beta reader (also spelled alphareader / betareader, or shortened to alpha / beta), also pre-reader or critiquer, is a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.
Elements highlighted by beta readers encompass things such as plot holes, problems with continuity, characterization or believability; in fiction and non-fiction, the beta might also assist the author with fact-checking.
A beta reader can help fiction writers by providing a fresh perspective on the plot, story line and general readability of the manuscript. Beta readers are not professional editors, but represent the general target audience for the story. Choose your beta readers carefully, and make sure you provide them with a list of your expectations. For example, if you want your beta readers to just look for flow, content, and readability, tell them. If you know your beta readers have a good understanding of grammar, let them know that you will appreciate their fresh eyes if they spot grammatical errors.
Having a beta reader to over the manuscript before it is its final draft is a good idea because that will give you a chance to make changes. Once the book is print ready it is sometimes hard to make changes.
While beta readers are typically not paid for their time, it is a nice gesture to send them a copy of the book once it is printed, along with mentioning them and their help on the Acknowledgements page at the beginning of the book.
According to the dictionary, to critique something is to give your opinion and observations. If you are a member of a writing group that offers critiques, you can expect to hear a variety of opinions about your work. This is a good thing, as you want to know how readers are reacting to your writing. What you should not expect, however, is an edit of your writing. I have heard writers complain about critique groups because the members of the group did not understand what critique meant. Sometimes when a person is asked to critique a chapter, that person thinks he or she is expected to edit for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Other times the critique comes back as a completely negative commentary, taking the word critique and thinking it means critical. I have had people tell me that they dislike doing critiques because it is sometimes hard to find something wrong with the piece. A well-written manuscript deserves a positive commentary.
Of course, a critique is also an observation, so if there are many mechanical and/or structural errors in the manuscript, mention it, but not as a line-by-line edit. A simple statement something like this will do: “The overall theme of the manuscript is clearly identified; however there are several grammatical errors on page three that can be easily fixed with a line edit.” This technique, called cushioning, starts out with a positive comment, followed by a constructive comment. You can also surround the constructive comment with positive statements, thereby creating a sandwich effect in your observation. Just do not edit the work. An example of this technique is: “Although the characters appear to be very real to the reader, the typos and other spelling errors throughout the manuscript detract from the readability of the otherwise well-developed story.”
The point of a critique is to gain an understanding of how readers will react to the story and to help the writer recognize areas to make improvements as well as passages that will draw the reader in. There should be at least a balance of opinion in the critique, and the person providing the critique needs to contain his or her observations to the manuscript and not carry them over to the writer. This is not an opportunity to attack anyone personally. On the other hand, the writer must also not take the critique as a personal attack, but rather as an opportunity to learn something and even improve his or her writing. I have known writers who are so thin-skinned that they take any constructive observation of their writing personally and become insulted when someone does not like their work. That is not how to deliver or receive a critique. Think of a critique as an opportunity to teach and/or learn something.
Line editing is that time in the overall manuscript writing process where the editor takes a close look, line by line, at things like tone, consistency, and style. When you take your manuscript to someone for a line edit, you are asking that person to review the structure of the manuscript. Some questions a good line editor will ask include:
- Are there any words in the manuscript that do not add anything or lessen the impact of the sentence? For example: “This part of the process is actually really important.” There are two words in that sentence that, if eliminated, make the statement even more direct. “This part of the process is important.”
- Is the sentence or paragraph too long winded? Sometimes sentences get very convoluted, making it difficult for the reader to follow. Re-reading a sentence or paragraph takes something away from the story, causing an unnecessary distraction. Consider the readability of the manuscript. Most people, when sitting down to read a novel, do not intend to study the content, nor do they want to have to re-read something to understand it. According to the Clear Language Group, “the average reading level of American adults is about 7th to 8th grade level.”(Clear Language Group, 2014)
- What about the voice of the author? Over-editing can sometimes alter the voice and tone of the author. Make sure your editor understands your voice, the individual style you have inserted into the manuscript. Voice includes the use of syntax, diction, punctuation, and character development. Looking back at the first question, if eliminating the words actually and/or really change the voice of the author, leave them alone. Perhaps the character talks like that, if the sentence is part of dialogue.
- How about the overuse of phrases heard over and over again? This refers to those tried and true (and often trite) phrases that everyone uses. Eliminate those and make the writing your own. For example, instead of saying “… they were thick as thieves…” rewrite the phrase to something like this: “It was sometimes difficult to tell them apart, they dressed alike, talked alike, and even ate the same foods.”
If you would like to read more about line editing, there is an excellent article at the wiseGEEK website: What is Line Editing?
Next week we will explore the art of the critique. Be sure to come back then!
If a writer asks you to edit, critique, review, or beta read his or her manuscript, and you accept, what will you do? Over the next few weeks we are going to look at these terms and define exactly what they mean. Each of them creates a different expectation on the part of the writer, so it is important to know just what the writer wants you to do. If the writer asks you to critique the manuscript and you edit it, for example, you are not doing what was requested and the writer will probably not ask for your help again.
Are you being paid for this service? If so, you are probably editing. If not, it is possible the writer has asked for a beta read. Is the service being performed as part of a writer’s group? More than likely the writer is looking for a critique. Will your commentary be published? This is a review.
The first topic we will discuss in detail is editing, sometimes referred to as line editing. Both terms refer to the structural content of the writing. Editing can sometimes change the voice of the writer, so it is important to keep that in mind when suggesting changes to the mechanics of the manuscript.
If you have any editing horror stories (or good examples), please send them to me before next Sunday, when I will be posting the discussion on editing. In the meantime, keep writing!
Kindle Books Special Promo this week!
November is my favorite month and Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I suspect the reason I prefer November and Thanksgiving to any other month or holiday is because I was born on Thanksgiving Day. At any rate, I decided to run a Kindle Special Promo next week to celebrate my birthday and Thanksgiving.
All five Kindle versions of my books will be FREE (yes, I said FREE) starting on Sunday, November 23 and ending on Thanksgiving Day, November 27.
Here are the books and links to their Kindle pages:
Writing from A to Z is from a blog series of the same title written over 26 weeks. Each week represents another letter in the alphabet, and each chapter exhibits words starting with the letter of the week – all related to writing in some way. Some chapters have many words, some just a few. It was challenging finding words starting with each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, and the result will provide some great information and resources when looking for just the right word.