A Fresh Set of Eyes

Author K. S. BrooksI’m a very literal person. Literally. I get straight to the point, with no hidden agenda or subtle hinting. So why does that change when I write?

This past Sunday, our own Evil Mastermind Stephen Hise wrote about how writing is indeed communicating, and how to prevent a failure to communicate. You may read his post here. He makes excellent points, of course (that’s why he’s the big boss and all that good stuff). But sometimes, you need a fresh set of eyes to ascertain you are in fact getting your point across.

I use two editors – one for grammar, sentence structure, and other technical issues like word repetition, word misuse, spelling, punctuation and story flaws. I use another editor to dig out what I’m trying to say when I think I’m saying it, but I’m really not. She’s my translator…my mind-reader: the person who knows how my mind works and what I’m thinking. She knows what I want to put down on the page. And she has no problem telling me when I haven’t done that. Sometimes it’s ouchy, but that’s okay because she’s my best friend.

I’m lucky to have someone I’ve known since sixth grade as a friend. Frankly, finding someone to put up with me for the past twenty years (shut up – I really am only 36 years-old…for the past 12 years, anyway) is nothing short of a miracle. She is the type of friend who can be brutally honest. I may not always care for the delivery of her critique since I prefer it wrapped in silky smooth Swiss chocolate…but I know she knows what she’s talking about. And it always makes my story, my book, and my writing better.

So many authors look high and low for BETA readers. I usually have two or three readers after my edits are done. Maybe that’s backwards, but I would think if my edits didn’t get it to where it should be…that means I need to do more work. Call it ego, but I didn’t want a BETA reader to see an unfinished product. Now that I am more comfortable with the self-publishing process, I plan on using Beta readers first to help weed out the problems before my manuscripts go to an editor. That is, I believe, the way most authors do it nowadays.

BETA readers don’t help you if they say “it was great” or “loved it” and nothing else. So, I always have a questionnaire ready for them when they’re done with the read. It’s usually a list of concerns: did I get my point across here; was this scene too contrived there; was this scene too racy; was that scene believable, etc. Interview your BETA reader. It’s the only way you’ll get the input you need if it’s someone who insists on one-sentence replies as their input.

If you can, sit down with your BETA reader when they’re done. Have your list of questions ready. Buy them a cup of coffee. Have a detailed discussion. While doing so a couple of years ago concerning my novella “The Kiss of Night” I was feeling kind of cocky and asked what my BETA reader thought of something my main character did. I thought the character’s move was feisty and I was proud of it. I was shocked to hear that the woman thought my character was being bratty. I asked why she thought that, and when she explained, I realized that I’d thought I’d given enough background to more than justify the action, when in fact, it was still in my head and never made it into the manuscript. Oops! This is why thorough interaction with your BETA reader is so important. I never would have discovered my goof if I hadn’t been grilling her.

Where can I find a BETA reader? you ask. It’s not really that difficult, honestly. (You can check out our Beta Reader Resource page here.) The hardest part is getting up the nerve to ask. Find someone who likes to read your genre. But more importantly – find someone whose intelligence scares you. You’ll never get honest input if you don’t. Choose someone you respect. Don’t be afraid of criticism. That’s what you need to hone your craft.

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist, photographer, and photo-journalist, author of over 30 titles, and executive director (AKA Fearless Leader) of Indies Unlimited. Brooks is a staff photo-journalist and chief copy editor for two eastern Washington newspapers. She currently teaches writing and self-publishing for the Community Colleges of Spokane, and has served on the Indie Author Day advisory board. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page

30 thoughts on “A Fresh Set of Eyes”

  1. Lucky you. I have an editor who will be honest with me and also is good at the technical stuff. But I do wish I had more beta readers. I have one, plus my daughter, who can be brutal but is usually right on. And, yes, neither sees it until I think it is the best I can make it.

    1. I am lucky, I know it. That's great about your daughter. She sounds like my best friend. Don't be afraid to ask people to BETA read the book. I love getting constructive criticism back from my readers – it helps me learn to be a better writer. In my eyes, the worst thing you can hear back is "that was great" and nothing else. That doesn't help much.

  2. Another great post, K.S. I couldn't afford a plot editor when I wrote The Tangled Web, so it's amazing it's in as good shape as it is. But I'm not going there again. It's just too much of a burden on the writer. I'm looking forward to the luxury of a plot editor for the book I'm writing now.

    1. Thank you, J.P.! There are lots of "affordable" editors out there – and many who will swap services with writers. Best of luck with your books!
      🙂

  3. Beta readers are worth their weight in gold. But they are difficult to find and even harder to keep over the long haul. Much like gold.

    1. I think they're not as hard to find as we think they are – it's a matter of asking (which I HATE doing). Almost everyone enjoys reading — and for the most part, writing — which makes them a perfect target. Think about the people you met at events, or the people in book groups on facebook. I bet you'll find someone to swap a BETA read with you.
      🙂

    1. My BETA readers make me work pretty hard dragging the information out of them, but I don't mind. I appreciate their time. Heaven knows I wouldn't want to have to read my writing.

      😉

  4. Nice post, Kat, and it is a difficult job to find a good beta. This is a typical conversation I have with a typical beta:

    Me: "So, what did you think? Warts and all?"

    B: "Yeah, it was good, I liked it."

    Me: "Was there anywhere when you lost interest? Put the book down and didn't want to pick it back up again?"

    B: "Nope, it was fine. A good read."

    Me: "Okay, that's great. What about when this character got killed. Did you see that coming?"

    B (beginning to look uncomfortable): "Nope, it was good."

    Me (starting to steam): "Great! How about the bit with the dream sequence? Not boring? REALLY?"

    B (starting to look scared): "No, I mean the whole book was great. I liked it. A lot. Honestly."

    Me (clenching fists): "But that plot twist at the end, that didn't really work, did it?"

    B (looking at his watch urgently and backing off): "Yes, it did. It's an okay book."

    Me (plunging my thumbs into my tears ducts and pushing hard while crying out in pain): "Thank you for your time, dear beta. I will of course send you a dedicated copy on publication."

    Still, that's life *sighs*

    1. Chris! I totally know where you're coming from. I've had nearly that exact conversation. I now try to add "how did you feel about…" before the item I want input on. That prevents them from answering with a "yes or no" which forces them to give a little bit more insight. I think we may need to study interrogation techniques. LOL

      1. That's what I've learned: don't give them a chance to answer yes or no. But I really do like your advice above, Kat – especially trapping them in a cafe or somewhere and going armed with a set of specific questions. Terrific idea!

        1. Thanks, Chris! I think in a lot of cases the reader feels weird giving their opinion, so getting them relaxed in a neutral setting with large quantities of alcohol is a wise maneuver.

  5. This is such a critical step in the process, and one I used carefully with the current ms.

    The first Beta was all about style, and he needed to help me in appealing to a certain part of the population without pandering. One rewrite was done here.

    The second beta was unbelievable. He read for content and pointed out what was still in my head and not on the paper. He also corrected grammar and anything else he found incorrect. I owe him a bottle of scotch. Another rewrite was done after this. The difference between this ms and the ms for the first book is night and day. Go Beta readers!!!

    Now it needs the final polish. But, since my son is off to college in two weeks, I am eating Ramen noodles.

    Great post, Kat!

  6. Excellent post. Beta readers are worth their weight in gold if they give you honest feedback. Because I write YA, I always go to the local high schools and get their book clubs to help me out. Those kids can be brutally honest – it's awesome 🙂

    1. That's awesome, Melissa! The problem I'm now having is finding people who haven't read the other books in my series – I want someone unfamiliar to make sure each book stands on its own.

  7. So what you're talking about is training your beta readers, huh? Sigh. I just *knew* somebody was going to make me teach somebody something before this was over….

    I like the idea of handing them a list of open-ended questions. I too have gotten the "It was great, I loved it, what else do you need to know?" response, and it's maddening.

    1. That is maddening, Lynne! I agree. I am sometimes tempted to give them the list of questions before they read, however, I'm afraid they'll go in with preconceived notions if I do it that way, so I just have to be patient. Sometimes I try to catch up with them periodically and I can ask questions once they're past a certain point if it's killing me and I can't wait until they're done.
      🙂

  8. For my first book, I posted on Craiglist: "Critique my book, please." I didn't know what else to do at the time. About 30 people replied, so I sent them a few chapters, and if they liked it, I sent a few more, so I would know where they lost interest. Their responses varied widely in insighfulness and specificity, but with that many people, themes emerged, so I knew where to focus my efforts or which parts really were worth keeping. It turned out to be a useful exercise.

  9. One good question for Beta readers is, "What happened?" Once I wrote a suttle, litterary, artistic story about a hot romance with lots of symolism. When I asked, "What happened?" Someone said, "This girl and her brother…."

  10. I’ve just returned after a couple of days away, so I’m just catching up, but I had to comment on this post; excellent, Kat, and so true.

    My experience with BETA readers was people I knew, and much like the ‘Yes it was very good’, and the ‘No nothing wrong at all’ comments, pretty much pandering to what they thought I wanted to hear (I think perhaps they may have felt intimidated).

    I was then fortunate enough meet a lady who was not intimidated by me at all, she just happened to be an editor. She was actually working at one of Sydney’s leading actors agencies at the time. Long story short, I married her. She doesn’t let me get away with anything.

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