BACK IN JUNE, I forwarded the manuscript of my second book, On Sacred Ground, to six trusted friends. Their task was to read it and provide honest critical feedback, with a focus on picking up sections that were slow, redundant, or simply didn’t make sense. I asked them to comment without holding back, to not worry about hurting my feelings. I said that they wouldn’t – that the more critical they were the more helpful it would be.
Readers who perform this task are known as beta readers, a term that may be familiar to some people, although I hadn’t heard it prior to writing my first book. After completing my first manuscript, The Earth Beneath My Feet, and looking into next steps, I learnt from other authors that using beta readers was a good idea. And so I tried it (although I almost didn’t). But I had low expectations. I couldn’t imagine how it could make a significant difference. After all, I knew what I wanted to say in my book, and I’d worked on it for years to make certain I said it, going through numerous rewrites and thousands of hours of careful thought. I’d crafted a manuscript that I thought was essentially finished. How could someone else who hadn’t put in the time I had possibly find passages to improve?
Well, it turned out that they could find a great many ways to improve the manuscript. And it turned out that honest and reliable beta readers truly willing to say what they think are one of the most useful tools in the publishing process, second only, perhaps, to finding a brilliant editor. The feedback I received transformed my first book. From it, I was able to streamline the story, remove some epic flaws, add extra passages that were truly needed, and bring real focus and direction to the book’s themes. Afterwards, it was shocking to me that I’d ever considered the manuscript ‘essentially finished’, or that I’d ever doubted that beta readers could make a difference. How wrong I’d been!
I’m now going through the process a second time. For the second book, after recalling all the feedback received on the first book from my beta readers and editor, I was even more certain the manuscript was essentially finished. But once again, my beta readers are proving me embarrassingly wrong. The usefulness of the comments and suggestions so far received has made the idea of ‘essentially finished’ a pure joke. My beta readers are pushing me to go even deeper than I had into the themes On Sacred Ground explores, to clarify my thinking, and to openly address the many contradictions in my text. I’d thought I’d explained myself clearly. Turns out, I had not!
I takes a real friend to put time aside to read a manuscript and comment on it. And it takes a real friend to make those comments with ruthless honesty, trusting that their hard criticisms won’t be taken personally. To have friends willing to do this, to have friends willing to push and push hard, with no real benefit to themselves, is to have something priceless. I am fortunate and grateful beyond words. I owe them a debt I doubt I can ever repay. I love my beta readers!
Of course, choosing the right beta readers is a key part of the process. I’m lucky that my beta readers are also more than just friends. Three of them are professional editors, one works as a marketing editor, one is a college professor, and the two other readers have been so detailed and thorough in their dissection of my work that they should probably have high-paying jobs in the publishing industry.
I can look back now with wry amusement that I almost skipped the entire beta reader stage of the book-writing process. What a mistake that would have been! The thought of everything that my books would have lacked makes me break into a cold sweat. Plus, receiving hard feedback has brought personal benefits far greater than mere improvements in a published book. I’ve learnt a huge amount about myself from being pushed. I don’t just love my beta readers – I also love the beta reader part of the process!
So, if you are a new writer, and are asking yourself whether or not beta readers are worth using, you can guess my answer: use them! You won’t regret it!