This post is the thirty-third in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.
In the process of editing your novel, you may want to turn it others to help you polish your story. Today I am going to discuss beta readers, proofreaders, and copy editors.
What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is someone who reads a work of fiction with a critical eye before it is released to the public. They may catch spelling, grammar, characterization, and continuity errors. Unlike editors, these people are usually unpaid and often see your work in a rough state.
The term beta reader comes from the software industry where “beta” testers try out software before a major release to the public in order to identify problems.
Why use a beta reader?
Many authors like to use beta readers to improve the quality of their work before submitting it for professional editing and critique. Beta readers may question why a character does or does not do something. They may catch errors such as a change of location (the fight takes place in a bar but is later told to have taken place at the school), the way a character is dressed (a blue shirt all of a sudden is red) or which characters are in the room at the time (Charles may have left for work but then appears in a scene at home).
The fact is that as authors, we are so close to our own manuscripts that we cannot see them objectively. Things that are clear in our mind, may not come across the same way to others reading it. We may leave out vital steps in an explanation and not realize it since we know what we mean. Beta readers allow you to fine tune and polish your work before presenting it to the world.
How to find a beta reader?
There are websites that provide directories of beta readers broken down by genre. Or you can post on writing forums that you are looking for a beta reader or even post on your own blog.
Of course, you can also find a beta reader in your family or from your fan base but be warned their comments may not totally be objective.
Finding a good beta reader – one who reads your genre and is of your target market in terms of age, gender and interest – can be a lot of work but worth it. You need someone who will tell you the truth without worrying about hurting your feelings. Writers typically make good beta readers as they understand the writing/creative process.
To use a beta reader, you need a “thick skin” to be able to hear negative feedback, absorb it, learn from it and apply changes derived from it.
A proofreader is someone who looks over your manuscript for grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. A proofreader should see your manuscript AFTER all the editing and after beta readers have made their suggestions (and you have made all your changes). Basically, they should see your manuscript when it is ready for publication. Their job is NOT to make revisions but to make corrections.
In the world of publishing paper books, a proofreader was one of the last to review the book. They would be looking at the final copy as it would print. If there were too many end-of-line hyphens in a row or a blank section break at the top of a page, they would correct those and other esthetic issues in addition to checking grammar and spelling.
Nowadays, as software improves, the need for someone to proofread for spelling and grammar errors diminishes and you may want to use grammar software such as Grammerly or WhiteSmoke. These are comprehensive grammar checking programs but of course no software can completely replace having someone proof your work. (I will discuss these programs in more detail in a future post.)
Many proofreaders charge by the hour while others charge by the word. Copy editors also usually offer proofreading as part of their services.
While proofreading is done at the end, an editor may work over long periods of time with a writer until the manuscript is perfected. It is a much more involved process that can take months. And while some may argue editing also refers to finding typos and grammar errors, editing involves one major factor that proofreading does not: content.
A copy editor reads your work and makes corrections so it follows the conventions of good writing. They can find flaws in your story or help you flesh out a sub-plot. They refine word choices and make sure the manuscript’s syntax is smooth. The copy editor may suggest reorganizing, recommend changes to chapter titles and call out lapses in logic or sequential slip-ups. They will ensure continuity through chapters and ensure dialog is believable.
If employing both, use an editor first and then the proofreader afterwards. Editors may charge by the hour, by the page or even by the word.