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Beta Reading vs Editing

November 14, 2012

I’ve watched authors around me talk about publishing for some time. I’ve learned a lot about those authors and the books they publish through how they talk about their process. I’ve also learned a hell of a lot about other published and their standards through watching authors chat about the process. A lot of times, though, it’s just made me sad, especially when it comes to self-published authors who skip very, very important steps or conflated terms in order to save a dime or a week of production time.

In fact, one of the panels I sat on at Necronomicon shocked me. It was mainly Storm Moon Press and one other small publisher. The panel was about small press etiquette, though we didn’t talk much about that at all. As we were waiting for the room to fill up, the other publisher asked us how we produced our print books. I said we used Lightning Source, and he was shocked. Shocked! We used an actual printer and paid someone to typeset our books? Why didn’t we just use MSWord and CreateSpace? After all, he could produce a book for $250 to $500, and we were spending three to four times that in our production process.

And then I looked at one of his press’ books and knew why we spent the time, effort, and money we did: we wanted quality. Sadly, his outlook is well shared among most small publishers.

But, I digress. The point of this–and where I think he failed to understand–is that editing costs money. Editing isn’t cheap. Editing is, also, not a negotiable step. Editing should always happen by a competent professional who won’t take an author’s shit. 🙂 And editing, my friends, is not the same as beta reading. I do believe beta reading is also insanely important, but that’s more on the author’s shoulders than a publisher’s (unless you self-publish, and then it’s all on your shoulders).

Beta reading is when you send your manuscript to a friend or colleague and they read it over and give you their opinion. It’s getting that initial reader feedback over whether the plot, characters, pace, and story work as a whole. This is where weak characterization or a plot hole can be found and corrected. It helps shape the story from a reader’s perspective, and it’s an invaluable tool for an author. I covet my beta readers (who are fellow authors), and I offer to beta for them in return. Without them, I think there would be a lot more stumbling blocks for my editors to deal with.

And that’s the main point of a beta reader. They work with you to polish up that manuscript and find the most glaring issues so your editor can do the dirty work of picking it all apart without having to worry about those issues. If your character is unlikeable, a beta reader can tell you that so you can fix it, rather than wasting your editor’s time on an issue that a quick read by someone other than yourself could have detected. Beta reading, though, is not editing. Beta reading doesn’t look for the same things editing does, and most people who beta read are not trained to edit professionally. So, using four or five readers as your editing brigade doesn’t make for an edited manuscript. It makes for–at best–a proofread manuscript, and I–as a reader–think that’s not good enough for me to spend my hard-earned money on.

Editing, on the other hand, is when someone trained goes in and tears your manuscript apart. They look at plot issues, characterization, pacing, word choice, repeated words, syntax, punctuation choice… They should always be thorough and precise in how they edit the manuscript. This is where a good book becomes a great book, and I wince whenever I see an author breeze through their novel edits in a day or two, saying the editor pretty much only left praise in their wake. That isn’t editing. I don’t care how good of a writer you think you are, you will always need an editor, and a great editor always has criticism to include with their praise. I don’t think I’ve ever–even on my cleanest manuscript–not had at least two rewrites and a hell of a lot of small fixes to do, and it takes a bit of time. I also tend to have no less than three passes from the initial editor, and that’s as it should be. As you change the manuscript, there are new issues that will crop up, and it’s the editor’s job to nip them in the bud.

This is a similar process that computer software, websites, and apps go through, albeit in reverse: QA (quality assurance) and Beta Testing. QA is like editing in that it is done by someone professionally trained who goes through the program to ensure that everything is working correctly. Beta Testing, on the other hand, is like beta reading — it is done by a selected group of actual users who make sure that the program is working as intended. These are two very different intentions, and both are necessary before a project can be considered complete. It’s the same with a manuscript. What a beta reader looks for and what an editor looks for are very different things, but both of them need to be examined before an author can call their book complete.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    November 14, 2012 9:24 am

    I did what a friend called a beta read one time. But along with plot holes and such, I also sent her notes on punctuation, grammar, over-used words, etc. I have no training other than being a voracious reader. I have read a LOT of books that I’d love to have gotten my eyes on before they was published to fix things like plot holes, typos, wrongly connected ideas or statements, missing information, etc. And I’d have no problem letting them know where the issues are. I’d be nice about it, but I’d still point it out. I love the authors I read, but sometimes it puts a hitch in the rhythm of reading to come across a mistake or something that doesn’t make sense and I have to stop and go “Huh?” and try to figure out what they meant.

  2. November 14, 2012 2:16 pm

    Amy — Whenever I beta read, I also do some light proofreading to catch the most glaring typos, badly worded sentences, and punctuation errors. But, I don’t do a full edit on the material. I have some beta readers who will point out such errors for me, but I also have some who just give me reader feedback about characters, pacing, and plot, what worked for them and what didn’t. I would never simply apply beta feedback and publish the work. Even beta read, the manuscript should go to an editor, and then a proofreader. 🙂

    Beta reading is a very important step in the writing/publishing process, but I just don’t think it’s the only step between completing a manuscript and publishing it for money.

  3. Dusty permalink
    November 17, 2012 3:47 pm

    Thanks for the information. I’m still new to this stuff, so it’s good to get some info. I have a question, though. Do you know how much it costs to hire an editor and proofreader to look at a manuscript?

  4. November 17, 2012 3:56 pm

    Dusty — Unless you plan to self-publish, you shouldn’t worry about paying people to edit and proofread your work. That is the expense of the publish. But, if you do plan to self-publish, I’ve seen editors advertising anywhere from $400 a manuscript up to $2,500 a manuscript, all depending on the length, type of edit, and experience of the editor. Proofreaders are a little cheaper, costing $200-$800 a manuscript (from my own personal experience).

  5. Dustin K permalink
    December 26, 2012 11:04 pm

    Awesome! Great to know.

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