I've been on both sides of the beta reading spectrum in my journey to write my first novel, The Harvester. Rewarding is the best word I can think of right now when I think of both the experience in beta reading for others as well as the experience in working with people who've read my manuscript. My friends have been wonderful and this past January I joined a writing group and the past six months has been a whirlwind of discovery.
That said, know that whatever I say here are the words of a beginner. I know nothing. I am learning as I go.
I would give you a very different answer a year ago if you asked me what writing a book was like. Then, I would say that I found a new avenue to express myself and as well as fulfillment. I might also have said it was a largely solitary journey. Things have changed. It's like before, but better. Now I have an incredible group of writing friends who want to see me succeed as much as I want the same for them. And while I need to take every step up the proverbial mountain myself, I'm no longer a solo climber. I have people to talk to and it's opened up my world.
Beta Reading for Others
Beta reading is a very technical activity, or at least that's the way I approach it. If I have a version that I can read on my Kindle app, I'll use the commenting and highlighting features to take all of my notes. It's a cinch to view all my notes together on the device when it's time to send my feedback.
If I get a Word doc then I'll use the Track Changes feature. Other times, I'll get the copy in the body of an e-mail. In that case I sometimes paste the copy into a word doc, do a little formatting, and send it back as an attachment with tracked changes, comments, etc..
One of the best parts about beta reading for me is direct access to the author. I freaking love this. I would give anything to sit down with the likes of Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, or Peter Hamilton and chat them up for an hour about their book and their journey to write it. I get to do precisely that when I'm beta reading for my writing partners.
That said, beta reading can be a challenge too. Not all authors like the way you critique their work. That's OK. Sometimes they stop sending you stuff and that's OK, too! It's hard when you don't hear from someone for a while. You wonder if they've become swamped or perhaps they just don't want any more feedback. You wonder if in poking them over e-mail you're a source of encouragement or an annoyance. Ah well, I think anything in moderation is OK.
Working with The Harvester Beta Readers
On the flip side, having people read my manuscript is a major thrill. I have been so grateful to so many for spending hours upon hours reading my manuscript. I simply could not get this project finished without my beloved beta readers. My writing group and my friends both have been extremely supportive.
Keeping track of their feedback is also a very technical activity. The first thing I do is create a folder on my hard drive specifically for each beta reader. It might look like this:
As you can see in the image above, I organize materials by draft then by reader. Inside of the reader's folder I have the exact files I sent them. I don't think this is too critical but it helps my brain to understand what each reader was sent. I almost always send in Word format because it seems ubiquitous. Some readers want a file that's compatible with their Kindle or Kindle App so I create a .MOBI file using Calibre. I love Calibre, but it's super-difficult to use. Despite its complex interface, its super stable, super powerful, and super useful. It can convert to just about any e-book format you can think of and you can customize the it like crazy. I imagine it's a must-have application for writers interested in self-publishing. It just happens to be a great tool to help you interact with your beta readers in formats they find the most convenient. If you use it, send them a few bucks to help support its development, I did!
When I get feedback, I try to save down the feedback in the same directory as the files I sent them. This is the raw feedback. It's either marked-up word files or simply a few tidbits they mentioned in an e-mail.
Once I digest the feedback, I need to make a decision on how I'll incorporate it. Sometimes I'll write them back and ask a few clarifying questions. Other times I go right into my story and put in TODO copy which is easy to search for and spot. Here is an example TODO section from my editor:
TODO is nice because I can search for it. I use Ulysses to manage my writing and it makes this super-easy.
Feedback comes in two main flavors, exemplified by these tweets.
— NICK ✎ CODY (@nickcoding) June 18, 2016
— NICK ✎ CODY (@nickcoding) June 18, 2016
To be honest, a writer could use both kinds of feedback. There is nothing like the crashing reality of true honesty about the readiness of a particular piece or of the manuscript in general. By the same token, sometimes you need a little encouragement because writing is hard, at least for me.
Lastly, I'd love to hear from you! If you are an experienced author and have advice on how to work best with beta readers please leave a comment or send me an e-mail (nick at primordia dot com). By the same token if you gave suggestions on how I can be a better beta reader then I'd love to hear that, too.