Episode 10

4 Dos and Don'ts for Working with Beta Readers

The Muse takes you to an inspirational bookstore in Denmark, fills you in on publishing news, and shares 4 dos and dont's for working with beta readers.

Music licensed from Storyblocks:

“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory

"Here with You" by Blaine Green

"Feeling Melancholy" by Neil Cross

"Future Now" by Simon Jomphe Lepine

"Cool Bounce" by C.J. Harris

"Endless" by Enzo Orefice

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

Hej, authors. Today we’re continuing our trip around the world by visiting our listener friends in Denmark. I’ll also share four dos and don’ts when working with beta readers, and, as always, we’ll start off with publishing industry news.

The Writing Break café is open, so let’s grab a table and settle in.

ers Association announced the:

On March 25, authors discovered that dozens of LGBTQIA+ books were removed from Target.com, including books that had been listed for pre-order. Target claimed that the issue was related to a website change.

After word started spreading around the Twittersphere that these books were missing, one author began keeping track of the missing titles through a crowdsourced spreadsheet. By March 27, the majority of the books on the crowdsourced spreadsheet were back on the website. Even though this is not the first time Target has been in the spotlight for their book-listing ways, the consensus this time seems to be that it was not a deliberate act on Target’s part.

Zestworld, a new subscription-based digital comics venture, raised $9 million in new funding to create a publishing and distribution platform for popular comics creators. Zestworld is offering creators substantial compensation, flexible deadlines, and the opportunity to retain complete ownership rights to their properties. But wait, there’s more. Zestworld also plans to support creators with services such as virtual events and guidance in releasing NFTs.

Links to these articles can be found in the show notes of this episode and on writingbreak.com.

Before we talk about beta readers, let’s spend some time with the people who brought us LEGO blocks, Google Maps, and the loudspeaker.

Today we are in Copenhagen, Denmark, visiting ark books, a non-profit volunteer-run bookstore. ark books stocks translations and English language books. They also have books in German, French, and Spanish. They want to bring Danish literature to the world and world literature to the Danes, and they sometimes carry multiple translations of the same title.

They opened in:

“All the way back in 2011, the initial spark of an idea that would eventually come to be known as ark books was conceived on a kitchen table in the outskirts of the Northwest quarter of Copenhagen, very late at night, over candlelight and immoderate amounts of red wine. Among people who love books, the idea of opening your very own perfect little bookshop is perhaps not all that uncommon, and other, similarly grand ideas have probably been hatched under similar circumstances – but this idea turned out to persist.”

The tale goes on to tell of the renting of a tiny storeroom, the crowdraising of funds, the building and stocking of shelves, and a community celebrating their opening.

Now that we’re here, let’s check out an independent author.

To celebrate the growing interest in graphic novels and comics, we’re spotlighting our first graphic novel today. The graphic novel Zombie Jesus Vampire Hunter is about everything, everyone you know, it's a story of vengeance, love, and hate, but mostly it's a story about you.

Written by award-winning filmmaker Gustavo Aviles with a foreword by Andrew Gough and illustrations by Keith Grachow, Zombie Jesus Vampire Hunter is being made into a live-action film this year, and we wish the cast and crew a wildly adventurous time. Break a leg, everyone.

Let’s take it to the register and then find one of Copenhagen’s classic benches, benches so beloved that they are sometimes stolen in the night, and use it as today’s otherthinking couch.

Like I said earlier, ark books carries multiple translations of some titles, which got me thinking about what gets lost in translation. I often edit and proofread English and Spanish translations of books originally published in languages I don’t know. In these cases, I work with the author and the translator to dig deep into language and cultural differences in order to ensure a translation that will retain the original meaning while resonating with the intended audience. We do our best, of course, but once in a while, we find ourselves at odds. It leaves me wishing I could read in every language and know all of the nuances of every culture.

For example, the Russian language does not have a word for blue. They have a word for light blue and a word for dark or navy blue, so taking a work from English into Russian means that the translator has to decide on the shade of blue.

There is also the passage of time to consider. Tolstoy’s Russia is not today’s Russia, so there are things I still wouldn’t quite get about his original works if I could read modern Russian.

Even in English, we don’t simply read Shakespeare; we study Shakespeare.

Now, on to the more uplifting topic of beta readers, the angels on earth who volunteer their time to help you see the error of your ways.

Writers are nothing without readers, and beta readers are the most valuable readers of all. Beta readers can help you fill in, trim down, and smooth out your book before you show it to the world. Authors should make the most out of the beta reading process.

As promised, here are 4 dos and don’ts for working with beta readers.

Number 1: Don’t pick a writer to be a beta reader.

I know a lot of you are going to come after me for that one, but hear me out. The writing process changes writers in profound ways, including the way they read. It’s hard for writers to read something without thinking about how they would write it. Therefore, they will make suggestions according to their writing style rather than yours.

For a prime example, see the show notes of this episode for a link to Ernest Hemingway’s letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald about The Great Gatsby. Hemingway critiques Fitzgerald about the way he writes characters and offers him advice that would make Fitzgerald’s characters sound like Hemingway’s characters. He doesn’t say this directly, but anyone familiar with both writers will understand that right away.

Both excellent writers in their own right, Hemingway discusses Fitzgerald’s style as bad writing simply because it differs from his writing s tyle.

Selecting a beta reader who loves your genre but doesn’t write is the best way to go.

Number 2: Do clarify your expectations.

Make it clear to your beta readers that they are to concern themselves with pacing, plot, character arcs, and whatever other developmental concerns you have, but they are not to focus on grammatical errors. Inevitably, beta readers who spend time noting down grammatical errors and typos will run out of steam, and their overall feedback will be weak. Worst of all, because you’re still in the revision process, the manuscript will change so much that their effort will be wasted.

Number 3: Do set a deadline.

Give your beta readers an exact date for getting their feedback to you. That one is straightforward enough, right?

I recommend choosing no more than five beta readers.

I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that not all beta readers will return the feedback on time, and some don’t even get around to it, ever. Life happens, and sometimes your manuscript will have to take a backseat to whatever is happening in a beta reader’s life. (After all, we are all the main characters in our own lives.) If three out of five beta readers give you feedback in a timely manner, you’re right where you want to be.

Too many beta readers might overwhelm you during the revision process, and too few beta readers might leave you with only one person getting feedback to you on time. That’s helpful but not ideal. There will always be things that one person doesn’t like and another person loves, but if three people tell you they dislike the same thing about your manuscript, you’ll know that’s an area that needs fixing.

Number 4: Do provide a beta reader checklist.

Some writers provide beta readers with a list of yes or no questions, which tends to have a higher turnaround rate than free-form feedback. I recommend a hybrid of the two, set in a table format so that they can check yes or no but also have space to add comments if necessary.

Although free-form feedback might seem like the better way , beta readers tend to write a lot in the beginning of free-form questionnaires and taper off as they continue reading.

It’s more likely that you’ll receive better feedback in table format. There’s something about the table format that makes people continue down the page and, most importantly, actually turn in their feedback. (Behavioral psychologists, feel free to chime in here.)

You can scour the internet for a list of questions to ask beta readers, and you can even narrow it down to your genre. Make sure you tweak the questions to fit your manuscript and your particular concerns.

As the author, you’re going to have the final say in what happens to the manuscript. The beta reader provides advice on how to make it better. And the thing about advice is that you ask for it, you listen to it, and you do whatever you want in the end.

Thanks for listening to this week’s writing break. I’m working on a special bonus episode next week, which I hope you’ll enjoy. As always, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.