Written by: A.H. Lewis & Desiree
What qualifications should beta readers have to give writer’s the most helpful feedback on their work? What qualifications should writers look for in a good editor? What qualities does a writer need to bring to the table to forge strong, productive working relationships. Are they willing to properly compensate those looking over their work for their time and service?
I bring up compensation first because there is a tendency for people to assume that the “writing industry” or “literary world” is as a money-less occupation—a perception shaped by writers who many times aren’t getting paid themselves to write their works, but then get annoyed at editors when they charge them for their professional services. That’s a bad attitude to have and a dismal lack of basic business sense. Writers aren’t the only ones in the industry not being sufficiently paid; editors, illustrators, cover artists, and designers, too, fall into that category. Don’t worsen the problem.
First things first, some folks may take on all three of these roles at one point or another, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are qualified to do all three. Beta readers and editors aren’t the same thing, but writers often treat them like they are. You can be a great writer or beta reader, but that doesn’t mean you are qualified to be editor.
Beta reading is a very surface-level view of a text and happens before writers send off their final drafts to an editor. The beta reader’s task is to answer the following questions: “Did I like this book? Why or why not?”
To do that, a beta reader should have basic reading comprehension abilities above all else.
Good beta readers tackle general ideas about characters and plot. They focus on things like the flow of the text from scene to scene (or line by line if it’s poetry). Beta reading doesn’t take a full set of editing skills. As long as the beta reader can articulate the problems they detect, and that they’re actual problems and not subjective ones based on personal interests. It’s not enough for them to say “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” A good beta reader is able to explain why.
Other qualifications for a beta reader:
- Pick someone you trust. People steal work, and they’re not above stealing an unfinished or unpolished manuscript. If you are working with an acquaintance or a stranger, consider an NDA. I have one for a fantasy project with a beta reader and he has one with me. It’s not necessary, just precautionary.
- Possibly pick a fast reader. Or a reader who has the time to read your project. While a writer shouldn’t ask someone to beta read for them and expect feedback right away, they also shouldn’t wait forever to get it. My recommended practice: ask beta readers to provide their notes after every chapter, or in intervals, rather than wait much longer for the whole thing all at once.
While beta reading is typically done without charge, and thus as a favor, that doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t think about “compensation.” Whether it’s a heartfelt thank you note, a small gift, or an offer to beta their work, it’s courteous to do something nice for them in return.
Editing is much more involved process. And very thorough.
Editing is everything that beta reading is but on a deeper level, with the added scrutiny of (if applicable) the following: line editing, making suggestions for improvements, grammar and mechanics checking, tracking plot trajectories, possibly fact checking, enhancing dialogue and/or making it sound realistic and fit the specific scenes, the flow and order of text chronology, and anything related to enriching character development and world building.
Crucial Takeaways: Beta reading tells you the overarching highlights of what isn’t working with your text. Editing tells you everything that doesn’t work down to commas and character smirks, and how to fix it all. Beta reading someone’s work is a favor. Editing it is a job.
Editing costs money. And price depends on onset factors.
Because editing is a paid service, writers should be more careful about who they pick as an editor. Writers can have a handful of beta readers (that is common and encouraged, actually) but generally only have one editor that tackles their whole project. Since it’s a financial investment, and a writer’s manuscript presumably means a lot to them, they should not just pick the first person they find that calls themselves an editor.
Writers should research a handful of editors and take them up on any free sample editing they do (typically a page or two), and decide what is best for their text.
Qualifications for editors:
- They have tangible proof of skill. Such as a two-year or four-year English degree, an editing certificate, etc. That may sound elitist, but it makes a big difference. But just because someone has a college degree doesn’t necessarily qualify them for editing. So don’t just stop there. Keep researching and ask for a free sample of their editing.
- They have published work of some kind. Be it an article, a book, a story, anything that would have undergone formal editing so they both understand what it takes to have something published, and what it means to be in the writer’s position. Read what they’ve published too to make sure you like the way it’s written, because their writing style may influence how they’re going to edit your work.
- They promote themselves as an editor on social media, with their own website/blog, with business cards, etc. They present themselves as professionals, as business people. An editor who takes themselves, and their own work seriously, will likely take a writer’s work seriously, as well.
Additional tips to writers:
Compare prices. Editors typically charge by the word and that price ranges widely depending on the editor and their level/years of experience. Full disclosure: if you have a full-length manuscript (over 50K words), you will be paying hundreds of dollars to have the whole thing professionally edited.
Referrals go a long way. Obviously weigh the opinion of the person referring an editor or even a beta reader, but first-hand experience and praise should be seriously considered.
Pick editors and beta readers who have experience with your genre. This may seem obvious, but writers should choose someone who understands the tropes/characters/world building/plots of your specific genre, because they’ll be able to help that much more, and they’ll honestly probably even get it done faster since they’re reading something they genuinely enjoy. Typically beta readers and editors state their preferred genres, and while it never hurts for a writer to ask if they set on someone, try to steer yourself in the direction of someone who reads the genre. Bear in mind that person is the target audience, so their opinion arguably matters most.
And last but not least, qualifications for writers:
- Writers need to be able to handle being critiqued. Not every word written is going to be good, and not every character needs to be in the book. Trust the editor, trust the beta reader. If their advice feels THAT off, then a writer should stick to their instincts, but make the “necessary” changes and still take their other suggestions into consideration. Necessary changes are the ones that are completely objective and indisputable. The correction of actual errors should be implemented regardless of whether the writer agrees with everything else the editor notes. Spelling, use of punctuation, general mechanics of grammar should always be adhered to. Edits and critiques aren’t personal, so don’t take them as such.
- Writers need to be willing to pay for editing, illustrating, etc. You want to be paid for your craft? So does everyone else.
- Be able to gracefully take no for an answer. If your writing is THAT BAD, you might have to be told someone can’t read or edit for you (because frankly, it’d be too much work for them, but hopefully they’re too nice to actually tell you that).
The responsibility of forging strong, productive working relationships does not rest on one person. Beta readers, editors and writers alike need to demonstrate that they are up to the task.
About A.H. Lewis
A.H. Lewis is a writer and poet living in Pittsburgh, PA. After earning a B.A. in English from Allegheny College, she went on to pursue her passion for literature by creating her freelance editing business, Happily Edit After, and publishing her first book, The Smallness of Everything Else, just shy of her 27th birthday, the first, undoubtedly, of many. She is a fan of all things related to summer and nighttime, especially during the clearest of starry skies, and more often than not she is wearing all black, from her combat boots to her favorite lipstick.
For updates on A.H. Lewis and her writing or editing services, visit www.happilyeditafter.net for more information.