B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Maggie Pill stops by to talk with me about beta readers. Maggie writes mysteries, loves fine chocolate, and has a very old cat who is allowed to do pretty much anything she wants to. Maggie and her husband love to travel and might be found hiking interesting landscapes, but they seldom prepare properly for it. It’s more of a “Let’s see what’s over that hill!” type of lifestyle.
Maggie, do you use beta readers? I know of a few authors who use beta readers for different phases of their manuscript. How many do you use and in what phase of your WIP do you require them?
I’m a lucky writer in the sense that many of my friends are teachers. That means they’re often readers, they’re trained to read critically, and they’re used to telling the truth about what’s good and bad in a given piece of writing. I use beta readers in four stages: when the manuscript is finished in rough form, when it’s been through my head a few more times and is starting to solidify, when it’s nearly ready for publication, and at the end, where we’re looking for those last few typos and extra spaces.
For the first stage I go to my sisters (big surprise), who read my manuscripts early on to see that they make sense in a general way. Honestly, they aren’t great editors because they’re my sisters—because they know what I mean to say, they tend to fill in the blanks for me. They do make suggestions and point out errors, and I judge from what they say about the book what its overall impression on a reader will be. They always give me a pat on the back, and that’s what I need at that point: Encouragement to push onward.
The second-stage beta readers are my teacher/writer friends. Each one has strengths, and I get a variety of suggestions to consider. I usually end up rewriting to clarify some spots in the story.
Before I send the MS out to a hired editor, a friend who loves mysteries reads the manuscript. She looks for plot-holes in both the main and the sub-plots, and she’s ruthless (in a good way) about pointing out mistakes. She’s especially attentive to the timeline, and if it doesn’t make sense, I’ll hear about it.
The final beta readers are often people I don’t know, or don’t know well. They’re Internet contacts who read for errors in spelling, spacing, etc.
What is it that you look for in a beta reader? What is the importance of them?
Beta readers have to be encouraging without being flattering. Like many writers I know, I tend to doubt myself, so if someone says, “This is awful!” I’m going to be crushed. My beta readers are people I trust to tell me what bothers them without being nasty about it.
It’s important to get the views of others on a manuscript, simply because the author is too close to see it objectively. Books are like your children: Of course you love them, but you have to see how they’re accepted in society to judge whether you’ve “raised” them well or not. I’m often amazed at what beta readers get from my work that I wasn’t aware of, and I can tell by their comments when I haven’t explained things well enough. For example, just yesterday my sister, who read the rough-rough version of my next book, said, “You need to let us know that J—and L—get together at the end of the book.”
I thought I had! Sometimes I’m too subtle for my own good.
How do you choose your beta readers?
I didn’t choose my sisters, but they’re both gracious about helping out. Most of my beta readers volunteered for duty, but I don’t accept every offer I get. As I said, betas have to be tactful and able to understand that their word isn’t final. There are people out there who’d take the job just to have someone to criticize. (If you don’t believe me, just look at the trolls on Amazon. I had a friend whose book got a one-star review because the reader mistakenly ordered the large print edition and somehow decided it was the author’s fault.)
A beta reader who doesn’t know the genre well is less helpful. Mysteries have certain conventions, and while someone who doesn’t read them can look for errors in spelling or grammar, they might not do as well judging the genre’s expectations, like how far into the story should the readers meet the villain or whether the denouement takes too long.
What has been your experience with them?
I’ve had good luck with beta readers. Some of them are probably too nice, but as I said earlier, I need encouragement in the writing phase. The paid editors will be more critical of style and such. My beta readers are talented amateurs who give different viewpoints on the book.
I’ve heard from other authors about how destructive a bad beta reader can be, and it often happens in critique groups. Beta readers who are jealous, competitive or overly critical can make an author doubt herself. I haven’t had that problem (fingers crossed), and I cherish my beta readers and their helpful advice.
How often do you take their advice and what is the impact they have had on your writing?
As nice as it is for beta readers to help an author out, in the end the book is mine. That means I have to decide how much advice I’ll accept.
If the advice is practical, like “That store isn’t open on Sundays,” I’ll research to find out if it’s true and fix the MS accordingly. No writer is an expert on everything, and it’s so very easy to slip a mistake in when I’m focused on where the story is going.
If the advice is emotional, “I don’t like the way Barb handles this,” I consider the criticism carefully. I know my characters, of course, but I also realize that my readers become invested in them and expect them to act a certain way. Barb isn’t the animal lover Faye is, but I would never have her kick Buddy out of her way or slap Styx on the nose. Still, a reader who’s a real dog lover might interpret something Barb does as cruel when I see it as her natural impatience. I depend on beta readers to provide their impressions, to show me how others react to what my characters do.
Here’s an example. I wrote a mystery (Somebody Doesn’t Like Sarah Leigh as Peg Herring) about two women who’ve been friends their whole lives, but the friendship ends abruptly, leading to mystery, suspense, and murder. A beta who reads mostly romances suggested that there should be a love interest in the book–the town sheriff. That’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility in a mystery, but I thought it would take away from my main theme, the broken friendships that can happen after years of closeness. Her suggestion wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t one I was willing to take.
Recently a beta reader objected to a whole section of a book, saying it wasn’t “as good as the rest of my writing.” I thought about it long and hard, went back over the section several times, and decided I’d leave it as it was. That’s a drawback to beta readers who are also friends; she didn’t feel comfortable being more specific than that rather vague criticism, and I couldn’t see what she meant. In such instances the hired editor is the arbiter. Since she didn’t object to the segment, I had to tell myself that one person’s opinion isn’t the end of the world.
Do you use them for every book you write?
I always use beta readers. Too many times I’ve been surprised at my own blindness concerning my writing, and I want as many people as possible to look it over before I ask people to pay to read it. Here are some things beta readers found that would have been embarrassing after publication.
- A character leaves the room. Two paragraphs later, he leaves the room again.
- A ship leaves Scotland for Grimsby, England. On the next page, its destination is mentioned as Scarborough.
- A woman’s hair is red-gold. A couple of pages later it’s honey blond.
- Glancing at the cock, she said, “Please sit down.” (Spellcheck doesn’t catch those.)
Of course one hopes an editor would have caught these things, but who knows? That’s why writers love beta readers!
Contact Maggie at
Find her book, THE SLEUTH SISTERS at