Ah, how I love my beta readers. Truly, madly, and deeply.
I composed the title of this post from words and phrases that a dear beta reader pointed out I had egregiously overused in the first draft of my novel The Book of Jer3miah: Premonition.
(Also abused: "actually," "however," "he noticed that," and "seemed to.")
Now, I drafted Premonition in six weeks--weeks that included Thanksgiving and Christmas (and remember: I have six kids). I was writing as fast as I could, not taking time to tinker with my prose at all. And I did give it a once-over before sending it to my betas--trying to avoid embarrassing spelling, grammar, and usage errors as much as possible.
But then, apparently on that re-read, I got so sucked into my own story that I missed several prominent tics in which I had indulged while writing for my life. Oops.
This is where other eyes serve the writer so well. They quickly and efficiently recognize problems that the writer, suffering from a certain kind of creative myopia, is too close to see.
Writers--especially those planning to self-publish--would do well to choose several beta readers to read their manuscripts before said manuscripts see the light of day, where "light of day" is defined as being put in front of a potential agent, editor, or book purchaser.
Choose a reader who is picky about mechanics--spelling, grammar, and usage. Choose one who is far outside your target audience. Choose one who reads a ton within your genre. Choose another who reads widely, but not necessarily within your genre at all. Choose someone who is unfamiliar with the setting/culture of your story. You want varied points of view--and you want people who won't just say/write, "I loved it!" (That is your spouse's/best friend's/children's job.)
I chose five people--two men and three women--and asked them to read my manuscript and point out any obvious-to-them problems before I gave it another polish and sent it out the door. All five betas gave me invaluable and timely responses, but the interesting thing to me was that, while no one's feedback contradicted anyone else's input, almost none of it overlapped, either.
One reader pointed out a big failure on my part to characterize someone as sympathetic. Another pointed out that the story's climax lacked tension. Another got confused between characters--and when it comes to confusion, my position is that the reader/customer is always right. The writer has the burden of writing scenes clearly enough so that the reader doesn't have to fall out of the story in order to puzzle something out.
Fortunately for me, all five had really nice things to say about the story, too. But here's the other great thing--I'm past the point where criticism (at least, fair and asked-for criticism) hurts me personally. Years ago, it would crush me to have someone point out that my writing was less than perfect. Nowadays, I welcome any way to improve my work. But, hey--the compliments were great to read--and a sign that I had done some things right.
I made a list of all of the story's problems as pointed out by the formidable betas, then spent several days rewriting sentences and paragraphs and scenes until I had crossed the last problem off the list. Then I sent the manuscript to the creators of the webseries The Book of Jer3miah--who gave me even more feedback, but that's a post for another day.
Thanks, betas. You made my book much, much better. I owe you; featuring you in my acknowledgments section doesn't begin to pay my debt.