Good storytelling isn’t just about your characters, settings, and themes; the clarity, style, and readability of your writing are equally important. That’s why editing is so important. During the editing phase, you’ll polish your ideas and how you present them so your audience can more easily understand your meaning.
Whether you choose to self-edit using an automated grammar checker or engage a professional for this important part of the writing process, it’s important to be familiar with the stages of editing and what each entails. Most writing needs to go through every stage of editing before being published.
While there isn’t one set editing process that every writer follows, most professionals agree that there are four main stages of editing: story editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Sometimes line editing and copy editing are confused or conflated but they are two distinct stages. Line editing focuses on the style of your writing, whereas copy editing focuses on the mechanics of your writing.
In this article, we’ll look at the differences between line editing and copy editing so you can have a better understanding of both.
What is Line Editing?
Line editing comes after the story/substantive edit. During the story edit (also known as the developmental edit), you’ll examine the key ideas and themes in your work. Once you finish your story edit, it’s time to focus your attention on how you communicate your ideas. That’s where line editing comes in.
During this stage, your goal is to be as clear as possible by going line by line to look at the content, style, tone, and consistency of your writing. Line editing is also called stylistic editing as it focuses specifically on your content and the flow of your sentences versus the mechanics.
During line editing, you will comb through your manuscript to identify opportunities to elevate your writing and explain your ideas more clearly.
Line Editing vs Copy Editing
Many people confuse line editing and copy editing; however, the two stages are distinct and important. Neither stage is better than the other—both are key parts of finalizing the language in your manuscript.
Line editing comes before copy editing and is more focused on the stylistic construction of your story. Copy editing is more focused on the mechanics of your writing. Let’s look at an example to better understand the difference.
Miranda gazed out over the bustling; hustling city. She felt so excited by the constant movement of the people below her.
A line editor would look at these two sentences and ask questions like “Is bustling, hustling redundant?” and “Should we switch the second sentence to active voice?” A copy editor would look at those sentences and correct the misused semicolon.
Both line editors and copy editors approach work line by line. However, they are looking for two different edits.
What Happens During a Copy Edit
During the copy-edit phase, keep an eye out for the following errors:
Layout on the physical page, including line breaks, indents, headings, footers, titles, etc.
Line editing and copy editing are critical to the writing process. Both stages work together to polish your manuscript and ensure that you’re using language effectively.
How To Line Edit
Now that we know the difference between line editing and copy editing, let’s get into what happens during the line editing stage.
As a reminder, you don’t have to be a professional to carry out a line edit. You can perform your own line edit and then contact a professional editor who will offer their personal recommendations on how to improve the readability of your manuscript. If you struggle to catch these types of errors yourselves, an editing tool can help.
The purpose of line editing is to make your ideas more concise and clear by re-examining and rewriting your sentences. Before we get into the actual how-to of line editing, let’s look at a few questions you should ask during your line edit:
What is the tone of this passage? Do the words I’ve chosen convey that tone?
Are there any extra words, redundancies, or needless information I can remove?
Do the words I’ve chosen help my reader understand my meaning or get in the way of their understanding?
Do I use language in a precise and clear way?
If you’re line editing on your own, the process may be awkward in the beginning. We’ve identified some common mistakes found in line editing and how to fix them.
1. Unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs
Extra words can disrupt the flow of your sentences and the overall reading experience. The goal is to ensure your writing is clear, concise, and easy to read.
Read your sentences out loud to see if they read smoothly. If they read awkwardly, try removing some words to see if that improves the flow.
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
William Strunk, author of The Elements of Style
2. Misconstrued sentences and paragraphs
Writers are sometimes the victims of their own ideas. Their sentences can go on and on, but misconstrued sentences only alienate the reader because the writing is hard to follow.
Construct your sentences and paragraphs in a way that’s easy to follow. You can make your work clearer by varying your sentence lengths. Cut down long sentences specifically to separate your thoughts and offer your readers one concept to take in. When you give readers too much to assimilate per sentence, you risk losing them.
3. Weak verbs
Verbs are the most powerful elements of language–use them to say exactly what you mean. Don’t use a weak verb and then try to give it power with an adjective. For example:
Weak verb – James ran to school.
Weak verb + adverb – James ran quickly to school.
Strong verb – James sprinted to school.
Strong verbs add movements to your sentences and bring them to life. Don’t be afraid to play around with your sentences to see what works. You can always grab your thesaurus to replace any weak verbs you come across.
It’s easier to hold your readers’ interest if they feel engaged. Many writers have echoes or repeats in their work that they’re not even aware of. You risk boring your reader if they keep experiencing déjà vu while reading, and they may lose interest altogether. Remove any repetitive sentences or paragraphs so there’s no duplication.
5. Use of clichés
Writers often use clichés when they are working on their first draft because thinking up original wording takes time and can interrupt creative flow. That’s fine. But when you go back to edit, be creative and brainstorm for fresh ideas. Instead of using clichés, create fresh metaphors.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Tools to Help You Edit More Efficiently
Line and copy editing can be iterative processes that take several rounds. Using software like ProWritingAid can help you make needed edits to your work in a timely and cost-effective way. Editing software can find errors and improvements you might have missed by yourself.
ProWritingAid searches out elements such as repetitiveness, vague wording, sentence-length variation, over-dependence on adverbs, passive voice, over-complicated sentence constructions, and so much more.
Conclusion: How Important is Line Editing?
Both line and copy editing are important in refining your manuscript. During the line-editing stage, you will examine each line of your writing to make sure you’ve used language in a way that clearly and concisely conveys your ideas.
The process of line editing can also help you improve your writing. Whether you self-edit or get professional help, you’ll become more aware of the errors you make, which will make your next story even better than the last.
Learn How to Self-Edit &
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Book Editing Checklist
Download your FREE guided checklist to help you self-edit, or to guide you and give you a baseline for setting expectations for copy editing and content editing services. Get it now!
That means growing pains, the terrible twos where nothing makes sense, and an angsty teenage phase where the words themselves rebel against you and you regret that drunken night so long ago when you thought you had the next great novel idea…
Thankfully, we have a step-by-step guide to make it a lot less painful.
Because all you’ve done so far is write the book, which we like to think of as building the frame of a house. Editing your book is adding walls, paint, fixtures, and everything else that makes a house a home (or a draft into a book).
Technically, anyone can self-edit a book. That said, not everyone can be a professional editor, as that requires a specialized skillset, industry knowledge, and more advanced education in what it takes to edit a quality book.
What is the book editing process?
The book editing process requires several steps, and the process can be tailored to best suit what works for you and your book.
That said, this is a typical book editing process:
Be clear on the overall point of your book or story
Read through your book and make notes (and compile with notes from beta reader, friends, and writing partners)
Set up goals for completing the editing of your book
Break up your book into sections to edit
Start at the beginning and work your way through for continuity
Begin with developmental edits on the first round, then move onto punctuation, grammar, and line edits
Focus on editing these elements separately: chapters, pacing, characters/people, and overall story structure
Do a line edit of your book (punctuation, spelling, grammar, the little things)
Finally, pass your book off to a professional editor with experience in your genre
We cover all of these steps in detail below.
Do I need a professional editor if I can edit a book myself?
The reason for this is because no matter what, you will always be too close to your work to edit it well. Sometimes we absolutely need a different perspective to help us catch and fix mistakes that we’ve gone blind to.
This completely depends on the length of the book, your available time to edit, and how deeply you’ll edit the book. That said, we typically recommend a month to do a full, in-depth book edit by yourself (if you’re not doing this full-time). We explore how long different types of book edits take here.
How to Edit a Book: 8 Step Guide + Mistakes to Avoid
We’ll almost never be able to write our exact vision for our book in the first draft…or second, or maybe even third. But editing a book is when the real book comes to life.
The reality is: editing a book yourself will bring it to the highest quality you can make it, so when you do pass it off to an editor, it can become even better. After all, if you wash a car before waxing it, the wax shines even brighter than if you didnt.
You might want to just hand off your book to an editor and be done with it, and that still may be a good idea as a final step, but there are decisions that no editor can make for you.
Self-editing isn’t about just fixing some typos, it’s about turning a mess of ideas into a publishable book, and unless your editor can read your mind, it won’t be the same unless you self-edit first.
#1 – Define the point of your book
Before you put red pen to virgin paper, you need to know what your book is about.
“I know what my book is about, I wrote the fool thing,” I hear you shout at your screen.
Too often though, I find that it is remarkably easy to finish a piece and not really know what the main point is. We can become so bogged down with all the side plots and tangents that we forget what’s vital to the story.
What is the story really about if you trim all the fat? What is necessary to tell the story, and what isn’t?
You want a sleek, streamlined story or book. Not a bloated one, that’s so full of side plots that it’s impossible to tell what the main one is.
How do we know what the point of our book really is?
Write a short synopsis. Anywhere from 500-2000 words. Don’t just write one though. Write several synopses explaining it in different ways, from different points of view and perspectives. This will give you an extremely clear idea of what’s important and what’s not to tell your story.
This will help you focus on what’s important, and it tells you where you need to do more work.
#2 – Do a Readthrough with NO editing first (we’ll explain why)
One of the first things you should do when you’re ready to edit your book is read through it and don’t make ANY edits. This might sound confusing, but this is why…
Instead of editing right away, make notes of the edits you want to make—including feedback from others.
You can definitely add comments to the side of your book (if you’re using google docs or something that allows for this), but we’ve also found it really useful to have a different place to house notes in a bullet-list style or however you’ll understand it best.
For this, there are a couple types of goals you can set: quality and timeline.
—Quality Book Editing Goals:
Your goal should always be for your writing to be clean, concise, and easily understood.
Just because you can write a grammatically correct sentence that goes on for 3 pages won’t make people want to read your book.
In fact, it will probably send them looking for anything else to do.
If your goal is to impress people with your technical skill and ability to write long beautiful prose that barely make sense, then you’re not writing a book, you’re creating an art piece using a book as a medium. That’s fine if that’s your goal, but that’s not what we’re doing here.
If you want the story to be the art, not the words themselves, then clarity should be your number one priority.
If you write nonfiction, here are some questions to help you identify your editing goals:
is this book clear and concise?
is it also entertaining and well-written?
does it solve a problem or fulfill the promised purpose (the promise in your subtitle)?
am I proud to put my name on the quality of this book?
If you write fiction, your editing goal questions may look different:
is my main character likeable, sympathetic, or capable (or at least 2 of the 3)?
Notice how none of those questions take into account grammar or spelling—the common things you’d expect when editing a book.
But that’s because your first round of edits should be focused on the book’s content (like when development editing) before you comb through for basic grammar issues.
—Timeline Book Editing Goals:
Next, you have to set up some timeline goals for when you want to finish editing your book. When you set up writing goals, you likely broke it down by word count. For editing, we typically recommend looking at each chapter by themselves and breaking it down that way.
For example: if you have 19 chapters in a book, and you want to edit a chapter a week, then you will have 19 weeks before your book is ready for your professional editor.
You can definitely increase the amount of chapters per week. To start, we recommend going through two chapters to get an average time it takes to edit per chapter and then set up the rest of your timeline goals from there.
#4 – Break your book up into sections to edit
If you’re starting at the beginning of a long book it can be helpful to break it up into manageable chunks. Split it into four or five pieces that you can edit one at a time—this is especilly true for nonfiction.
Here’s how you can separate your book into sections for either fiction or nonfiction:
Nonfiction – break your book up by teaching sections, themes, or chapters
If you do this you need to be careful that you pay attention to the flow, and that all the pieces that you edited separately still fit together in the end.
One of your final edits should always be a top to bottom read through for flow, and when editing in chunks, this step is even more important.
#5 – Focus on the characters or people
Oftentimes, the characters (even in nonfiction) will carry the book and be the main focus of entertainment. For nonfiction, your “characters” are just the people who appear in the stories, lessons, or research used to back up any teaching or education points.
That means focusing on making these strong, will help you edit your book along the way.
In every section, scene, or chapter, ask yourself:
will a reader find this person/character intersting?
will a reader think this person/character is annoying?
is this the best person/character to showcase this area of the book?
If a person or character doesn’t have a purpose, you need to give them one, remove them, or trim their part down so they’re not distracting from the overall focus.
Your characters and people should all have a purpose, from major to minor.
Make sure every character serves their purpose, and none of their arcs are left incomplete. If you leave them with open ends, it can make your character development weak and therefore, uninteresting.
#6 – Editing chapters
Now you know what your story is saying, you’ve synopsized it several different times from different angles, and your characters work. Now let’s go on a level.
Let’s look at all your chapters.
Just like your characters, every chapter needs a purpose that moves the main plot or teaching points forward.
Ask these questions about each chapter:
Does this chapter have a purpose?
Does it move the plot or teaching point forward?
Does it develop an important character or person?
Can I continue the story without it?
Can this chapter stand alone outside of the overall book and still feel whole and complete?
If the chapter doesn’t do one of these things, either cut it or find a way to condense anything important into another chapter, it may not need to stand on its own.
#7 – Editing a book for pacing
While you’re going through the chapters, consider the pacing of the book as a whole. This is really important for writing a book that’s not boring to readers.
Pacing in a book is how quickly or slowly the book feels like it’s progressing.
This can be a hard thing to explain, as it is very much a feeling, but until the climax of your book, you shouldn’t have any big breaks in the action. Little breathers can be good to set up the next scene, but you shouldn’t have long stretches where the tension drops.
Different book genres do require different pacing, and you’ll find that if you’re editing a nonfiction book that you have to work extra hard not to make it slow (which = boring).
Above all, the story should never grind to a halt.
Don’t give your reader whiplash by slamming on the breaks and then speeding off a second later.
Let your story breathe slowly. Slowly increasing and decreasing the pace like your book is taking a breath. All the while you are slowly ramping up the pace and tension until the climax.
Here are a few ways to pace your novel effectively…
Book’s Overall Pacing
Will it be faster (think horror/thriller novels), or will it be slower (think contemporary or romance). This will determine how you write and finish chapters.
You likely have a preference as an author for a fast or a slow-paced book. This is often the same as what we prefer to read.
Do you like your books to be the type you can’t put down and read in a couple of sittings or the type of book readers can pick up every night and read a chapter or two?
Certain book genres also predetermine your pacing, so keep this in mind.
Book genres with typically fast pacing:
Action / Adventure
Book genres with slower pacing:
Book genres where pacing varies greatly:
Pacing Within Chapters
The pacing within a chapter is also very important, and there’s a great way to manage this with your writing.
A really great way to manage pacing within chapters is to use paragraphs wisely.
Now, there are grammatical rules to follow for paragraphs, but you can also use paragraph breaks and writing chapters intentionally to slow down or increase the pacing.
If you want a fast-paced chapter: The key to faster pacing is shorter, more frequent paragraphs. Dialogue is also very useful for increasing pacing because it pulls readers farther down the page, quicker.
If you want a slow-paced chapter: Fewer paragraphs, written longer, will slow down the pacing significantly. This means more internal thoughts and more in-depth descriptions. Essentially, you’re creating more text on the page, which takes longer to read, which slows the pacing.
Putting these methods together: You can use these techniques to create a rhythm within your work. If you feel like an area is too slow, see where you can break up paragraphs or add bits of dialogue. And if a section is too fast, see where you can add more internal musings or setting/character descriptions.
Remember, if you end a chapter on a cliff-hanger, this will make the pacing for this section seem faster.
Overall Book Pacing as a Whole
It’s important to step back and look at your book in terms of pacing as a whole. It can be easy to pace a few chapters in a row slowly, only to have that section of your book feel boring to readers.
While you may have reasons for keeping those chapters slower-paced, too many in a row can create that “rut” readers often complain about in the middle of a book.
Step back and look at your chapters next to each other. A great way to do this is with sticky notes.
Use one color for a slow pace, and another for faster-paced chapters.
Line them up along your wall and step back.
If you have too may slow-paced chapters next to each other, do some digging and figure out how you can add tension there—and realize that if you have several fast-paced chapters next to each other, your book will speed by, which can often cause information overload or confusion.
You control pacing on the large scale with plot and structure, and on the small scale with sentence and paragraph structure. Short punchy sentences speed the reader along, and long, complex sentences and paragraphs slow the reader down.
#8 – Line editing a book
Now we begin my least favorite part… the line-by-line edit.
There’s no shortcut here. You have to go through your book, line-by-line, word-by-word, and consider each paragraph, sentence, and word.
You’re looking for typos, grammatical mistakes, passive voice, but largely just, how can you make this more readable?
Ask yourself this when line editing a book:
Would this sentence be more clear if I rearranged it?
Is this sentence necessary?
Does it add anything?
Is this paragraph clear?
If not, how can it be more clear?
Is it obvious who’s speaking here? How do I fix that?
If i read this aloud does it sound weird?
These are the kinds of questions you need to be asking about each and every sentence and paragraph in your book.
That being said, there are some common things to look for that I’ll show you in the next section, and it never hurts to have a copy of the Chicago Manual nearby as well.
Common Book Editing Mistakes to Avoid
Not everyone is perfect and can edit a book perfectly the first time. That’s what book editors are for, after all.
However, handing over a manuscript littered with these mistakes can not only make the editing more expensive, but it can also hinder your book’s final product because, well, the better version you send to the editor, the better final product.
Here are a few things to avoid when editing your book.
#1 – “Keep it simple stupid”
KISS, the old Navy saying is a good one to live by when you’re editing. Shorter and simpler is almost always better.
If you can say it in fewer words, do it.
If a shorter word will work, use it.
If you can say that whole beautiful monologue in a sentence, guess what? Shorten it.
There are always exceptions to the rule. If you have a good reason, breaking this rule can make a section stand out. Exceptions can be for characterization, mostly. If you have a character who is long-winded and this serves a purpose, writing dialogue that’s long-winded and wordy can likely stay.
If you’re ever unsure, though, stick to simple.
#2 – Avoid redundancies
It’s very easy to do because it’s often how we talk. In writing though, it’s unnecessary, and it can actually make your point less clear as the audience tries to figure out why you just repeated yourself.
Don’t just say the same thing you did another way to make sure the point got across.
Don’t drone on and on because your words are too bountiful a crop to cull, and the audience should marvel at your use of words….
You see what I did there?
Don’t do it.
Your audience is smart, and will usually pick up what you mean the first time, Even if they don’t, guess what? It’s a book, not a Snapchat, they can go back and reread if they need to.
Give your audience credit, they’re often smarter than you think.
This brings me to my next point.
#3 – Don’t preach
It’s one of the things I struggle with the most. I’m just itching to have a character, the narrator, or some pretty prose spell out the fascinating philosophical implication of this character’s actions or thoughts.
Don’t do it. It’s cheap, and it comes across as flat and boring.
Find a way to show it with action instead.
Your audience is smart; if your writing is done well, they should come to the conclusion you wanted them to on their own. It will be far more powerful than if you simply told them because it’s an active experience for the reader.
They may also come to a different conclusion than you expected, and that can be even more fun.
#4 – Show, don’t tell.
This is very similar to the last point. If you have some piece of information you need the audience to know, show it with action instead of telling them, or have it come up in natural conversation between the characters.
Don’t tell the audience about the terrible PTSD your character or a person is suffering from. Don’t fill the page with beautiful prose about how the character feels.
Show them how the character is affected. Let your audience experience the emotions through the character.
Showing is always more powerful than telling, and powerful is what you want.
#5 – Don’t Overdo Styling
Don’t be cutesy or flowery with your word choice or styling.
“He wheezed an answer,”
“Don’t… goooo. DON’T!!!”
It’s distracting and silly. It’s like the literary equivalent of the over-the-top drama in a soap opera.
It’s comical, and not in a good way.
Simplicity can actually do more for you here. An exclamation point, when used correctly, is all you need to indicate a person shouted.
#6 – Watch for writing tics
Just like you have verbal tics that you fall back on when you’re speaking, like “umm,” we have writing tics as well.
They’re often unconscious and entirely unnecessary. They clutter up the page, and you need to excise them from your piece like little tumors.
These are words like:
Basically (Many adverbs really)
Great (most Adjectives)
For instance, I have a bad habit of using, “So,” and “which,” far too often.
I may say,
“So, because of that….”
“Which is why we need to…”
Be on the lookout for your common tic words. They’re almost always unnecessary and can rob your writing of power by making your sentences wordy and confusing.
Keep in mind that you likely have a word or phrase you use often as well. For example, you may use “pulled” or “snatched” or even “reluctantly” repeatedly and not even notice.
Keep an eye out and learn to recognize these words or phrases.
A quick hack for finding these is:
if you notice a repeated phrase a few times in a chapter, do a “Command + F” on mac or “CNTRL + F” on PC and search the phrase
If it’s an excessive number, you may want to keep an eye out and create a separate task or goal to comb through your manuscriptjust for that phrase
#7 – Don’t over-edit
Generally, the more you edit the better your book, but there is such a thing as too much editing.
You don’t want your book to be stuck in perpetual editing hell.
It’s easy to get trapped by the feeling that your book has to be perfect, but perfection is often unattainable. Eventually, you need to publish it.
Get it as good as you can, but don’t obsess over it. Share it. You’re writing isn’t complete until you share it.
What’s next? Editors, beta readers, and more!
After you’ve done everything I’ve said so far it may still be a good idea to hire an editor.
Beta readers are a great choice if you can’t afford an editor, and even if you can, I still recommend it.
All a beta reader is, is someone, usually a family member or friend who you ask to read your book and give you feedback before you publish. The value you get from seeing what normal people think of your book is massive.
And this should be done before you send to an editor, for obvious reasons (you wouldn’t want to pay for another editor after betas have pointed out major flaws you need to rewrite, would you?).
But you have to take their criticisms to heart. You don’t have to change everything they bring up, but seriously consider what your readers and editor say.
Try to avoid defending your piece too strongly. It’s easy to simply write off criticism as someone just not understanding what you were doing. Especially if it’s a phrase or section you like.
And a major tip for when you have beta readers: never explain or correct their assumptions. It can be tempting for you to dive in and tell a beta why they didn’t understand a section, but doing this risks their feedback being unbiased and fresh, and therefore, unusable.
The bottom line is that if someone misunderstands something you said then others may too. You may not be wrong, your friend may have been an idiot, but chances are there is a clearer way for you to say whatever it was they didn’t understand.
Remember, there’s no “right” way & this is YOUR process
In the end, there is no perfect way to edit a book.
If your finished project is clean, clear, and easily understandable, then you edited perfectly. Whether you follow this guide, talked to a monk on top of a mountain, or you laid all the pages on your floor and changed every sentence your cat stepped on, it doesn’t matter if the final product is good.
And ultimately, every writer has a different editing process. If you want to print your book to edit it, perfect! If you prefer to use Google docs, great!
It’s all about whatever works best for you and allows you to create real progress and change in your manuscript.
What I’ve given you is a guide to get started. Take it, tweak it, make it your own, and go finish your book!
Did you finish your book, but you’re not confident enough to publish it or hire a professional editor yet? Great news–There’s a way you can improve your manuscript for free before investing in an editor or sending it to a literary agent for potential rejection and utter heartbreak.
With volunteer beta readers! We’re going to cover:
What is a beta reader?
Beta readers are volunteers who read your writing before it’s edited or published. They give opinions, answer questions, and give you different perspectives on how your piece can be interpreted.
When you’re writing, it’s hard to see the flaws in your own work because you’re too close to the process. Sometimes taking a break and coming back to it can help you spot problems, but the best way to get an unbiased opinion is to have someone else read it. This is where beta readers come in.
Beta rounds typically happen after self-edits but before professional edits. You know you’re ready for beta readers when your story is as good as you can get it on your own.
Now that we know why we want beta readers, how do we get them?
How to find good beta readers
Beta readers can be hard to come by. They’re working for free, and if you don’t already have books published or an author platform, it can be hard to incentivize people to volunteer. Here are some tips for finding beta readers, and specifically finding ones that will work well for you.
Form a writing group or find writing partners. When you’re starting out and don’t have an established platform, finding beta readers can be difficult. One way around this is to form groups with other writers where you swap critique. This gives you established, regular feedback you can depend on.If you don’t have writer friends, check out Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and other online spaces for writing groups. A lot of authors with online followings have their own. For example, my Discord is accessed through Patreon, and we have a thread specifically for finding writing partners.
Use hashtags on social media. Recruiting strangers is always an option, though they can be unreliable. Try to recruit twice the amount of beta readers you ideally want, because usually about half of them are going to ghost. Hashtags you can use to find beta readers include: #BetaReaders, #BetaBustle, and #CritiquePartners. You can also use hashtags specific to your genre to find more effective readers. Speaking of,
Know your target demographic. If you’re writing LGBTQ YA, a 50-year-old straight man probably isn’t gonna vibe with it. You can have people outside of your target demographic, but focus on the feedback from your desired readership. Their opinion will be what is most relevant for your book, so make sure most of your beta readers are within that demographic.
Grow your platform. I get the majority of my beta readers from my YouTube subscriber base. There are drawbacks to using your existing readership for new projects, like readers wanting to be nice because they like you and not giving honest feedback, but it’s much easier to find interested readers when you already have a platform. Just be prepared to spot biased feedback.
Don’t be afraid to turn people down. When you have the ability to be choosey with beta readers, don’t be afraid to do so. There are plenty of reasons you might not want someone to beta read for you, especially long-term. I even keep a list of people to specifically never use again. Later on, we’ll talk about how to break up with problematic beta readers.
Now that we’ve got beta readers, what do we do with them?
How to work with beta readers
Here are some tips for working with and retaining beta readers and getting the most out of their feedback.
Let them know what is expected. Be clear about what you’re asking from them. Do you want overall macro suggestions, or are you looking for line-level feedback? Be as thorough as possible in explaining what you want them to look for and the type of feedback you want. Throwing an entire manuscript at a reader with no guidelines can be overwhelming, leading to incomplete feedback or even the reader ghosting.
Find a balance between staying receptive to feedback and not taking it too personally. Beta readers are there to help, and they help by telling you what you did wrong. It’s an oof, but it’s good for you. Also, they’re volunteering. Don’t get mad because they did what you asked them to do. Try to separate yourself from your work so that critique on the work doesn’t damage your self-esteem and slow your momentum.
Provide a questions list. The questions you ask will widely vary based on if it’s a partial read, a whole read, a character-centric vs plot-centric read, et cetera. It depends on what information you’re trying to collect. But giving readers a specific list of questions makes their job a lot easier, and it will provide you with more helpful feedback. I’ve included a list of example questions later on.
Establish a dialogue for back-and-forth discussion. Having a real conversation with a reader is sometimes more helpful than just having their responses to questions. If you have follow-up questions about one of their answers, ask! I had one beta reader for Starlight who I worked with for a couple of months on one particular story because they had really insightful feedback, and it was a genre they specialized in. Without that reader, I would have cut the story completely.
Keep a spreadsheet with your reader’s information. Factors like age, gender, orientation, geographical location, socioeconomic status, and genre preferences will sway their opinions–you should know where readers are coming from to know how to apply their advice and feedback.
Look for trends, not individual responses. If you get a piece of feedback from one beta reader that you don’t agree with, you’re probably fine to ignore it. If you get that same piece of feedback regularly, maybe take a second look. Writing is super duper subjective, so look for trends and don’t weigh heavily the opinions of just one reader.
Express gratitude! Even if they’re telling you things you don’t love to hear, beta readers are volunteering their time to help you out, so make sure you tell them thank you and treat them with kindness.
TIP: If a reader tells you exactly how to fix something, they’re probably wrong. I’ve found this to be a nearly infallible heuristic for filtering good feedback from people projecting their own taste and style onto your writing. If they give a specific way you should write something, take that as a subjective opinion or them projecting their own preference. FOR EXAMPLE: Here’s a sentence from my story, The Swamp Witch: “Marigold pulls her pipe from her pocket and lights it, evaluating him before hooking it between her teeth.”
A piece of feedback that might be style projecting would be if a beta reader said: This sentence should be two: “Marigold pulls her pipe from her pocket and lights it. She evaluates him before hooking it between her teeth.”
While this beta reader might not necessarily be wrong, their opinion is subjective.
A piece of feedback that I might have listened to could be: This sentence feels like it goes on for too long.
If someone presents a suggestion as if it’s objective rather than subjective, it’s most likely their own taste and doesn’t hold quite so much weight.
I mentioned using questions to help your readers structure their feedback, so let’s look at some examples.
Questions for beta readers
It’s great to provide a specific list of questions for your readers, but those questions vary based on your needs. You can ask questions for the piece as a whole, particular chapters, or particular aspects–it depends on your goals for that beta round. You can use a beta round for a specific character arc, plotline, et cetera.
Here are some example questions you might consider asking.
How do you feel about Character A? Or specifically their arc, personality, flaws, description, dialogue, or any other aspect.
How do you feel about the dynamic between Character A and B?
Is Character A likable?
Could you tell them apart easily? Are any characters too similar?
Did you find Character B’s action in chapter 4 to be very predictable, or were you surprised?
Did [specific action] feel realistic for that character?
Were any characters unrealistic? Who and why?
Which character is your favorite/least favorite? Why?
Which character dynamic is your favorite/least favorite? Why?
Did any characters feel unnecessary? Who, and why?
What did you interpret to be the themes and morals of this story?
How was the pacing? Did any parts feel like they dragged? Did any feel too brief?
Did you find yourself skimming? If so, on which parts?
Did the different plotlines converge in a way that made sense to you?
Which plot point did you find the most/least interesting?
Did you spot any plot holes?
At [this point] in the book, are you still compelled to read on?
Did you feel rising tension through the story?
Was the climax impactful?
Did the ending feel satisfying?
How did this scene make you feel?
Where do you see the story going after this scene? Do you have any predictions?
Does this scene feel important to the overall story?
Were any scenes difficult to follow or confusing?
Did any scenes feel like they didn’t belong, and why?
Which scene was your favorite, and why?
Does every character feel necessary in this scene?
Is the timing of this scene effective? Do you think it should be earlier or later in the story? If so, elaborate.
How was the pacing of this scene? Did it feel rushed or drawn out to you?
Did any of the descriptions in this scene stand out as weak?
Did any lines in this excerpt stick out to you as particularly good or particularly bad?
Did the syntax flow well?
Were the character’s voices/dialogue distinct from each other?
Did any bits feel particularly cliche or tired in their phrasing?
Were any parts overly wordy or difficult to read?
Did any of the imagery not translate clearly?
Did [this particular] metaphor come across?
How did you interpret [specific line, image, metaphor]?
How do you feel about [particular word choice]?
How did [particular line, image] make you feel?
Essentially, the questions you ask beta readers depend on the answers you want. If you want to know about your characters, ask questions about the characters. If you want to know if your climax is exciting enough, directly ask them. They can’t know what information you want if you don’t tell them.
Beta readers are fantastic, helpful little pals. But sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. How do you deal with a beta reader breakup?
How to dump a beta reader
Depending on the context of your interactions, it can sometimes be hard to break ties with a reader when it isn’t working out.
Some reasons you might need to drop a reader include:
They aren’t providing helpful feedback. In this case, you’re wasting both of your time, and there’s really no reason to keep them around.
They’re not adhering to an agreed-upon timeframe or delivery method. Especially when working with multiple rounds of beta readers, being prompt and reliable are very important traits.
They’re ignoring your feedback guidelines. I’ve had readers completely ignore the questions I sent them and just give me line edits I didn’t ask for. That is in no way helpful, so there was no reason to keep them around. Also: if they can’t read and understand the guidelines, how can you expect them to read and understand your story?
They’re being rude or making you uncomfortable. Even though they’re doing you a favor, there’s no reason to be disrespectful in any situation, so you shouldn’t feel bad for letting them go.
You just don’t want ‘em around. If you don’t vibe with a reader, that’s enough reason not to want to work with them. Of course, beggars can’t be choosers–if you’re low on readers, you won’t be able to be as particular, but you don’t have to work with someone just because they want to work with you.
That isn’t anywhere near an exhaustive list of reasons you might not want to work with a person, so here are some tips for releasing a beta reader:
Do what you can to screen readers at the start so you’re less likely to end up with readers you can’t work with.
Try to be straightforward but professional. Avoid lying to get out of situations, but don’t be needlessly mean.
If it takes some of the pressure off, address the message as if you’re finishing up beta reading with all of them, not just dumping one particular person. Example to follow.
If a reader is being inappropriate or threatening in some way, block them immediately. There’s no need to be polite when someone is being aggressive.
Here’s a template to get you started on a breakup letter:
Thank you so much for your help so far! That’s all I need at the moment. I really appreciate your time and efforts, and I’ll be in touch if I have anything else for you.
Beta readers are super helpful little guys. They’re kind enough to contribute their time and effort to help writers create their art. In return, writers can be clear on their requirements, offer guides and question lists to help with feedback, give heaps of gratitude, and offer to beta read their readers’ manuscripts. They can also be upfront when the feedback is no longer helpful, releasing the beta reader back into the wild where they can grow strong and free.