All novels need editing. Never publish a first draft because no writer is ever perfect. For authors who are lucky enough to land an agent and/or publishing contract, they will assign a professional editor to them. Even with the help of a professional editor, I’m sure we’ve all read novels that still had grammar and spelling errors.

Independent authors don’t get the opportunity to have a professional editor assigned to them. We want our novels to be just as close to perfect as traditionally published novels, but having to hire a professional editor can be daunting. I think the going rate for a professional editor is somewhere around $0.025/word. That doesn’t sound like much, but for a novel like Coffee-to-Go, which is around 50,753 words (at current count), that would cost me $1,270 for a professional edit. There are editors that are less expensive, but buyer beware. You often get what you pay for.

So, what’s an aspiring independent novelist to do? Use a beta reader, of course!

What is a Beta Reader?

Beta readers are people who volunteer to read a manuscript and provide feedback and critique. Often they do this for free. Beta readers could also be fellow writers, but often they are avid readers who are happy to get their hands on any reading material, especially if it’s free for them to read. A well read beta reader can be very helpful in spotting problems with a novel’s pacing, consistency, and plot. They will often pose questions at different points in the novel that can help an author uncover overall flaws in the story and help to fix them.

Other beta readers may even be willing to point out spelling and grammar issues, along with unintentional tense and points-of-view switches. In the end, the feedback from several beta readers can help an independent author improve their manuscript before self-publishing their word.

Cons of Using a Beta Reader

The biggest downside to using beta readers instead of a professional editor, is that an author will have to do all the editing work themselves. Some authors are very skilled at editing their own work. While it’s not recommended, I think some writers can self-edit their own work successfully. They just employ a different tool set – using grammar and spell checking software or employing techniques, like using text-to-speech, to help catch errors.

Even with all the software, a writer must have a strong grasp of grammar in order to do their own editing. Self-editing is definitely not for everyone. Personally, I have a background in tech writing, and my managers never sprung for anyone to edit my writing. I had to learn how to self-edit my work and all I could rely on were my coworkers to review and give me feedback. Thinking back on it, they were my earliest beta readers.

Pros of Using a Beta Reader

If you don’t have a strong background in grammar, spelling, or spent years self-editing technical documents, then the entire process can appear daunting. If you lack the skills and background and try to self-edit, you risk self-publishing a novel littered with flaws. That can turn off readers and leave you with nothing but negative reviews. This is why I recommend using beta readers. They can help weed out the worst of the problems in your writing. While you still have to do your own editing, if you can’t afford to hire an editor, having beta readers critique your work will help you make it better.

They may not help you catch every problem, but I guarantee your writing will be helped by their feedback. I also recommend getting a variety of beta readers and don’t just rely on the same one or two people. Having beta readers that are part of your target audience is also ideal. Don’t ask someone who isn’t into science fiction to beta read your epic sci-fi novel. They won’t enjoy it and their feedback may be completely off the mark.

How to Find Beta Readers

I was lucky that I had a couple of great friends offer to beta read one of my novels. They are well-read people and gave me a lot of great, constructive feedback. Not everyone has friends like that. While friends and family are often the first to be asked to beta read, don’t stop there. There are entire groups on Facebook dedicated to beta reading. You can also ask for beta readers on Twitter or other social media platforms.

Many of my other beta readers were fans of my fan fiction stories, so they also made for good beta readers. I’ve also found some through social media. I was lucky enough to find one beta reader who had a very similar background to one of my main characters. His feedback was invaluable and helped cement that I was on the right track with that character and his part of the story.

You do need to be careful and not just send your manuscript to just about anyone either. I always try to vet anyone who volunteers to beta read for me. I talk to them at length and try to determine why they might want to beta read my work. Plagiarism is always a danger, so try to make sure you can trust your betas before you enlist them. Also, don’t just send them the file. Use an online cloud service like OneDrive or DropBox that support posting comments and feedback on documents. This makes it slightly less easy to just steal your work.

Good luck!