Ideally, a beta reader is someone who reads your manuscript to give you a sense of how readers (or agents) will react to your plot and characters. There are, however, a whole host of other writing issues that might pull your beta readers’ attention away from the big-picture story-related issues and cause them to get bogged down in correcting common mistakes instead. Fortunately, a lot of these common mistakes are things that you can correct for on your own if you approach your work with a critical eye before sending it out to anyone. Running through these points will help you get the most out of your beta readers, and will make sure that they’re able to provide you with a helpful critique rather than a writing 101 lecture.
Spelling and grammar:
Failing to spell check and proofread your work before sending it out makes it much harder for beta readers to get through. It’s also a sign that you haven’t reread or revised your work and that you’re sending out a rough draft. If your MS is full of simple mechanical errors, that usually indicates that there are still a lot of easy to spot problems that you could catch on your own, and that you aren’t actually ready for a beta reader. Your work doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be as clean as possible.
It’s also worth noting that beta readers are not copy editors. Beta readers are here to test drive your novel and tell you if the story is working. They’re looking at big picture stuff. As such, it isn’t efficient for a beta reader to move around commas. If the whole chapter needs to be gutted and rewritten, all of that detail work gets lost.
Proofread your work before you send it out. Then, once it’s reasonably, clean, edit for structure first and worry about polishing it later.
The three most common grammar errors that I come across:
- Improperly tagged dialogue. Properly tagged dialogue looks like this: “Quote,” said Lucy. OR Lucy said, “Quote.” Punctuation goes in the quotes. Dialogue tags should be “said” or another reasonably common variation.
- Comma splices. That’s two independent clauses separated by a comma. They look like this: “The dog was big, it ran fast.” They should look like this: “The dog was big. It ran fast.” OR “The dog was big; it ran fast.” This is not an arbitrary grammar rule. Comma splices make it difficult to figure out the inflection in the sentence, so it reads awkwardly and doesn’t end where the reader expects it to.
Vocab mishaps. $10 words have a tendency to look stilted and out of place if they aren’t used carefully. I’ve also run into a few cases where the word does not mean what the author thinks that it does. Check that you’re using the best word and not the fanciest one. If you do opt for the fancier word, make sure you’re comfortable with it, understand both its meaning and usage, and that it’s appropriate to the context, POV, and intended audience. Complicated language doesn’t impress people; clearly expressed ideas do.
Common writing mistakes:
Generally, an abundance of common mistakes indicates weak writing, which means that after a few chapters beta readers will switch from critiquing the story to correcting the writing mechanics. It also means that if the beta reader has requested sample chapters before agreeing to take the full manuscript, common mistakes in the beginning will lead them to assume that the writing is low quality all the way through and that the manuscript is not ready for story-focused editing.
This one’s exactly what it says on the tin. It may be an old adage at this point, but there are a lot of reasons why it’s still good advice. The most overt forms of this can be found by looking for judgement words (“good,” “bad,” etc.) in the narration, especially if there is a third person narrator. Also look for explicit statements of character traits (“Bill was nice”).
Identify who your point of view characters are and check for POV errors, such as slipping into a different character’s POV. Also check to make sure that POV switches are clearly denoted by section breaks. Mid-section POV changes look sloppy and make it difficult for readers to tell who is speaking. This isn’t hard to fix, and getting on it early will save a lot of headache because POV errors are something that most beta readers will harp on.
It can be difficult to check the pacing of your own story. However, since most beta readers will request a few chapters before taking on the whole manuscript, it’s important that the beginning has a hook. Read through your first three chapters. Identify the inciting incident. It doesn’t happen within these chapters, odds are that something is amiss (or that the first few chapters are fluff and can probably be cut).
Signs of deep structural issues
There are some surface issues that indicate deeper problems with the story. Addressing these early strengthens your story so that you can send out the best possible draft.
Lengthy or Frequent Internal Monologues
When done to excess, interior monologues bog down the story and get in the way of the action, especially because they tend to happen in the character’s head (which reads as “floating in space”) rather than in scene. If the story relies heavily on interior monologues, it indicates poor scene construction, setting issues, pacing problems, and a high likelihood that there will be trouble with “show don’t tell.” Locate the places where there are more than two or three consecutive paragraphs of introspection, or where you character is spending a lot of time alone with their thoughts and see what can be removed or restructured.
Make sure that your characters have clear, well defined goals and at some point take agency in attaining those goals. Motivations should be specific to the character and should not feel like plot devices (fate, destiny, “I just knew”). Identify your main characters and their motivations. Ask yourself if their actions follow logically from who they are and what they want.
Characters who are too perfect result in low stakes. An easy way to spot a character who can warp the story to fit their whims is to run your MCs through a Mary Sue litmus test or two. This will also give you some hints about which ones need to be tweaked, made more sympathetic, and toned down. Fixing these characters will give the rest of your cast a chance to shine while also making the former Mary Sue more relatable.
A lack of driving questions means a lack of tension. Write out the driving questions that the reader ought to be asking at any given point. When is the first question introduced? Is there any point at which the reader is not wondering anything? What clues in the readers that this question is worth asking?
Does your story check out? Still need a beta reader? Don’t want to pay money for a beta reader? Check out my beta reading page!