I believe in beta readers. Anyone can be a beta reader (also called a first reader), from your mom to your best friend to your coworker to your favorite librarian. A beta reader is anyone who reads your work and tells you what they think. Their feedback can be incredibly useful, and their personal support can be very meaningful.
But let’s separate beta readers from what a professional editor does. Beta readers, by the nature of their personal connection with you, want to be supportive. They may only be comfortable saying kind things about your manuscript. Their ideas and suggestions may not make your book better. Even if they’re avid readers of the genre you write, they’re readers, which is a different set of skills and knowledge than what a professional editor offers. And they may say they want to read your book, and then not have time for it.
The bottom line is, a beta reader’s opinion is a different thing than what a professional editor can do. Praise and suggestions can go a long way, but how does that compare to the experience and professionalism that an editor offers? How much is it worth to you to have the peace of mind that can come with a professional’s opinion? This is a very personal question, and if you’re reading this, you probably want information that will help you decide.
So what exactly does a professional editor do that’s different from what a beta reader offers?
Let’s back up for a moment and define what a professional editor is. Unlike doctors, dentists, and plumbers, editors are not licensed or regulated, which means anyone can put together a slick website and say they’re a professional editor. The editors in this network have all been vetted and have significant credentials, so someone has already done that homework for you, when you work with one of the editors here. The old advice of “˜buyer beware’ applies to any deal that seems too good to be true, especially low-cost editing from online sources.
A beta reader will likely tell you what they enjoyed about your work, and may make suggestions for revision. Compare that to what I do when I perform a beta read on a manuscript. I look for ways to boost the strengths of the work, and ways to shore up the weaknesses. I highlight logical inconsistencies, viewpoint problems, places where the pacing goes flat, or anything else that catches my eye. I ask questions about character motivations, and about the socioeconomic situation that underpins the story. I look for ways to seamlessly tighten pacing, strengthen characterization, clarify language, or work with the manuscript’s unique needs and strengths, whatever they are. My goal is never to tell the author what to do, but to point out the opportunities I see. Clients tend to say they grew as writers from working with me.
I respect that writing fiction is not easy, and every manuscript has weak spots, especially ambitious works and works by new writers. That’s why I recommend working with a professional editor, whether you have trusted beta readers or not.
Former Locus editor, AMY BENNETT is a critically acclaimed and agented novelist with knowledge of both the craft and the business of science fiction, fantasy, and horror publishing.