After the red pen – a pain-free way to tackle beta reader comments

Last month I was preparing for beta reader comments on the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest.

I’ve now received them, so I thought it might be useful to write a follow-up post for how I tackle them.

I was very lucky – and relieved – that the verdict was overwhelmingly positive. The book works. Nevertheless, each reader found minor queries, which is entirely expected.

Some are easy to solve – a change of word or phrase. They won’t upset the flow. But some will be more disruptive, requiring explanations to be unpicked, dialogue to be altered, scene choreography to change.  Those notes are more stressful.

But I have a strategy!

1 – Merge everything

My first step is to merge all the comments onto one Word doc. Not every query needs to be acted on, unless the reader is a specialist in a factual area, then their comments obviously have extra weight. But I pay serious attention if more than one person raises a particular problem.

Then I get to work. I split the edit into two phases.

2a – the factual and literal stage.

I chop in the new material, amend inaccuracies, add clarifications. Change events if necessary. I keep it rough and obvious. I change the text colour to red so I can instantly see it needs better treatment, like a sore thumb.

2b – the flow stage.

Here’s where I integrate the change properly, re-edit the scene, consider if the characters’ reactions should change, decide if there are more consequences to be stitched in later.

In phase 2b, I might decide that some of the 2a additions aren’t necessary. They might be too literal. Or they might need more oblique treatment. Sometimes a reader’s pain point is not caused in the place they registered it. Like sciatica, it might be referred from elsewhere.

This two-phase system allows me to give all the comments a fair hearing, to accept that something needs to be adjusted, without panicking about the wreckage it might leave, without worrying about the wrong things at the wrong time. It often brings me to better insights, to better understand what I’m making.

I’m just finishing phase 1. My manuscript now has new pieces, chopped in like rough surgery. But I’m excited about healing the joins. I know it’s now more authentic, effective, solid, reliable, which is what I want it to be.

PS I’m teaching a masterclass on back story at Jane Friedman’s online lecture hall! July 1st, book now!

PPS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

How do you integrate reader comments? Share below!

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  1. #1 by Ken Farmer on June 7, 2020 - 5:01 pm

    I send my four beta readers a chapter at a time as I finish them. I usually get a three to four hour turnaround from two and twenty-four on the other two. One of my beta readers is a retired English Professor, college level, another is a best selling author in her own right. The third is a retired Lt. Colonel from the Marine Corps (he damn sure doesn’t cut me any slack) and the fourth is a long time fan.
    I make the changes and corrections before going on to the next chapter. Working well for me. Love getting the occasional response from the best selling author like: Chapt. 18 – Once again, Ken, no problems. – Exciting story! – Mary

  2. #3 by C.E.Robinson on June 7, 2020 - 5:35 pm

    Interesting how you deal with Beta reader comments. I only had a few family members that commented on a completed historical fiction manuscript. The comments were around what was real & what was fictional about our grandparents. One cousin commented why did you end there, I wanted to know more. That prompted me to restructure the story and add the chapters I had started for a sequel. I have a weekly consult with a screenwriter friend and we talk about her progress with a screenplay and mine with the new part of the book. That’s intense brainstorming and makes us both think deeper about what we write and the direction of our stories. From the beginning, as a new writer, I worked with an awesome editor 50 pages at a time. That was a huge learning experience. I’ll have the new chapters edited too. It may end up a real book and not just a first practice book. 📚🎶 Christine

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 7, 2020 - 6:04 pm

      Your brainstorming sessions sound awesome, Christine. What a great way to keep focused and on track – for both of you.

      • #5 by C.E.Robinson on June 7, 2020 - 6:44 pm

        Thanks so much for your reply. That’s exactly what we said. It’s a different mindset to have every week something substantial written to discuss. A win-win. 📚🎶

  3. #6 by Annalisa Crawford on June 8, 2020 - 10:40 am

    I’ve just had a couple of people read over the roughest of first drafts just to make sure I wasn’t engaging in a vanity project. It was so scary, especially as one was my husband who huffed and sighed and stared at me in despair as he was reading it…

    When I’m at beta reading stage, I merge the comments as well, and oh boy, is that overwhelming!

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 8, 2020 - 1:16 pm

      Oh that’s scary, witnessing their reactions! My husband read a Lulu paperback copy of Ever Rest. His chosen reading time was last thing at night. While I was trying to snooze beside him, I could hear whenever his pen scratched a note on the page!

  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 06-11-2020 | The Author Chronicles

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