It Takes a Village to Write a Book

Okay, so maybe it only takes an author to write a book, but it certainly takes a community of beta readers and editors to make a book publishable. A small percentage of authors say they can self-edit and publish a book without any input, but that is a very small percent. Most authors rely on writing communities, beta readers, and editors in order to craft a flawless novel. Though writing is largely a solitary pursuit, once the first draft is finished, it’s important to reach out to others.

I rely heavily on beta readers. Without my betas, I’d be completely lost. With each beta, I look for something a little different. Some are great at finding plot holes, while others critique from an emotional perspective. Are the characters likable? Dialogue realistic? Are all the loose ends tied up by the end of the book? With my YA series, it’s especially critical to have beta readers. They can pick up on inconsistencies and continuity problems I miss.

Beta readers come in all shapes and sizes, and I’d recommend finding at least one who will be brutally harsh with you. If all your betas are related to you by blood or marriage, it’s unlikely you’ve found a good mix of betas. I think it’s essential to have a sister or cousin in your cheering section to boost your self-esteem and tell you how proud they are of your endeavors, but it’s equally important to find someone who will be brutally honest. While your sister might lift up your spirits when the going gets tough, your harsh beta reader is the one who’ll really hone that manuscript. And, since opinions may vary, I recommend getting more than one harsh beta. The more the merrier, in my opinion.

What’s the difference between a beta reader and an editor? Your beta is focusing on the story–characters, plot, overall enjoyment. An editor focuses on the construction of the manuscript–grammar, repetitive words, spelling. You might get some crossover. I have a couple of betas who will do some light editing by pointing out obvious errors, but what I really want from my betas is their overall impression of the story. What worked? What didn’t?

Once you’ve hammered out your story, you’ll want to work with an editor, especially if you’re self-publishing. There are different types of editing, some more involved than others. A substantive editor will work with you to develop the story, but this is generally a very expensive service. Your best bet is to swap critiques with a few good betas so by the time you get to the editing stage, you’re just looking at proofreading services.

Here’s a list of helpful sites if you’re looking for a beta reader, critique partner, or some writerly folks to chat with:

Did I miss any good critique sites? Let me know and I’ll add them to the list. How many villagers do you have? How do you find your betas? Leave a comment and share your tips and advice.


9 thoughts on “It Takes a Village to Write a Book

  1. I agree! Beta readers are essential, and as you say, the more distanced from you personally the better. My greatest, most nit-picky, grammar and punctuation nazi, plot hole finder and general criticiser doesn’t even write in the same genre as I do. Famous writers get to pass on even their publisher’s editorial advice, and in many cases they look foolish for it. It’s a very rare bird the writer who can see all the mistakes and problems in her story. I mean, she wrote the mistakes in the first place!


  2. I used to think my beta readers were great until I started interning for a freelance editor and she began doing my book for free. Then I lost faith in betas because not only did she point out flaws in my story, she also gave me suggestions on how I could make those flaws work–or if they didn’t work, what I could do instead. So I complained to her about how my beta readers couldn’t even do half of what she did, but she then told me beta readers are there to remove the excess dirt after either you or an editor has taken care of the big stuff. But she taught me how to be a self-editor for the story itself so that way beta readers could become more useful to me.

    I just never got lucky with them. I’d offer to read their stuff, but they either had to quit mine due to life or I never heard back from them again. It was just such a long, tedious process for me.


    • You’ve made a couple of really good points. Not all betas will work for you. I’ve found a few betas who are pure gold. But, you often have to weed out some self-serving or lazy betas along the way. I found some of the most helpful, wonderful betas on authonomy, but on a site like that (where there’s an element of competition), some authors are just there to get feedback on their own book and fall short when it comes to reciprocation.

      Another good point you made–do some self-editing (or work with an editor) before giving it to your betas. I usually sit on a book for a few months before I self-edit. I like to have a fresh perspective before I try to edit. Once I go through the manuscript a couple of times, I give it to a beta reader. I think the process is different depending on how you plan to go about publication. If you’re submitting to agents, you want to have betas look at it before you send query letters. If you’re self-publishing, you want to enlist a few betas to look at the manuscript prior to publication to get some last-minute feedback and possibly some reviews.

      Sorry you’ve had bad luck with betas, but it sounds like you’ve found someone professional who has really helped you. Hang on to her!


  3. There’s a new-ish site out there called CPSeek that I found out about through the Pitch Madness contest a couple months ago. It’s another great resource for betas and editors and writerly support in general. 🙂


  4. Pingback: It Takes a Village to Write a Book | James Ramsey

  5. Your generous soul just continues to gush the milk of human kindness over all of the writing closets of our own souls. Thank you for this tip. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as beta readers. You’re the BOMB!


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