BLOG: Beta Reading vs Proofreading vs Editing

My previous blog post talked about how long you should be aiming to make your novel. Today I want to talk about the different stages it will go through before you have a final product.

Beta Reading

This is something I first came across in relation to fanfiction, although since studying my MA I have found that many authors use Beta Readers in their drafting stages, and it generally combines proof reading with a test audience. I personally see this as a more informal arrangement than that of an editor, but when I have beta read for people I have checked spelling and grammar, checked for consistency of characters and plots (wasn’t he wearing a jacket? Wasn’t she somewhere else?) and also provided my feedback on how I feel something works overall in the narrative.

Generally when I am beta reading, I am often in dialogue with the writer during the writing process, so I also provide brainstorming support as the writing is happening to help with snarls in the plot or fact checking. Of course, different beta readers will work differently – a friend of mine had a beta reader who essentially provided structural edits on a chapter by chapter basis, advising her to cut entire chapters at times. Perhaps this is because of the people I have worked with, or because my style is somewhat less brutal, but I have not found myself in the situation where I’ve had to suggest a whole chapter be cut.

I think my experience in beta reading has informed my editorial style. I want to bring out the author’s voice as clearly as I can, and make it the best it can be, so I often try to keep a light hand with it, whilst still polishing the work. Beta reading can combine all elements of the editorial processes detailed below, or it can be as simple as telling someone you loved it. It’s a less defined role, in my experience, so changes depending on the reader.

For many writers, beta readers are trusted friends who are the first to read your draft. There might be specific aspects of your writing you want feedback on, but good general things to ask your beta reader are:

  • Did any parts of the story feel slow? Did anything feel rushed?
  • Was there anything you wanted to see more of?
  • Did it grab you from the start? If not, why not?
  • Was anything confusing?

Editing

There are several different stages of editing – structural editing, line editing and copy editing. Structural editing is the big guns – it looks at the story as a whole, the pacing, the plot, the characters, and it works out what is necessary, what needs to be moved, and what needs to be taken out entirely. Generally, you should do at least some of this following feedback from your beta reader, and should have worked your manuscript up as much as you can before you send it to an agent.

If you’re taken on by an agent, they’ll then most likely do another round of structural edits with you. And then if your book is sold to a publisher, it’s possible that your editor there will want to do it again too. Hopefully with each round less will need to change, as you shouldn’t send your book to an agent until you have edited it as much as you know how, and your agent won’t submit your book to publishers until it’s basically publishable. But be aware that even if you think you’ve finished editing your book, you almost certainly haven’t.

If you imagine each stage of editing as a net with increasingly smaller holes, the structural edit is there to catch all the big things. The next one, the line edit, is there to catch the middling issues. Here is where you’d look at fact checking, clunky phrasing or weird dialogue. You’d make sure character descriptions and name spellings are consistent through the whole book, but also look at strange turns of phrase, mixed metaphors, and problems of that ilk. Where the structural edit looks at the story, the line edit looks at the narrative voice. What could be said in a better way? Which phrases sound out of place for your character or setting?

The line edit is where all your bad habits appear. If you have used the same phrase 80 times in a book, this is where you’ll find it out. It happens to everyone – that specific authorial tic will have the spotlight shone on it. Run on sentences, paragraph style, shifts in tense or tone –  your editor will work through these with you during the line edit, and by the end your manuscript will be tighter, and you’ll have had a harrowing insight into all your worst writing ways.

Finally, your work will be put through to copy edits. Often this is confused with proof reading, but it is the stage before that. This is where you go through and check for style, spelling, grammatical and punctuation issues, but also to fix any clumsy transitions or tidy up the last few bits of dialogue or prose that were missed in the line edit. This is generally the final stage before the book is laid out, and the last chance you would have to make any significant changes to the content of the book, so it needs a thorough approach to ensure you are happy with the content of the work.

Proofreading

Finally, the copy edits are done and the book has been laid out by pages, into a ‘proof’. This is where your proof reader comes in – they go through your work with a fine toothed comb to pick out spelling mistakes, typos, and anything which has gone strange with the formatting when your book has been laid out. Proof readers aren’t looking to fix your plot or your prose, they’re looking to make sure all the nuts and bolts which hold your book together are there. They’ll also bring your book in line with your publisher’s ‘house style’, to ensure that your book sits alongside all the other books on their list in terms of style, grammar, and format. This includes things like the use of double or single quotation marks, whether numbers are written as words or digits, and whether or not you need to use an Oxford comma.

For old, pre-digital books which are being republished, proof readers are also brought in after the old print versions are scanned to create digital files. Digitising these older books uses a process known as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to transform the scans into editable text files, but OCR isn’t flawless so proof readers are used to check where it has become muddled – turning an ‘rn’ into an ‘m’, for example, or ‘vv’ into a ‘w’.

 

Sometimes it can be easier to get feedback from other people while you edit, because it can be difficult to see where to start or what needs to be done when you are deep in the middle of a manuscript. Whilst you can pay for editorial services (some legitimate places which offer manuscript assessment and editing support are TLC and Cornerstone) if you can’t afford this, you can ask a trusted friend or family member, or some writing forums will have places where you can do novel swaps. NaNo WriMo, for example, has a forum for this.

Advice given out repeatedly by publishers and agents is to ensure that your work is as edited as possible before you submit it for consideration. Agents and editors are extremely busy, so what they really want to see is a book which is basically ready to go to print right away. These editing stages are really important and can make all the difference between your book being considered, or being rejected outright for poor editing.

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