Beta readers ~ be careful what you ask for!

Some of you might know that I write commercial fiction under a pseudonym. As a grammar snob, I pride myself on generally clean manuscripts. Not that I don’t need editing — believe me, I do — but the edits usually aren’t for grammar or punctuation, at least not on a large scale. So when I pass my precious baby (manuscript) out to my group of loyal beta readers, I ask them to let me know of any glaring inconsistencies in the story (like my hero’s eyes are brown in the first chapter and blue in the second). These are the types of errors that are so easy for authors to miss because we’ve lived in the story for so long, and probably had multiple drafts where we’ve changed details like that, we tend to gloss over inconsistencies when we’re proofing.

A couple weeks ago I sent my newest story out to my group, and asked one person to share with her friend. I knew the woman to be an avid reader, and I figured it never hurt to have an additional set of eyes. It was probably two or three days later that that my friend sent me an e-mail asking, “Was the story edited yet?”

Immediately my writer’s “hackles” went up. “Yes,” I responded. “The edits are done.” I didn’t ask why, partly because I was rushed, and partly because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, or not until I had a chance to brace myself! (I do have a fragile ego at times.)

Another few days passed before I heard from my friend again. She said, “Susie (name changed to protect us all) wants to know, isn’t it incorrect to start the sentence with the word and?”

Ah…there it was, the reason for her earlier question: Susie was misinterpreting my request for a beta read as a request for proofreading. Of course I want my beta readers to let me know of errors and typos, but I don’t expect them (or want them) to turn into line and/or content editors. I need them to read the story as they’d read any story and let me know if anything makes them stop and do a mental head-shake.

I responded that in terms of academic or business writing, that’s the general rule, but fiction writers have leeway to play with sentence structure and rules. It’s called literary/poetic license. Authors use literary devices to emphasize or clarify. Like using clauses in place of a full sentence (when the meaning is clear). Like ignoring the rules of paragraph construction and sticking a sentence (or a clause) in a separate paragraph to draw attention to or highlight the point.

And, yes, even like starting a sentence with the word and.

When writing for academia or business, (I believe) you have to follow the rules of grammar because it gives your argument, your purpose for writing the piece, credence and authority.

When writing fiction, we’re telling a story, not writing a doctoral dissertation, or an editorial. In fiction, the writer’s job is to draw the reader into the make-believe world and keep him or her there, and the judicious use of those literary devices helps writers to do that. At the same time, we trust our readers to know the difference between those elements and grammar errors.

So after having this discussion with my friend, I passed on Susie’s kind offer to borrow her grammar book and vowed that when it comes to beta readers, to be careful who I’m asking, and to be clear about what I’m asking for. Not only had I probably wasted that woman’s time and energy, but she probably got little enjoyment from proofreading a story as a term paper.

Thanks for visiting with me this week. Hopefully sharing my goof will help others avoid this pitfall.

Wishing all a blessed Thanksgiving, filled with the laughter and love of family and friends. And maybe even a few spare hours to read a good book!

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing.

2 thoughts on “Beta readers ~ be careful what you ask for!

    • Hi, Huw. Thanks for stopping by. I agree with you! That’s why we use beta readers. Like I said, I appreciate any typos or problems that readers spot. I just don’t want readers thinking they need to be proofreaders.

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