I think everyone has their own system. I've heard some do beta first and others do editing first and others doing multiples back and forth (which is what I do.)
I've got 3 betas who are my standard go-tos. They get it before any editing, so what they are reading is the rough draft just as it popped out of my head.
My method is somewhat different than what I've heard others say they do, as well. See, I absolutely refuse to use "email betas". All of my betas are people loyal to me and I hand them print outs. I have a beta reader read it before it gets edited and ask them to write right on the print out, point by point EVERY thought and impression they had as they were reading it. (Note, I'm not asking them to edit or look for errors.) The print out I give them has 1.5inch margins and double spaced lines, so there's a lot of white space for them to write on.
The reason I do it this way, is because, while they are reading the story, they are able to write their first impressions right on the page, while they are reading. I find the feedback is far better this way. Email betas, will read the story, set it aside, then write up their comments hours or even days after reading. There is a big difference between comments written on the page as they read it, and comments written in an email a couple of days later.
I had one story I did this with and the first thing my beta reader had said was "Boy do you love your pronouns". I asked her what she meant by this and she told me that on page 1 all the characters were named, but that for the entire 30 pages afterwards not a single name appeared in the story, it was all "he" or "she" from page 2 onwards. I had no idea that I had done this, and after she told me this, I looked at my other stories and realized this was a huge problem from me - I did it A LOT.
Thing is, the email betas did not mention the pronoun issue. Only the paper print out betas mentioned it. I went back and asked all my betas about the pronoun issue and every one of them said they had in fact noticed while reading, and had intended to comment on it, but that by the time they had gotten around to writing up their review, it just had slipped their mind they had forgotten about it. Oh well. No biggie...wait...what? No biggie? How is that no biggie? That's pretty huge biggie.
Well, I went back and changed this error in a lot of my stories, I fixed it by a system of 5s: name, pronoun, pronoun, pronoun, name; so that I never used a pronoun for a single character more than 3 times in a row.
I had about 30 betas I use in rotation and I sent them a bunch of the stories, to read. Same thing was happening over and over. Betas who wrote on the hard copy as they read it, picked up on tons of stuff, including the pronoun error, because they were writing their first impression comments as they were reading. They wrote long rants about everything from typos and errors ("I love your story but you can't spell worth sh%@") to character inconsistencies ("You know she's a hard a$$ back in chapter 2, now she's being a wous, what's with the whimpy act all of a sudden, it's out of character for her?") to plot questions ("Why in the he11 did you have him do that? That makes no sense at all, shouldn't he have been doing this instead?")...they would write in the lines, around the edges, on the back of the page, and attached more sheets. Every thought that went through their head, ended up on the page.
On the other hand, my email betas would write 4 or 5 sentences that amounts to "You dude, this is great"...uhm, yeah, that's not helpful.
So, yeah, I have personally found that beta readers are going to be very helpful, but only if you hand them a print out copy and a red ink pen and tell them they have permission to massacre your work. And don't flip out on them, either or they won't tell you want they really think next time. During beta reading is the time to be brutal. The last thing you want is a beta reader who pats your shoulder and tells you it's great. You want a beta reader who tears your story apart word for word and rips your characters apart...that's the only way you'll ever find those errors and flaws so you can correct them.
If you don't have betas yet, make sure you find ones that know the difference between a beta reader and an editor though. That's the thing that always bugs me: that beta readers seem to THINK they are supposed to edit the story. No, no, no,no, no! Betas read the story and tell you first impressions as a reader. Okay, if the typos and spelling and grammar are a huge issue that prevent them from reading, sure, you want them to tell you about it, but it's NOT their job to do the editing for you!
It happens to me all the time, I'll hand them the story (always hard copy print outs now, I never work over email anymore, for the reasons stated earlier) and say, "Write down anything you think of as you are reading." And I'll get back an edited manuscript. I'll ask "Why'd you edit this?" They say "Well you told me to write down what I thought and I thought it needed editing, see, I said it needed editing right here, and I pointed out all the places that needed editing."
I mean, I don't mind that they do that, but it's not what I wanted them to do. Betas are supposed to let you know if your plot is plausible, you characters likeable/believable, did the story flow read smoothly or was it choppy and confusing? If it needs editing, yeah, fine, I expect them to say something like "Oh, by the way, this really needs editing, I saw a lot of errors", but it's not their job to sit there marking up every single error they found. Make sure they know that.
I think some of the confusion is, that a lot of authors do expect betas to edit, and so a lot of betas end up assuming that they are just expected to edit as well as read. So, tell them up front, that you are not asking them to edit, you only want them to review the story/plot/flow/characters/etc.
I have 2 sets of beta readers that I use. The first are my 3 regulars who read everything I write. I turn them for all my work, because I know they'll tell me EXACTLY what they think. If they hate it, they'll tell me, and they'll tell me why they hate it, which characters sucked and why. These guys are brutal. It has to get past these guys before it'll go on to anything else (more betas, editors, etc.) I rely on these three guys to tell me EXACTLY what they think. If they don't like the story, a character in the story, a scene, a plot twist, whatever, they will tell me and they will tell me EXACTLY why they didn't like it. These guys are brutal. Brutal honesty is what I expect from a beta reader.
Here's a point: are your readers going to be mostly men or mostly women? And are your main characters male or female? Pick your betas to match.
I chose 3 men in the 20s as my beta readers, because I write primarily male main characters, but I'm a woman. So one thing I look for is 'are my male characters actually acting like male characters?'
My 3 betas a very different: one is a "super mega geek-geek" (D&D, video games, comic books, sci-fi, Whovian, Trekkie, science nut, walks around with physics books and books by Michio Kaku - you'd think he just walked out of Big Bang Theory) and he introduces himself to people "My name is ___, I'm a geek", one is a "super mega music geek" (band tees, stacks of CDs and vinyl, name a band, any band, any time, any genre - oldie, pop, 80s big hair, new metal, rap, German industrial, punk, visual kei, grindcore, indie, you name it he knows it, can recite every song title off every album, tell you the history of each band member and probably has it on his iPod), and the other is "the health nut" (tracks everything he eats, is into weight lifting and bodybuilding, and hopes to one day look like The Rock.) .... the thing they all have in common: they read... a lot.
They read a lot of sci-fi and horror and I write sci-fi & horror. They are best friends and they get together pick a book, read it, than watch it's movie, and get into debates tearing the movie apart over all the reasons it WASN'T like it's book (this includes comic book movies too). There is nothing these guys love more than finding everything that is WRONG with a book.
If these guys do not like something in your book, they think nothing of getting up on their soap box and telling exactly what they think is wrong with it. They nit-pick every little detail, inside out and upside down. If you do not have a thick skin and a hard turtle shell, you'll never make it pass one of their reviews. You'll be hard pressed to get a 2 star review from one of these guys, and THAT is why I picked them as my primary betas. Because I know I can trust them to find all the flaws and tell me about them.
If my main character is acting like a sissy or a dweeb, that's exactly what they say to me "___ is such a dweeb, REAL men don't say things like ___".
I had one character, whom they said "___ does not make a good hero, not with all those stupid silver spoons stuffed so far up his *ss." I was like, 'Silver spoon? What do you mean?' Next thing I know they were throwing out all the reasons, lots of them: "He's such a momma's boy!", "Yeah, and what does he do for a living?", "Always running to daddy for money", "A girl could kick his butt", "You wrote him like he was a girl!"...Well, I never saw these things at all, but once they pointed this stuff out, I was "OMG! They are right! How did I not notice this?"
and that's what a beta's job is, right there, the show the author,, hey you're perfect character, ain't so perfect and this is how we readers are seeing him.
I know to expect a very thorough review from these guys, when I ask "So what did you think?" and they answer with "It's stupid." Why is it stupid? "Oh, well, because...." This is what I look for in beta readers, some one who is not afraid to speak their mind and just tear my characters and the plot to shreds.
Sure I want to be told "I liked this because....", but if I'm to make my story better, I need to be told "I hated this because..." It's the only way I'm going to improve my story. And that's why I like these 3 betas, because I can rely on them to tell it like it is and not just say what they think I'll want to hear.
I never have to worry about these 3 guys trying to edit my work. They couldn't care less if the grammar or spelling was wrong. They'll tell me "You can't spell worth sh*t, you know that right?" But that's the end of it, they don't try to correct my errors.
I run into the editing problem with my second group of beta readers.
My second group of betas changes all the time, because I will go to a local college and give an English professor a stack of drafts (1 copy each of 15 to 30 stories, depending on how many students in his/her class). The teacher uses the drafts as part of the Creative Writing program. The assignment is to write a review of the story in question. It is intended to promote critical thinking. The students are instructed to write on the printout, any thought that pops into their head as they read it. They are given 15 minutes to read and then 30 minutes to write a review of what they read. The teacher tells them to look at plot and character development and assess them.
At no point are they instructed to edit the draft, the goal is to write a review of the story itself. This assignment leads into a group discussion afterwards, where the students discuss character development and story plots. (I was once a student in this class, now I'm the author providing the stories for it)Students who wish to do so, read the story out loud, then read their review, and than talk about why they thought what they did and the rest of the class debates if they agree of disagree. (it's a 3 hour class).
Well, when I get my drafts back, I get them with the student reviews stapled to the draft, and the reviews vary from one lines "This is stupid" or "I don't get it" or "WOW! Amazing" or "Dude!" Others are long essays detailing absolutely every thought that went through their head. Most are just a single paragraph or two.
However, frequently, these drafts come back edited! The mis-spelled words crossed out, grammar corrected and the grammar rule scrawled into the margin, etc. On these, the paper attached is NEVER a review of the story, plot or characters, but rather a detailed rant about miss-spellings, grammar, and typos, usually stating that they were [i]"unable to concentrate on the story or it's characters because of all the glaring errors that were jumping off the page at me and screaming in my face"[/i] (as one student put it.)
Or "How do you expect me to read this, I can't even tell what it says the spelling is so bad, are you sure a professional author wrote this?" Usually if the student edited the draft, they also wrote a rant about how angry they were over the fact that anyone existed who was so stupid they couldn't spell, and how do such stupid people make it in the world... :o
I sit in on these classes from time to time. The teacher does not tell the students I am the author. Instead the teacher tells the students I am a Education Degree Student, sitting in on a class for a homework assignment, to observe his/her teaching methods. Because they have no clue I'm the one who wrote the stories, they just say the first thing that pops into their head, and for the students hung up on correcting/editing the drafts instead of doing the assignment they were asked to do, they are always justify their lack of doing the assignment, by claiming they were too "morally outraged" over the spelling errors to even consider what the story was saying.
I also noticed a trend: younger students (just out of high school) are less likely to notice the errors and attempt to edit, while the older students (non-traditional college 35+) are LESS likely to review the story and will almost always get hung up on trying to edit it. (This came from observations made in the classes I've sat in on.)
I found this to be very eye opening. Sure they did not do the asignment they were asked to do, but clearly they were deeply upset at being asked to read a rough draft that had not yet gone through the editing process. They are always very vocal in the reasons why they absolutely refused to do the assignment.
Sometimes they get so angry over it that I half expect them to make signs are start marching around the college screaming "No more bad spelling! Death to bad spellers!" Basically they felt offended, as though they were being forced to read something that was beneath them. I found this important, because, it mirrors what I see in book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. People expect to be given good quality work. They expect to be respected enough to not have to read crap. They expect a story to have been edited before they are asked to read it - EVEN if they know it is a first draft they are being asked to beta read!
It always amazes me when a BETA READER gets upset over reading an unedited first draft, because, betas typically read the story before it goes to the editor, BECAUSE the author will use the beta's comments to write up a second draft, one improving on plot errors and character
Sometimes I wonder if I should have stuff edited before I hand it over to betas, but then I realise, I would lose a ton of valuable feedback if I edited before betaing. For example, I might be tempted to let editing slide, had it not been for the open display of vehement hatred for bad spelling, I have seen displayed by some students during those class discussions. I run my stories through 10 rounds of mass edits, as a result of seeing how much readers hate to read badly spelled drafts.
I think of my betas as being the reviews I'd get if my book went to print without them. So, while I don't discourage my betas from editing if they feel they must, I don't encourage it nor do I expect it either, because my editing process is an entirely different round from my betas reading process.I consider betas readers completely separate from editors, which results in my stories getting multiple rounds of eyeballs looking at them. I beta first and edit after because often my betas point out things about characters or plot, which I had not noticed and later during the editing process I end up making changes to the characters and/or plot as a result.
I know some writers expect their betas to edit, and I know some betas think editing is part of the job, but me, all I ask of my betas is "Read it and tell me what you think." Surprisingly, the lack of editing, is often top priority on the opinions of many betas. This tells me something: When it comes to publishing a story you can have bad characters and many readers won't mind if it's a good story, or you can have a bad story so long as the characters are good, but bad editing is not going to fly. Readers can forgive bad characters or bad stories as being artistic license of the author, but they'll never forgive bad grammar and bad spelling. My betas taught me that.
A lot of authors hand their betas a questionnaire as well. I think it works better for email betas, than it does for hard copy betas though. I did a questionnaire thing a couple of times, but I found it less helpful. It resulted in mostly one line comments in answer to the questions, which was okay, but lacked any real useful deep thoughts. The "Tell me what you think about the characters and plot, make note of everything that popped into your head as you read it," seems to work better for me.
oh, and I will point out, obviously, if the stories can be read in 15 minutes of class session, they are typically only 3 to 10 pages long. So, I'm talking about short stories in my own use of betas, not novels, nor collections of short stories. I know there is a time issue for a lot of authors too, most seem to give betas a time period, something like "Get back to me in 2 to 4 weeks on this". It seems to be pretty standard to expect a beta reader to take 2 to 4 weeks to read, review, respond. Every time I see authors/betas saying it takes more than a week to beta, I ask myself "Don't they know this is a business? You can't run a business like that!"
I don't know, I guess I'm one of those people who just expects people to get things done on time. I won't wait around for the laggers. If a beta reader hasn't gotten back to me in a day or 2, I'll not ask them to read again. But still I'm one of those people with a MySpace badge that reads "I read Harry Potter in 72 hours" (nobody uses MySpace anymore, but anybody remember those?) So even with novels, I don't see why there would be a 3 to 4 week time lapse between some betas getting the story and the author getting the response back, especially not with most novels only been half as long as Harry potter was. That seems like a wicked long time lapse to me. Perhaps I'm more of a curmudgeon then other authors, but I won't wait around 4 weeks for a beta reader to respond, and I'd certainly never deal with them again. Time is money, the clock is ticking, every second counts, and well, 4 weeks is long enough to be seen as a set-back in my eyes.
Of course I can understand, if the author has 4 weeks of other stuff to deal with and so gives the betas 4 weeks, yeah, that makes sense. But it seems like usually the time lapse is not the author giving the betas 4 weeks, but rather the betas giving the author the run around and taking 4 weeks for the author to drag a response out of the beta. I've seen blog posts where authors will mention having trouble trouble getting betas to respond, and how they have to keep asking and asking and asking before the beta FINALLY weeks later send a response, along with "Oh, life happened and I didn't have time to read it...." Those are the ones that get me. If life happened, well why didn't they tell the author "I'm sorry, something unexpected happened and it'll be a few weeks before I can read your book, you might want to have another beta take my place this time."
I suppose it could be augued "Well, they are volunteering their time, and they have a life and ..." Yeah, but...they DID volunteer their time, presumably because THEY HAVE FREE TIME TO WASTE, you know, nothing going on in their life to prevent them from reading your story the day they get it and responding withing 2 or 3 days, and if it takes them 4 weeks to find the time to read your draft, seriously, that doesn't sound like somebody who had enough free time on their schedule to volunteer their time. They really have no business telling you they have time to read your story if they don't have time to read it and spend 4 weeks pussyfooting around before they get back to you. I mean, I look at this as, I'm running a business, and I have deadlines to meet, and to make me wait 4 weeks is well, the only word for it is inconsiderate.
If it takes them 4 weeks to read a story and respond, than there's something seriously wrong. I wouldn't trust somebody who lied to me, told me that free time to read and respond and took 4 weeks to get back to me. Once a liir always a liar I say. I don't like being lied to. If they tell me there's a problem, you know somebody's in the hospital or whatever, I'd be like "Okay, you take care of that, let me know when things are back on track."
But than that brings be back to me 3 beta guys...see I pay them to read for me. I have found that volunteer betas, goof off and take long, long, long turnaround times, where as paid betas, it's bam, read, reviewed, and back in my hands in 3 days or less.
I don't pay the college students, because the teachers use this has an in class assignment so they are getting college credits for beta reading, but the 3 guys who are my regular betas, they do get paid. Payment varies and could be $10 per story, or a $10 SubWay gift card, or a gift card to BullMoose Music Store, or I take them to Pizza Hut for dinner, or an all you can eat buffet (and three 20-something guys can eat a lot) or take them to a movie, whatever. Usually it amounts to about $10 in either cash or food or gift cards per guy for every time they beta read a story. Plus they get copies of the final print book as well. So I typically spend $30 per story, to have them read it. Most of the stories I write are 10 printed copy paper pages (25 - 35 published pages) so I pay my 3 regular betas at a rate of $1 per page (about $10 per story). At a story a week, 3 readers a story, that comes out to about $1500+/- a year to have my stories beta read.
I wonder...is it because my betas ARE NOT volunteering, is that the reason they are on the ball and respond to me in only a few hours/days, not weeks? The college students, they don't get credit if they turn the assignment in late, the 3 guys, they don't get a "free meal" if they put off responding. They have an incentive to get back to me quickly, because in essence they are getting paid on some level. So I wonder are betas be more professional and more timely in their responses when the author pays them?
I know a lot of authors don't pay their betas, but I have noticed that those who do, tend to say they get beta results from their betas, so it might be worth looking into paying your betas, if you have trouble getting them to respond in a timely manner.
I will usually run each story through several. I never publish anything until it has gone through at least 5 edits. As many as 10 edits are not unusual for me.
My process goes like this:
It gets beta read, than I rewrite it, than it gets edited via an GrammarChecher software program. Than it goes through yet another program. I have 7 different programs I use and they each find things the others missed.
After this it gets printed up and is given a manual red pen edit on hard copy.
At this point all of the edits were done by me, myself.
After this it is handed to my 3 betas again. They tell me if it's better or not.
Than it gets handed over to a third party editor, who does the actual final edit...which may or may not be the final edit. The last thing to happen is the whole thing gets run through a grammar checker software again.