Cleaning up the Story Trail for Beta Readers

The Pen is Mightier than the Chain Saw


Offering the Paint Brush

Our discussion today is about clean-up editing and preparing for beta reading. We’ll start with an analogy, then go off on a tangent.

Our brains are wired to think in terms of analogies, at least mine is. Analogy is defined as a “comparison between two things for purposes of explanation or clarification.” Whenever I come across a new concept, I compare it to something I already know, looking for similarities and differences. I add that concept to my knowledge as another layer, and hope that my knowledge will continue to grow.

Recently two things hit my brain at the same time, and the boys in the basement went to work. When I woke at my typical 2:00 am hypomanic insomniac moment, the time the boys usually let me know what they’ve come up with, I discovered they had been working on something I had not assigned to them—cleaning up the forest trail and preparing my rough draft for beta reading. Two wildly different things, right? I was surprised, but I listened.

I had just finished the rough draft of my WIP, and was hurrying to get it ready for beta readers, so they could work on it during spring break. I had also just surveyed the mess in the forest trail behind our house. The February snow had finally melted, and I could see what I had to clean up.

The boys argued that cleaning up the trail was a good analogy to pre-beta editing. The small branches that could be tossed to the side were similar to easy fixes, spelling and punctuation. Larger branches that needed a cut or two with the chainsaw so they could be moved were similar to larger fixes such as sentence structure and better word choices.

The big branches that needed to be cut up and stacked for firewood were like scenes and paragraphs that needed to be reworked. And finally, the entire trees that had fallen on the trail during the winter, and would require a tractor and chain, lots of cutting, and then splitting, were like whole scenes and chapters that needed to be removed.

On the addition (vs. removal) side, “washouts,” where heavy rain had removed dirt and part of the trail, requiring front-end loader work with the tractor to borrow dirt from elsewhere, were like plot holes in the story that needed new scenes or chapters.

Well, I agreed with them, and thought maybe this could be a subject for a blog post, looking for analogies for our editing. But something told me it wasn’t significant enough. There wasn’t enough meat on that bone.

As I was finishing the preparation for beta reading, I had some new thoughts, even without help from the boys. And this is the tangent we’ll explore today.

But, before we depart on our tangent, I want to reference a great article on beta reading, “15 Questions for Your Beta Readers.” This article can be found in the archives of this blog site, but here’s a link. The author, Jodie Renner, is an editor and former blogger here at TKZ. Other great posts on beta reading can be found by using the search box at the top right.

So, now for the tangent. In my final preparations for uploading my manuscript to the beta reading site ( I realized that I didn’t have to work so hard. I could ask the beta readers to do some of the work for me. Actually, I came up with some ideas to motivate the beta readers to read and comment. We’ll call them “Tom Sawyer Paint Brush Techniques.”

  1. Chapter Titles. I know thrillers don’t usually have chapter names, but in middle-grade fantasy the readers expect some imaginative and creative titles. I usually don’t name chapters until my rough draft is finished, using the chapter name prior to that only as a reminder to me of what is in that chapter. On previous books, where I thought I had chosen good titles, some of the beta readers had better ideas, and let me know. So, this time, as I began to brain storm, I suddenly realized, why name the chapters? Let the beta readers come up with some name suggestions.
  2. Dangling Plot Threads – the gun above the mantle that has been shown, but not fired. I discovered a thread I had placed but never used, a broken necklace left behind by a victim when she was sucked into an alternate world. I was preparing to remove all evidence of my dementia, when I realized, why not challenge the betas to find a way to use that broken amulet?
  3. Secondary Characters of Borderline Significance. I was about to remove all traces of a secondary character, a dog, that had emotional value, but questionable plot significance. By now, the lights were coming on in this old brain, and I asked, why don’t we give the betas a vote? To stay or not to stay.

I realize I will receive some advice I don’t agree with. That’s always the case with beta reading, but with a few simple questions, I might get more options, and will learn what is popular with potential readers. And most importantly, can we make the beta reading experience more interesting by engaging the reader in helping create the story, enough that the reader will agree to read the next book. (Or even read previous books.)

So now, Dear Reader and Dear Writer, it’s your turn:


  1. Do you use beta readers in your editing process?
  2. How do you pick the readers, and how many is the ideal number?
  3. What questions, beyond what Jodie proposed in her article, do you ask of your readers?
  4. What ideas have you discovered (or even thought of today) for motivating beta readers (beyond the thank-you and rewards at the end of the process)?
  5. And if you want to share some better analogies for the editing process, comparisons better than my lame “cleaning up the trail” analogy, I’m sure my boys in the basement won’t be offended. They may even refer it up to the “girls in the attic.”
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About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

26 thoughts on “Cleaning up the Story Trail for Beta Readers

  1. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for a brilliant post. I loved the analogy you presented as well as your takedown of the analogy concept itself. I’m a chainsaw guy myself. There are very few problems that can’t be resolved with the proper application of a chainsaw.

    One question: did you get that chainsaw at Lowe’s?

    I’m off to print this one — if I can get the thing working — and display it prominently. Maybe at several prominentlys. Thanks again, and have a great weekend cleaning out the brush both outside and inside!

  2. Good morning, Joe. And thanks. I bought the chainsaw at a local small engine shop. It’s a Stihl. I believe Lowes sells Husqvarna, which is a comparable brand. I think the Stihl is “still” the best. I hadn’t thought about this until now, but chainsaws could be as useful in thrillers as in the horror genre.

    Have a great weekend. Be careful what you cut.

    • A Stihl! Oh, my goodness! My husband and I used to own a sawmill and had a woodscrew and we used Stihl’s! Before that, we used a McCullochs–that’s when that’s all they made.

      Oh, and I found your post really helpful and if I ever have time for beta readers before my deadline, I’ll know what to ask them to look for!

      • Thanks, Patricia. It brings back memories, doesn’t it. When I was young, I remember my father using a McCulloch. But what is a woodscrew, besides the hardware for holding wood together?

        Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Like your chainsaw analogy, Steve. I once had a drunk buddy show up at 3 am and chainsaw my front door down. His was a Pioneer, if I remember correctly. True story, but the details are for another time.

    I don’t use beta readers any more. I found that half to three quarters never replied to an ARC, and those who I waited around for never really contributed to improving it. I think there’s a place in the writing path where confidence grows to the point that you’re comfortable with shipping it – once an editor/proofreader who really knows their stuff says it’s good to go.

    My experience on this indie trail is that building a backlist is the key to keep traveling – betas seem to fall more trees in front of you and slow you down.

    • Thanks, Garry. That would be quite the “knock at the door.” Good advice on betas. I’ve been fortunate (writing middle-grade fantasy) that students are often eager to get involved and learn about publishing. And if they don’t know you, they can be brutally honest. I’m hoping that working with different schools and teachers to find their best readers will also increase future readers.

  4. I like the analogy (and I’m not an analogy person). I’ve used beta readers off and on. My critique partners guide me through the book, chapter by chapter, but it’s nice to have that “all at once” impression. I’ve had mixed results with them, but I haven’t expended much energy in recruiting them to form a decent stable of reliable readers. Not that I haven’t meant to. I do give them questions, usually about characterization, pacing, and the dreaded continuity issues. I’ve never (not saying it’s a good thing) had a ‘leave or cut this thread/character’? question.

    • Thanks, Terry. Good point about the importance of a critique group. Your comment makes me realize that a beta reading group will be more important if your target audience is such that (ex. different age) a critique group wouldn’t work. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Steve, great analogies! Love the Tom Sawyer approach. My critique group whitewashes large parts of my novels for me. Hadn’t thought of using betas for that purpose and will in the future. In business, we call that “delegating.”

    IMHO, the more betas the betta (groan). Six to twelve is my range–a mix of writers and readers who are not writers. The writers answer the structural questions and suggest fixes. The readers react to what works or doesn’t work emotionally and where the pacing drags.

    With a series, each book must work as a standalone, even though there are continuing characters and evolving relationship arcs. For that reason, I always find at least one beta who’s a completely new, cold reader not familiar with prior books. I ask that person: does the story feel complete and self-contained? Are relationships clear? When there are references to events in previous books, are they understandable? Do references to prior books make the reader want to go back and read them?

    I always include betas in the acknowledgements page (usually first names only for their privacy) and give them a signed copy of the paperback.

    Beta reading is also reciprocal. I’m glad to read manuscripts by people who’ve been generous enough to read mine.

    Thanks for a terrific post, Steve.

    • Thanks, Debbie. Those are great points about betas. I like your idea of mixing writers and readers in the group. I learned the hard way about making each book in the series a standalone. I hurried to get my current book up on the website for betas so they could read over spring break. I normally would have done another week or two of editing. Yesterday, I saw that I was getting a lot of comments about references to previous books that were not explained, so I made the first three books free (ebooks) on Amazon for five days. Live and learn.

      My rule of three: I have to do it wrong the first three times before I finally learn.

      I do exactly what you are doing for rewards.

      Thanks for your great comments.

  6. Steve, I tried to relate to your chainsaw analogy, but kept seeing a guy in a mask holding one.

    I’m reminded of the joke about the guy who buys land with a bunch of trees, and goes to the hardware store. The clerk sells him a new chainsaw, which he says can clear ten trees a day. A week later the guy comes back and complains that the chainsaw doesn’t work. He’s only halfway through one tree! The clerks takes the chainsaw and pulls the starter rope. RMMMMM! And the guy says, “What’s that noise?”

    I have a valuable set of beta readers whom I have nurtured over the years. I wouldn’t think of publishing without their feedback. Several sets of eyes pick up different issues. You don’t necessarily want other writers for this…good readers are more apt to hit the things that matter to other readers.

    • Thanks, Jim, for your comments. Loved the chainsaw joke. I’ll use that on my buddies when they complain about how little they get done.

      It’s interesting that all writers have different takes on beta readers. It would seem to me that the closer the betas are to our target audience, the better. But, then, we may have learned that specific readers are “specialists” in specific areas. My wife always lets me know if the ending doesn’t “resonate.”

  7. Happy Saturday, Steve. Love your analogies here. One I sometimes use is the ancient one of untangling the Gordian knot of plot problems. I find beta readers essential-they aren’t so much the sword of Alexander, but rather they give me the insight I was missing to untangle a thorny plot or staging problem by cutting through tangles of my own knotty thinking.

    I find beta readers essential. I have a “team” of six to ten people, which usually include one to three writers along with the readers. These are people either I knew or who were friends of friends, which could be a friend of one of my beta readers. My wife is a beta reader for me, as well as a copy editor in a pinch.

    Love Jodie’s questions and use a version of them with mine.. Aside–I happened to be a beta reader for her book, Captivate Your Readers and I certainly found her list of questions for we betas to be enormously helpful.

    I add, “were your expectations fulfilled, or thwarted by the storyline?”

    Thanks for a very helpful post. Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Dale. A belated Happy Birthday to you. Loved your Gordian knot analogy. In areas outside writing and plots, a verbal discussion with my wife often applies the sword of Alexander, as I slap my forehead with my palm.

      I find I get the most honest (most brutal) feedback from betas when they don’t know me.

      Have a great weekend!

    • And an excellent beta reader you were, Dale! As were Steve Hooley and Tom Combs. You all provided thoughtful, very helpful observations and advice. Thanks! 🙂

  8. I was never in a situation where beta readers were readily available, but I did trade pages with other writers who were beta readers on steroids. I’m too much of a perfectionist to send something that isn’t ready to send to an editor to anyone so I’d never use a beta reader of any type to clean up my mess, but that’s me.

    • Thanks for your comments, Marilynn. Good points. I was caught with my recent beta reading “experiment,” sending it out too soon, so that it would fit it into someone else’s schedule. I’ve learned my lesson.

      When, in your opinion, if you had betas available, would be the most useful time (rough draft to completely edited manuscript) to get beta feedback?

  9. Excellent post, Steve! And as always, the TKZ regulars are adding some excellent tips garnered from personal experience – the best kind!

    • Thanks, Jodie. And thanks for stopping by. Your great books on editing have helped many of us. I keep your list of 15 Questions handy when I’m working with a new group of beta readers.

      I hope all your projects are going well! Have a great weekend!

  10. Great post, Steve! I love analogies — I think of them as my little brain assistants. 🙂

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s beta reader opinions. Like Debbie Burke, I use about 10-12 beta readers. They are all very intelligent people, about half authors and half readers. The authors are not necessarily in my genre. They are from different areas of the country and split about 2/3 women to 1/3 men.

    For my first novel, I didn’t ask specific questions, just asked them to give me whatever feedback they had. For the second novel, I sent a short questionnaire that was focused on the emotional content of the story. Did the story keep their interest? Did they identify with a particular character? Since my books are mysteries, I asked if they were satisfied with the mystery and the final reveal. Did they have suggestions for improvements? I received suggestions from some readers that caused me to make positive changes in the last draft of the manuscript.

    I acknowledge the beta readers in the published book and send a signed copy to each one.

    Oh, and thanks for pointing us to Jodie Renner’s excellent post. I read through it and bookmarked it for future reference.

    • Thanks, Kay. And thanks for your feedback on the way you handle beta reading. It’s interesting how different the approaches to beta reading are between various writers, but then I guess that’s the way it is with a lot of the components of writing fiction.

      Thanks for stopping by, and have a great weekend.

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