Things to check for before submitting to a beta reader #amwriting

When we finish writing a story, an article, or a novel, we feel a rush of pride. The urge to immediately send it to a magazine or contest is strong, but the wise author must overcome it.

Don’t even show it to your writing group at this stage, because you are too involved in it, and there may be some awkward flaws that were introduced into the narrative during the rush of creation. You want their feedback to be constructive and not focused on the editable flaws.

Set your manuscript aside for a week or so then come back to it and look for

  1. Dropped or missing words.
  2. Words that spell check won’t find because they are spelled correctly but are wrong: They went their for breakfast.
  3. Extra spaces in odd places, and after sentences. Editors want one (1) space after each sentence.
  4. The paragraphs are indented, NOT WITH TABS, but by formatting the paragraphs correctly.

Tabs >.< I feel it’s important to revisit this subject, as I have recently seen two manuscripts where authors used the tab key to indent their paragraphs.

That is a huge no-no, and screams “never done this before.” Ninety percent of publications and publishing houses want electronic submissions. Too many spaces messes up the final formatting. For this reason, make sure you have removed the tabs. You may have to do it by hand which is a daunting task no publisher or editor has time for.

You want your work to look professional, even if you are only submitting it to your writing group for a critique. Always format the paragraphs by either opening the home tab and choosing ‘normal’ from the styles tab on the ribbon OR format by using the simple formatting tool:

Step 1: On the home tab, look in the group labeled ‘Paragraph.’ On the lower right-hand side of that group is a small grey square. Click on it.  A pop-out menu will appear, and this is where you format your paragraphs.

Step 2: On the indents and spacing tab of the menu: Use standard alignment, align LEFT. The reason we use this format is we are not looking at a finished product here. We are looking at a rough draft that will be sliced, diced, and otherwise mutilated many times before we get to the final product.

Step 3: Indentation: leave that alone or reset both numbers to ‘0’ if you have inadvertently altered it.

Step 4: Where it says ‘Special’: on the drop-down menu select ‘first line.’ On the ‘By’ menu, select ‘0.5.’ (Some publishers will specify a different number, 0.3 or 0.2, but 0.5 is standard.)

Step 5: ‘Spacing’: set both before and after to ‘0.’

Step 6: ‘Line Spacing’: set to ‘double.’

To summarize, standard paragraph format has:

  • margins of 1 inch all the way around
  • indented paragraphs with no extra space between
  • double-spaced text
  • Align Left. This is critical.

Do not justify the text. In justified text, the spaces between words, and letters (known as “tracking”) are stretched or compressed. Justified text aligns with both the left and right margins. It gives you straight margins on both sides, but this type of alignment only comes into play when a manuscript is published, and at that point, the publisher will handle the formatting.

Also, I have two things for you to look for before you submit your work to a beta reader or writing group, much less a prospective agent or publisher.

First up: Dialogue.

  1. Make sure every spoken sentence is enclosed in double quotes. All punctuation goes INSIDE the closed quotes, and quoted dialogue is enclosed in single quotes, ALSO inside the closed quotes.

Good: “I’m sorry, Mary. Your punctuation is horrific. Jake said, ‘I won’t accept it,’” said Helen.

When using dialogue tags, the spoken sentence ends in a comma, inside the closed quotes, followed by the dialogue tag which is NOT CAPITALIZED.

Bad: “I’m sorry, Mary. Your punctuation is horrific. Jake said, ‘I won’t accept it.’” Said Helen.

Good: “I’m sorry, Mary. Your punctuation is horrific. Jake said, ‘I won’t accept it,’” said Helen.

Next up: Commas. If you have a basic grip on commas, perfection is not needed. But commas separate clauses and act as traffic signals for our words.

  1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

Good: My dog has fleas, and he needs to go to the vet.

Do not join dependent clauses to independent clauses with commas.

Good: My dog has fleas and needs to go to the vet.

Avoid comma splices at all cost. Use conjunctions or semicolons to join related independent clauses, not commas.

Bad: My dog has fleas, he needs to go to the vet.

Good: My dog has fleas, and he needs to go to the vet. OR if you absolutely must use a semicolon, write it as, My dog has fleas; he needs to go to the vet.

By searching for these simple errors before you submit your work,there’s a good chance that an editor will read beyond the first page.

Even if you intend to hire an editor, if you have these sorts of major amateurish flaws in your work, the editor will most likely refuse to take on the task of editing your work, as it would be too difficult to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

If I receive a request from a prospective client to edit a manuscript, and a glance through the first few chapters shows a clear lack of knowledge of how to write, my policy is to refuse it. The author owes it to herself, and the craft in general, to learn how to write.

In these instances, I am always gentle, but firm. I usually suggest the author join a writing group and invest in some books on writing craft. Many times, I see wonderful, amazing stories that are so poorly written no editor would take them.

It’s important to remember that we all begin at that place. With practice and feedback from others, we grow. These first drafts of our writing life are the beginner stories, the ones that come from the heart and which we learn from. I have a desk full of examples of “What was I thinking?” Each one of those stories had great bones. They are the foundation of all my work.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Things to check for before submitting to a beta reader #amwriting

  1. Good advice. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Quick note: No need to remove tabs manually. To remove tabs from a manuscript in Word or most word-processing programs, open the “Find” box (under “Edit” in Word). In the “Find” field, type in ^t. Then click “Replace.” In this field, my advice is to type nothing. One click on “Replace all” will remove every tab. That will leave you with no indents, however; so, even better: use the instructions in this article to create a “Style,” select your whole manuscript (or a chapter at a time), and “Apply” your new style. Styles are powerful and can be formatted any way you like!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On quotation marks: it is also correct to use singles as default and doubles for quotes within quotes. This seems more logical and economical. Both systems have their own anomalies, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is accepted UK (Oxford) Style, and which style an author uses is personal preference. The important thing is consistency–never mix the two styles. As I am American, I use Chicago Style.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I forgot to add: never mix and match. Thanks for the addendum. I have edited books using both styles and have to stay alert. The worst was (twice) when I had books with two personal POVs switching between Europe and America!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Stephen Swartz

    ‘A gentle reminder, as “we” say, that the Brits are all “backwards and reversed” when it comes to the quotation marks.’

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  5. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Connie Jasperson informs us about things to check before submitting to a beta reader. Thank you, Connie.

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  6. Thank you for such good advice. However, I think I read somewhere that the inverted commas for dialogue and quotes is the opposite in British English.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello! It is indeed the opposite of US usage, and when editing for UK clients, I refer to a little book called the “Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation” by John Seely, if I have any questions regarding style. I highly recommend it as it is small and not too expensive.

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