BetaReading with Google Docs
I’ve done pretty well recruiting a team of volunteer beta readers. Like me, they’re all busy, so out of eleven readers, only two or three can read any piece I send out. One thing that helps me handle the process of sending out and collecting responses is Google Docs (now known as Google Drive). This week, I’ll explain how the shared editing tool works. Even if you’re not a writer, this may be useful to you if you need multiple people to work on a document.
Ye Olde Days
If you remember typewriters or quill pens, calm down, I’m not going that far back. Ten to thirty years ago, computers and word processors came into common usage. As great as that was, we still sent a co-worker a digital file, they printed it and then marked it up with a red pen and eventually returned a paper copy to you. Or worse, they edited their digital copy directly, so now you had your file and their file and had to eyeball the differences to update your version. Now multiply that by the five people on your team and it was a nightmare.
The Google Docs Dream
What a writer needs is one copy, and a way to let others see it, without messing it up or creating extra work figuring out what changes they recommended. The simplest way to that is if the file is online and the word processor let everybody see it, but controlled who could change it, add comments or see it. That’s what Google Docs does.
Get your File into gDocs
Google Drive will let you upload a Word file, but those can’t be simul-edited. You must start a new Google Docs file and copy paste your text. Personally, I do all my writing in Google Docs from scratch. It works. Google Docs is a basic word processor, but I’ve seen and used worse over the last thirty years and it’s nicer than most. The app does get flaky with large files, so I recommend one file per chapter.
Sharing to Readers
I created a group in my Contacts list called BetaReaders in gMail. In Google Docs, I open the file and choose File -> Share or right-click the file and choose Share. A box to type in an email address appears, I type in Beta Readers, which is a lot easier to spell than everybody’s individual email address.
Next to the email address field is an icon for what sharing mode it will use. By default, it is set to Edit. You can find every change somebody makes, but you would have to review the history to realize they made a change. For beta-readers, I change it to Comment. This is all the power they’ll need and you’ll see it works easily for them. Once you click the Send button, that’s it.
I advise making your beta-readers have proper Google accounts (gmail addresses). This enables Google to enforce security to that user. Somebody on Yahoo would get a link that they could send to anybody else. Your file is safe on Google Docs, but in this case why take chances. Note that you can go into the Advanced mode of the Share screen and change permissions for the individuals you shared with, including revoking access.
What a Beta Reader Needs to Know
How the Beta gets a File
The people on the beta-reading list will get an email with a link to the file. If they log into Google Drive, they will see an option on the left called “Shared with Me” which will show them everything current accessible to them. This is handy later if they lose track of the email.
While reading your manuscript, your reader will find a mistake or have a concern about a passage. Highlight the block of text. A little + button will appear on the right margin. Click it to reveal a comment box. The comment box appears off the page to the right. Here you can type what you want to say about the highlighted passage. Click the Comment button to complete it. Don’t worry, you can deleted it via the triple dot menu on the comment box.
You can also reply to existing comments. This means that if Meagan says it’s confusing who is speaking, Erin can reply and agree with her. This feature helps one reader point out a concern and other readers can discuss it. That’s handy if Nicole didn’t think it was a problem, but now that Meagan mentioned it, she can see the point.
Making Correction Suggestions
I love this feature. If I made a typo, you can put your cursor in place and backspace and type the correct spelling. Google will cross out my word and display yours. It will also put a special comment box connected to it in the right side zone. Which you can reply to and lecture me on why the correct spelling is so much better. The good news is, unlike direct editing mode, it’s not permanent and I’ll be able to see in the text and comment zone what’s going on.
Back to the Writer
Getting the Results Back
After a few hours of the reader making comments, the document owner (me) gets an email summarizing the comments and edits suggestions. I can reply in that email, but I don’t recommend that. It’s better to see the comments in the manuscript and see it in context. So I open the file and scroll to where the comments are. I can reply to add my thoughts or clarification to comments. I can click the Resolve button to make the comment disappear, but I advise holding off on that.
For edit suggestions, I can click and Accept or Reject button. It is possible that my spelling was correct and the reader was wrong. Either way, this is so easy to get technical corrections found and dealt with.
Dealing with Comments
I could click the Resolve button soon after reading the comments. But then the beta reader has no idea if I took their advice or not. I don’t like to do that. Because I write in Google Docs, my file is a living record of writing and revising. Unless I delete or completely rewrite a passage so the original comment had to be removed, I don’t Resolve comments until the end. If you thought a passage was slow, I want it to say that, so on subsequent reads, somebody can say that due to the changes I made, they don’t get that feeling. It’s also my way of showing that even if I replied and said I disagreed with something, their comment is going to stick around and remind me to reconsider until I’m ready to ship it off. Keeping those comments around also enables the next reader to think about what was raised and chime in.
Google keeps a log of every change that’s been made to the file. That’s helpful if you want to rewind or identify a specific change you made last month. For managing different drafts, sometimes that’s not enough. I try to stick to a single file when I am just writing and revising. But sometimes, I reach a point where I am going to drastically change the manuscript. This usually means rewriting large passages, deleting old passages and then modifying the remaining text. I worry about whether I’ll like it better than the old version. That’s when I make a copy and disable sharing on the old version so beta-readers don’t keep reading something I may never use again.
For a story or book, I’ll make a directory with the name or initials of the title followed by a _V1 for version one. When I make that new draft copy, it gets changed to _V2. THe file inside for the story gets the same treatment. For chapter files, they get an additional suffix of CH1 for chapter one. For example, the Wizard of Houston novel I am working on would look like WoH1_V2_CH1 for the rewrite I started on chapter 1.
It’s a little cryptic, but it helps me keep things straight, while retaining older separate versions.
Final Tips For Beta-Reading Management
Recruit people who seem likely to read and give honest, pointed feedback (not just praise)
Expect that availability to read right when a file is done varies
Tell them what you are looking for, especially for early draft which have the most typos and need that fixed the least
Make sure they know how to use Google Docs (by sending this article link to them)
Give them a reasonable deadline for when you need a response. Those who can will aim to help you.
Work on revisions within Google Docs, so your betas see things are changing, this makes them feel their effort was well considered
Don’t leap to disagree with feedback, leave it open for consideration
Let betas know when they’ve raised something you missed, this is why they’re reading for you.
Thank your beta readers, early and often
I have a rule to have multiple reasons for doing something. This article has been on my to-do list for the blog for some time. But also it helps explain to new betas how to use Google docs, in case some are not familiar with it. It also helps several in my writing guild, who want to get beta readers, and might not know how to manage it all. I hope it also helps you, even if you’re just needing to coordinate working on a research paper for school or a project document for work.
PS. Thanks to my Beta Readers Nicole, Meagan, Erin, Natasha, Tenille, Kat, Katie, Chelsea, Renee, Sally and my wife for helping me improve my writing and looking forward to better works to come!