You may have heard about these mysterious creatures known as beta readers. What are they? How do you find one? What do they do? Here are a few thoughts on the subject from someone who’s used them and been one.
What is a beta reader?
Someone who reads your story at some point after you draft it and before you send it out into the world. Don’t get hung up on definitions, names and at what stage they read it. It’s not like it’s an official job title with accreditations or something. There is no one specific point the beta should read your story. Some beta readers might read very early drafts, others only see it late in the process when it’s nearly ready to submit.
What a beta reader is not.
They are not your editor. That’s a different deal – for one thing an editor is usually getting paid by someone. Some betas may actually be editors, or working on becoming one, and give you something close to a pro edit, but they’re still in a different relationship with you than a paid editor who has no reason to pull their punches. Beta readers tend to give you the truth a bit more diplomatically.
How do you find beta readers?
It’s not easy and there are no shortcuts. Okay, some people seem to hook up with a beta quickly on writers forums, but that seems very hit and miss to me. I mean this is your novel you’re going to be trusting to them. You don’t want them to hurt it. It can take years, building up a relationship with someone you’re simpatico with, perhaps in a critique group, online or offline, and then starting to work together in a more intense critique partnership. Some people are fine with these more casual beta relationship, but a long lasting one takes a while to build.
Critique groups versus beta readers.
Critique groups can perform come of the same functions, and they can be a good place to start for an inexperienced writer. The writer can get a lot of varied critique and learn to sift it and apply what’s useful. But groups are tricky beasts. Any group of writers (a species as generally social as cats and as easy to herd) will have a lot of politics, axes to grind and competing agendas going on. There can be people who are there only to show off, or who secretly enjoy tearing other writers down. You can’t pick and choose who’s in the group unless you run it. Groups can be good, but they give you something different than a beta.
So what does a beta reader do?
That will depend on what they’re good at, what you want of them and what stage the manuscript is at. With an early draft you might only want big picture issues of plot and pacing, character arcs and structure. For a later draft you might be looking for a grammar nit-picker who can spot all those final typos and suggest more effective words and language. Tricky thing is that they are not often the same person.
One beta or several?
Having just one means you’re reliant on only one opinion. On the other hand having several means you get contradictory opinions and don’t know which one to act on. But a range of betas is also good, because they will have different strengths. Some people can home in on typos and make great proof stage readers. Others can zero in on that pesky plot hole that breaks your plot and they’re better for looking at early drafts. Yet others may have specialist knowledge on say horses, or sailing or guns or something. They might not know a three act structure from a hole in the ground or the proper use of semi colons – but they do know your heroine fired more bullets than that model of gun actually holds. And if someone doesn’t spot that before publication you can bet your advance on someone spotting it later.
Who are the best beta readers?
Many people’s beta readers are fellow writers, and they exchange manuscripts to beta for each other. I think this is a great arrangement. For one thing doing beta work makes a writer a better editor of their own work. For another there’s less pressure for what you send to be perfect. You can send a fellow writer an early draft that’s a bit rough, because they’re used to reading first drafts – their own. Where even the most avid reader is generally only used to reading polished published prose and will be too distracted by the rough parts to see the potential of the story and give you useful feedback to take into the rest of your editing. (That’s not to say you should ever send something riddled with misspellings to a beta. At least have the courtesy to run a spell check and clean up a bit!)
How do you know if a beta reader is any good?
Ask yourself if the comments they give back are geared towards making your story the most effective version of that type of story it can be. A spookier ghost story, a more thrilling thriller. Many people when critiquing will basically try to make you turn the story into the type of story they like more. They can identify something as a problem simply because it doesn’t conform to what’s usually needed in a different type of story. Or they’ll give you how they would write it, not how you can write it better. This is because critique is hard! Do it yourself and you soon find that out. A good beta can put aside their own preferences.
Do you have to have a beta reader?
Not if you don’t want to. You might want to work on your own for a while, then try a group, before finally getting into the more intense work with a beta. A new writer might have a lot of issues to work on, and the amount of work a beta gives them back could send a sensitive soul scuttling back under their rock never to emerge again. But it’s good to get to the stage of using a beta eventually. If nothing else because it’s a sort of training course for later working with an editor. That’s even more intense, but if you’ve had a good beta you’ve learned how to handle criticism without being destroyed by it, or taking it personally and throwing a wobbly about it, and how to take suggestions and work with them to improve your story.
Stop worrying beta readers are going to steal your work!
As a final point, this! It’s something I see on message boards where new writers gather, such as the NaNoWriMo boards. They ask the seemingly quite reasonable question “If I send my book to a beta reader couldn’t they just steal it and publish it as theirs?” Technically, yes. But unlikely as long as you’re not sanding it randomly to some person who’s funnily enough got 300+ books on KDP, in like 45 different genres and is publishing them at the rate of three a week. They might be a tad dodgy. I’m going to expand on the risk of plagiarism in a later post, but generally, the beta reader is not one of the likely culprits.
Dedicated to my beta readers Star, Teresa and Kay who’ve helped me loads over the years!