So, a few weeks back, I blogged about what I was thinking of doing next. As usual, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. I haven’t got as far along editing my old military space opera as I’d like (though I’m enjoying it), partially because I took two weeks of to write a cozy mystery novelette for my wife (Valentine’s present), and now due to the intervention of two wonderful examples of what is an amazing class of person: beta readers.
What would we do without beta readers, those lovely people who offer to read your unfinished manuscript and give you feedback on the experience? These are the unsung heroes of the writing world, the testers, the guinea pigs, the first hurdle – avoid them at your peril (I do wonder about some of the Freebies I’ve just read!). Even though many writers would say they write “for themselves”, every story clearly has to face readers at some point, and this quality of this first contact is important for its future.
It’s not just for indies, either. Look in any published book and I’m sure you’ll find lists of beta readers, even if they aren’t called that. It might be as part of a writing group, in may be friends and family, but beta readers are a vital part of writing, and if you aren’t taking advantage of them, you are probably doing it wrong.
What writers need
The basic question that writers want to know about a virgin story is, does it work? This may be about specific things, or overall, but the writer needs to know if this thing they’ve birthed actually functions in the way they intended. The best answer you can hope for is probably an “almost”, and that’s what you want. A book can always get better, after all.
The beta reader needs to flag up anything that confused, annoyed, or frustrated them; but also what amused, delighted or surprised them. Obviously, personal taste will play a role here, so both beta and author have to take that into account. Choosing a beta reader is very important: someone you respect, someone you can trust, and someone who likes the sort of book that you think yours is.
The writer wants an indication of how readers will receive the book. This means honesty is important, harsh truths if necessary, but hopefully some positives and praise as well. Specific examples will be important, but the overall sense is usually what we’re after.
What writers don’t want
Obviously, they don’t want to hear the story sucks – but if it does, they probably need to. What writers really don’t need is too many suggestions. “I would do it this way…” is not the point, though I know it’s hard to hold back sometimes, especially if you are a writer. They don’t want to be lectured on “how to write”, either, because there is no one way.
A beta reader isn’t an editor, as tempting as it is for an indie to use them like one. They don’t need to catch typos and grammatical errors, but if they notice some patterns they should probably let you know. Neither do they have to do an in-depth literary analysis or critique – that’s not how most readers are going to approach a book.
How writers should respond
First, you don’t need to change everything they say. The next beta reader or editor might want it all changed back, after all! But you do need to question why these things might have come up, and whether some adjustment is needed. If they say there are major issues, there’s probably a good reason for it – and hopefully the writer suspected as much before sending it out.
The worst response from a writer is, obviously, a refusal to listen. This can be either no response at all, or an argumentative one. A beta reader doesn’t want each of their points refuted, nor do they want radio silence. You asked them for help, after all, so give what they say a fair shake, even if you disagree.
How to find beta readers
This is often the hardest part, and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Family and friends are often a starting point, but they may not read the right sort of book, or be removed enough to give you that critical feedback. Some people may know a local writing group that will help, but if not there are always online communities.
Helpful internet communities may just be writing- or book-related, or actually set up around critiques. Posting work on-line is much easier with short work or scenes, and you can learn a lot from that – for a while. Critique groups may also introduce you people willing to read more of your work, and you can judge from your interactions whether they might be the sort of beta reader you need.
Otherwise, just keep making connections. Don’t try to foist your book on people at every opportunity, but make sure the invitation is out there. As I said, I got really lucky in the last few months that people I knew and respected offered to help me out – and it’s given a huge boost to my writing.
I’d had a few beta readers before, but they just weren’t that responsive or insightful – though they were dealing with rougher drafts, as well – so I was not sure where next to go. I knew the book needed more feedback, and it’s a lot to ask of someone to read an 165,000-word unpolished manuscript when there are so many good books out there.
Then again, I’ve beta read a few times, and I got a huge kick out of it. There’s something exciting about reading a book that no-one has ever seen before. It may be a bit of a hot mess, but there’s often so much raw creativity and excitement there as well. Knowing you can be part of the evolution of the book, turning it into something better, is a great feeling. Experience with reading critically like that also helps a lot in your own writing.
If anyone out there wants to give it a try, I’ve got a couple books you’re welcome to read – and I’m always happy to beta read as well, when I have time.