Have you heard the term “beta reader”? If so, you might be wondering: what is a beta reader?
Answer: Every author needs feedback from people who read their book BEFORE it’s published, and those people are called beta readers. (I guess the author is the alpha reader.)
Why do you need beta readers?
When you write a book mostly you know what you’re trying to say, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve actually said it, or that you’ve said it in a way that someone else can understand. When you read it back, you know what it means, because you wrote it, and you can never read it the way someone who doesn’t already know what it’s saying will read it. It’s quite possible that what you’ve written does not come across to your readers the way you thought it would.
There is only one way to find out if you’ve said what you thought you said, and that’s to get someone (preferably several someones) to read it for you and give you feedback. This is what a beta reader does.
They also give you feedback on the story, characters, dialogue and anything else you ask them to look at. Because they’ve never read it before, they’ll see things about it that you can’t see because you’re just too close to it.
What is a beta reader’s role?
A beta reader’s role is to make your book better. Sometimes you think you know what your story is about, but actually you haven’t thought it through enough so the plot doesn’t quite hang together. It hangs together for you, but only someone else can tell you that it doesn’t quite work for a reader. Only someone else will see the plot holes that have escaped your notice.
Sometimes you haven’t developed a theme or character or scene strongly enough for it to come across to the reader in the way that you want it to. You see it a certain way in your mind and you assume that the reader will see the same thing; only a reader can tell you that they don’t see what you see.
Sometimes you’ve written some beautiful passages or chapters that don’t move the story forward. They may say a lot about a character or their past, or be a lovely interaction, but they don’t really have much to do with the actual story. All they do is slow the story down. You may have whole scenes that are beautiful but basically irrelevant. You probably won’t see this because you love them so much, so you need someone else to point them out to you.
You need to know all these things before you finalise your book, and it’s much easier for someone other than you to see them than it is for you to see them yourself.
How to get the best out a beta reader
When you ask someone to read your work, I suggest that you take the attitude that their criticisms will help you to make your book better. You should look forward to their criticism and understand that the harsher they seem, the better your book will be when you have fixed the problems. It’s better to have the criticism before it’s published than afterwards when it’s too late to fix it.
This is why the best beta readers are the most critical and I always tell mine to be very critical and not to feel that they will hurt my feelings. Here are my suggestions for the kind of things you can ask them to look at.
- If you lose interest, please stop reading and I’ll send you a revised edition later. Tell me where I lost you.
- In general, does the story/plot work? Is there anywhere where it wanders or seems irrelevant to the central story line?
- Does the story move fast enough? Tell me where you think it’s too slow or too fast.
- Are there any scenes or sections that make you want to skip ahead?
- Is the beginning engaging? Does it make you want to read on? If not, why? Do you have any suggestions for improvement?
- Were any of the sections too slow? Were you bored? Where? Any idea why you felt this way?
- Did you like the characters? Why, why not? Were their motivations clear and their actions and dialogue realistic? Were the changes in point of view clear?
- What did you think of the ending? Was the story tied up satisfactorily?
It’s important to find at least one really good beta reader
One good beta reader is better than seven who pat you on the back and say, “Well done,” or who give vague feedback. The best beta readers are the most critical and the most specific in their criticism. They write notes on the manuscript as they go through, so you know exactly where the problems are.
The very best, and the rarest, beta readers make suggestions as to how you might improve the story. They become someone you can bounce ideas off. It’s easy to pick out the problems, not so easy to know how to fix them. Someone with that kind of skill is gold to an author. If you don’t know someone like that who will do it for you for free, then pay them. You can’t afford not to. And though some places charge huge amounts for them, you can also get them quite cheaply.
Once money comes into getting feedback, a beta read becomes a manuscript appraisal, but the intention is the same—to make your book better. Choose an appraiser with good references. Editors and reviewers who are also authors generally make the best beta readers, but pay most attention to what other authors say about them. Did their book improve after working with the appraiser?
Can’t find a beta reader?
If you can’t find one good beta reader, then click here to download my FREE Novel Revision Checklist. (You’ll also get fortnightly articles on writing sent to your inbox.) It’s not as good as contacting me for a low cost manuscript appraisal, but it will help you analyse your book for weaknesses. Best is to work through the Revision Checklist and then contact me and ask me me to do an appraisal. Don’t forget that no matter how much work you do on your book alone, you can never see what someone else will see in your work, and money spent on a professional is never wasted.
Good feedback can save your book from disaster
I had some terrific beta readers read You Can’t Shatter Me, but even after I’d fixed all the problems they had pointed out, my super-critical husband slammed the middle chapters—and I’m really glad he did.
He said he loved the first half and hated the second half (yes, he was that blatant; if you don’t divorce your critical spouse, it helps you develop a thick skin) so we looked at the crucial middle chapters and worke2d out what was wrong with them. One of my other readers had said that that part was a little fuzzy and needed to be tightened, but even after I thought I’d done that, according to hubby, it just wasn’t working.
I discovered that I was skirting around the real guts of what I was trying to say. I hadn’t given the material the depth it needed to work. I’d skimmed the surface and taken away its power. To him, it came out looking pathetic. We decided that I had to write it more real and direct. I did and now it has the power and clarity that it needs. It’s real and it’s believable, and if I’ve had to bare my soul to do it, then that’s what it needed. An artist doesn’t do anything truly meaningful without taking risks and pushing themselves just that little bit further.
Having others read your book before the final edits and give you feedback is a vital part of the process of writing a book, so don’t miss it out, and don’t be reticent to pay for it, because really good beta readers are hard to find. Either get your editor to do an appraisal or developmental edit, or have beta readers read it before you submit it to an editor, certainly do it before you publish it or submit it anywhere.
Dealing with criticism isn’t easy—though you get used to it—but there are ways to take the sting out it, and I’ll share some of those ways in the next chapter. In a nutshell, though, take your criticisms as the cloth that will make your gold shine, not the hammer that will smash it.
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
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