Pretty much all novelists, and especially indie authors, have what are known as “beta readers,” or people who read their work before publication, even before a final draft is set, to give an outsider’s perspective and catch problems or inconsistencies that the author might have trouble picking up, as familiar with the work and its characters as he or she is. I’ve always called my Beta Readers my “First Readers.” The point of this post is to remark on some things that you should look for in a beta reader.
- A YOU SCRATCH MY BACK AND I’LL SCRATCH YOURS ARRANGEMENT. Ideally, a beta reader will be not only a fellow writer of your genre but also an avid reader of it. If what you’re writing has a stale moment or two, something trite or overdone, you want your beta reader to pick up on that…. Although, if you’re a writer, you should ALSO be reading enough in your genre that you know these things yourself. Regardless, your beta readers need to know the expectations of people who are into epic fantasy, for instance (if that’s what you’re writing) to do their job well. And frankly, it’s nice to have a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship going.
- SOMEONE WHO WILL TELL YOU WHAT YOU DO WELL. Personally, I feel this is one of the most helpful aspects of my beta readers. Some people might think it’s the job of a beta reader to point out what’s wrong, what doesn’t work well, and that’s part of the job, but it’s vital for an author to know, as well, what his or her strengths are. I definitely feel that the key to good writing is capitalizing on your strongest points and avoiding what you kind of suck at, and to do that, you need to KNOW what you suck at and what you might be able to improve. Is that grammar? Dialogue that flows naturally? Are long, descriptive narrative passages not your thing? If so, you might be able to cut back on that in favor of another form of character development that better suits your style, such as interior monologues.
- SOMEONE SECURE ENOUGH TO POINT OUT WHAT’S NOT GOOD. If a whole section of your novel bores your beta readers, then you need to make sure they’ll be open about that and not dance around the issue. If you don’t know the difference between lay/lie and you repeat words way too often in the same paragraph, making your language sound stilted, you don’t want that sugarcoated. Sugar in this case will only make things sour when all is said and done. You don’t need your readers addressing your work in a bellicose tone, but you do want clear, accurate descriptions of what they feel could be improved. Also, you need to be man/woman enough to not take offense at some negative feedback, be grateful for the honest reactions, and consider the input not as something to frustrate or anger you but as a great opportunity to discover how you can make your work the best that it can be. Your readers, once the novel is published, are giving their time and their money to read your work, and you owe them the best that you can give them in exchange for that trust. (Stephen King once made that point in “On Writing,” and it resonated with me.)
- SOMEONE WITH A BACKGROUND OR EXPERIENCE IN WRITING/LITERATURE. Your beta readers all need to know grammar, pure and simple. They also need to know enough about books and what makes them tick (or stall) not only to pick up on what could be better in your novel, but also to offer suggestions on HOW you could make it better. If you have a thought you prefer over theirs, obviously, you’re the author, and it’s your prerogative to fix things however you want to. But what if your beta reader comes up with a wonderful suggestion that you hadn’t thought of and is just super stellar? Like specifically, “This passage in chapter two doesn’t fit well there for me. Maybe it could go better in chapter 5, after such and such has happened? That would add a new layer of tension to the scene, based on the different situation of the characters.” BRILLIANT! Why wouldn’t you want a beta reader who has the potential to help out that way? Why not make sure your readers can offer you capable, concrete fixes? What do you stand to lose? Nothing. You can take it if you like it, toss it if you don’t.
- SOMEONE BIG ENOUGH NOT TO TAKE IT PERSONALLY IF YOU DON’T TAKE THEIR SUGGESTIONS. This is especially true if that beta reader is your best friend with the Ph.D. in French literature and a secret love of romance novels, and you happen to be a romance writer. It’s possible you won’t take every fix offered you, and might decide one or two things the beta reader didn’t like actually aren’t problems at all and you want to leave it as is. (NOTE: If you’re discarding MORE than a very limited number of noted problems from your beta readers without any kind of adjustment whatsoever, you might want to ask yourself how comfortable you are taking criticism and whether being more open-minded might not be called far. Are you defeating the whole purpose of even having beta readers? Remember, you can always save multiple drafts of the document, leaving the original version available if you make a change you’re not sure about and decide you don’t like how things panned out.) If neglecting to change a couple of things is going to cause problems and sour a personal relationship, it’s just not worth it. Find someone else. There are a slew of fellow authors in your genre who would be happy to set up a manuscript swap! That’s what Twitter is for, after all.
- HAVE MULTIPLE READERS. This just makes sense. Maybe your friend Tom reads a ton of stuff in your genre, and he’s pretty sharp, but he’s a physicist and never got into the real specifics of grammar. Someone you know on Twitter is an English teacher at their local university and a Grammar Nazi. Your neighbor’s in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a weapons specialist, and your genre happens to be historical romance set in the sixteenth century. If your protagonist’s a knight or a soldier, your neighbor would have some expertise to really help you out. All together, considering the group, you’d get a range of solid feedback. And hey, if Tom tells you he thought chapter seven moved too slow, but the others say nothing about that, and when you ask them they remark they thought the pacing was ok, that gives you some more perspective from which to evaluate Tom’s comments, doesn’t it?