Writing and Editing

Writer’s Toolkit: Beta Readers

If you listen to writers talk, or read the acknowledgments pages of their books, you have probably come across the term “beta readers.” I have mentioned them (my own) a time or two on this blog. So, like any use of jargon, some of you inevitably will find yourself wondering just what is a “beta reader” and how does one get one?

First though, a definition. A beta reader is the writer’s test audience. The name is borrowed from the software and game development industry, where beta testers have long been used to try out developing software and games before they are released to the public. Their job is to find overlooked flaws and judge intangibles such as playability and ease-of-use, things the original designers might have missed. Though the designers test and re-test their programs, experience has taught them that sometimes they are too close to a project to judge it impartially. Thus the beta testers. They have objective eyes.

Beta readers perform much the same function in the writing world. We, the authors, write and revise our work until we’ve refined it about as much as we can on our own.

The key phrase here is on our own.

Beyond a certain point (and that point is as impossible to pin down as the definition of art) it is impossible for an author to perfect her own work. We all need an objective set of eyes to see the project’s flaws and point them out (gently) for us.

But, I hear some of you protesting that you already have an editor. That’s her job.

To which I say true, but…the problem is that editors—the good ones anyway and why would we hire bad editors?—are expensive. Most of them charge by the hour and their time is valuable. My goal through four novels has always been to submit a manuscript to my editor with nothing there for her to do. It’s a point of professional pride and it’s way cheaper.

That’s where the efforts of a beta reader are valuable. They work basically for free (though it’s good form to thank them on the acknowledgements page and give them a free, autographed copy of the published work). With some good beta readers, you can eliminate many of the mistakes that make an editor earn his money.

A good set of beta readers also provides you with second (and third, fourth, etc.) opinions on virtually every aspect of the manuscript. In my most recent novel, Deception Island, (shameless self-promotion) I had one beta reader who really did not like the protagonist’s girlfriend and his reactions to her. However, no other reader mentioned a thing about her, so I decided it was just a personality conflict and left it in.

On the other hand, every single reader did not like the way I originally opened the story. I took that as a sign and completely re-worked the first two chapters.

Beta readers give you a chance to see how the audience reacts to what you’re trying to do. For that reason, it’s best to have readers with varying tastes and interests. As much as possible, you’d like your beta readers to be as diverse as your readership will be.

It’s also greatly to your advantage if your beta readers have varying skill sets. One might be a fan of the genre you write in so they’re familiar with the genre’s conventions (and they all have conventions). Another could be familiar with the story’s location. A third, a grammar and usage expert. A fourth, a poet. Each will evaluate your work as a whole, but their particular skills will naturally focus on a different aspect.

So, now that we’ve gone over some of the reasons for using beta readers the question naturally rises: how does one find beta readers? The simple answer is that you ask them to do it. They can be friends, or family, colleagues at work, or members of your critique group (those are the best). There are only two real requirements I look for: they need to be almost as voracious a reader as I am. Someone who does not read fiction, or does not read at all is not qualified to make any judgments about my story. Sorry, but they don’t have the experience. Second, they will have to be confident and secure enough to be completely honest about the work.

If a scene in my new novel sucks, I want someone to tell me. Don’t be afraid of hurting my feelings. Sure, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll get over it. If something doesn’t work, I want to know about it so I can fix the problem. My feelings will be hurt much more if a scene that doesn’t work ends up in the published work because no one was willing to tell me it was bad.

Beta readers are as important a tool as any a writer can have. We all know what they can do for us now and how to try and recruit them. All you have to do now is go out and get them.

One other thing to remember though is the benefits of being a beta reader yourself. We can learn just as much by critiquing the work of others as we can by having others critique our work. Besides, it is good to help someone else, even as others help us.

It’s good karma.

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