Beta readers can be invaluable to the writing process. Beta readers are readers or writers who are willing to read unfinished works and give feedback about what made sense to them and what didn’t. Generally they pay attention to the language only so far as it pertains to the whole of the work (e.g. if the writer tends to use sentence fragments or other linguistic ticks that throw the reader off.) Good beta readers analyze their feelings, look at the story as it is, and talk about how they reacted to it. This is invaluable to the writer who is very invested in the story and needs a second opinion.
Writers who want beta readers are at a vulnerable point between having everything on paper but not feeling finished. I’ve had both good beta readers that have helped me make my writing way better and horrible readers who’s ‘honest’ criticisms have set me back ages on projects.
One difficulty I have had with finding beta readers is finding people who know the difference between a line editor and a beta reader. While both help a writer make a story better, beta readers help a writer by pointing out glaring flaws and give an idea of what readers reactions to the story while line editors help with tightening and polishing of language and narrative. Sometimes that can call for major we-writes, sometimes not. Editors are wonderful and very necessary to the writing process, but line editing should never be done until the project is ready for it. When I’ve asked someone to take a look at my work to give me an idea if my plot works as a whole and they pick on details like spelling and punctuation, its not helpful. Most of that stuff will need to be changed if I decide that I need to rework a characters motivations.
Because spontaneous reactions are needed, lots of writers will only let a beta reader read a work once. I think this is probably a good tip but I personally can’t be that picky and sometimes I will let a reader read more than once.
Great beta readers understand writing but don’t push their style on you. They look for what you are doing and then give you an idea of if you have actually achieved your aim. Even if they don’t generally read your style of book they can usually offer some fresh incite on your work.
Finding readers blind is where the internet comes in. I have found writing groups, or critique groups the best place to look beta readers. Apparently fan websites of particular genera’s can be great for writers to find readers as well. I try to make sure that I obey the rules of the community and spell out what genera the book is and how long, along with how much readers will receive, i.e thanks, or a note in the acknowledgments or a reciprocal read of their book. Generally beta readers do it for free because they enjoy reading or because they need someone to look at their work.
What I look for are those people who are polite and friendly in their communications with me and others online. It can often help to do a little background research and see how they treat others in the community that I find them in. Sometimes people present a different face when they want something (to read your book). I’ve found it best not to accept offers from people who fight with people online or who seem too strident with their opinions. I’ve ended up trying to defend my vision instead of improving anything.
While not a must, I look to see that the person uses greetings/salutations and closings in e-mails, it indicates they respect social niceties. Also the fact that they took time to do so can indicate that they are less adverse to typing and may be more thorough in their comments. People who use words are a good thing when I need feedback. I do not want to be musing about the one descriptive word the person uses and guessing at their thoughts. I am polishing my work not second guessing their writing. I want opinions that are clear and that I can understand. So if my possible beta reader uses complete sentences in their communications with me, thats a good indication that they will use complete ideas when talking about my work.
Consensus among writers who have used beta readers seems to be that a good number of beta readers is between two and four. Any more and you are bound to receive conflicting advice and any less and you might take the advice too seriously.
Beta readers have a job to do and I find they do it better when I have been clear about what I need. I used to be afraid of influencing my readers for fear that they would hold back important comments, but have found that being clear about a few expectations has actually helped elicit more useful comments from readers. So far beta readers have been mostly helpful to me. In those rare instances where they have not it is usually because there was some confusion about what I needed from them. To avoid those kinds of problems, I send a letter along with the work I want read. In it I put a specific date to have comments back by, I make it clear how ‘done’ the work is, tell them the audience for the book, and any other specific questions I need answers to.
I like to make it clear how malleable my work is and remind them that I need a reader not an editor. I tell them if it is a first draft and going to need lots of revision. I let my readers know which aspects I am most worried about. E.g “I like my characters but I’m not sure of the timing.” If it’s closer to being a final draft I tell the beta reader that the bones are there, so I am not changing the plot or characters and I am more interested in details that don’t fit. Such as people taking their coats off twice in a scene or leaving out important information. Beta readers are great at catching this kind of detail because it stands out to them.
I tell them the audience for the book, to help them be more likely to recognize what advice will be helpful to me. I do put in specific questions but I try not to ask too much. I’ve beta read for people who have a three page list of questions for me and have found myself suddenly reluctant to read their work.
The time limit is both for me and the beta reader. I usually put it about a month out so I can work on other projects until all of the comments are in and if they aren’t in at that point I can start editing without receiving feedback from someone that contradicts what I have done. For readers, life happens, and often people fall behind and don’t have time to read and respond. I know many people can feel very guilty about this. So I take the pressure off. The day before the due date I send out a note to those people who have not given feedback, and I and let them off the hook for reading the manuscript.
Once I do get comments back I’ve made the mistake of rushing to the keyboard to change everything the beta readers mention, but this has backfired big time. Now I try and take a step back, let the comments settle, and compare what the feedback suggests to my vision of the work. I don’t want to wait too long because I may want to ask questions about comments. But it is often best to read all the comments, set them aside for a day or two and then re-read them again. I am often too close to my writing and can miss things when I first read the criticism. Re reading comments allows me to be more rational and level headed about advice and not ask unnecessary fallow up questions. Not all advice or feedback is useful and it has been difficult to learn to ignore what people say sometimes, but it is necessary.
Beta reading for others has helped me learn to appreciate a good beta reader. As hard as it is sometimes to accept advice, it can also be hard to give advice that is helpful. So I do my best to appreciate the efforts of my readers and even if I don’t use their comments I always thank them. Because it’s always good to think a bit more about your own work.