So we’ve talked about editors and how to find them, now let’s chat about the unsung heroes and heroines of the publishing process: BETA READERS.
You’re damn right I put that in caps ‒ they deserve all the accolades they get.
For those unfamiliar with the term, beta readers are those who provide feedback on unpublished work before it goes to an editor. They are an essential cog in the machine that is publishing. Beta readers provide an objective overview from a reader’s perspective while giving insight into character(s) arc, plot, world-building, narrative style, and any inconsistencies.
So when should you engage betas?
You’ve finished the eleventy-first draft of your story, you’re probably sick of the sight of it, and you’re at that point where it needs another set of eyes (or three) to see how it’s holding up. Enter your beta readers. Now it’s imperative to point out that beta readers are not editors. You may be lucky enough that one of your betas is an editor, and may pick up spelling and grammar issues, but that’s not their role and it would be pretty uncool to ask them to do so while also providing story feedback.
There are a couple of ways to approach beta reading. You can make a list of things you’d like your betas to look for: eg. character agency and development, any plot holes, narrative style, and even something as simple as: does it make sense. Super-organised writers sometimes provide their beta readers with a checklist or a framework from which to work. Others just let their beta readers have at it, where they can provide feedback via electronic notes on the document, or just provide an overview at chapters’ end or at the completion of the tale.
The thing here is to be clear about what it is you’re looking for from your beta readers, and can they do so within a time-frame. Yes, a time-frame is necessary, especially if you’re working to a deadline. Just be realistic.
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So where do you find these mythical creatures?
I’m hoping you have a community you can tap into. This is a big ask of someone, and generally it’s an unpaid project. Reciprocity is your friend here – if you ask someone to beta read for you, don’t be a twat and decline if they ask it of you.
There are groups on Goodreads that offer beta reading, but like with anyone you engage to assist with your book, be discerning in your choices. Hit up your social media sites, ask for recommendations. There are also paid sites that have beta readers; again, be discerning.
You’ll have noticed that I’m using the plural here, because you’re going to need more than one beta reader. I’d suggest at least three, but no more than four. Having too many eyes go over your story and the waters may start to get muddy.
When it comes to choice, try to find those who read in your genre (or alongside it), and even one who doesn’t – mainstream readers will give you insight into readability across the spectrum. Don’t ask a relative unless you’re sure they’re going to give you honest feedback, not just what you want to hear.
And that leads into the next part of the beta reader process: YOU.
If you ask for honest feedback (which is a given, right? Right?) then don’t get all precious, don’t take it personally, and for the love of all things holy and unholy, don’t get angry at them or their feedback. They’ve given freely of their time, provided honest insight in a bid to help you with your book. Be professional. Should you not agree with some of the feedback, you don’t have to take it on. Although should more than one of your beta readers pick up the same thing, then you’ve got an issue that needs to be addressed.
Again: don’t be precious.
In the end, it will be your decision what to take on, and what to let go. But you’re cultivating relationships here, be professional. And be thankful. Beta readers are helping you. Appreciate and respect that.
So we’ll end on some bullet points:
- Find at least three beta readers – some that read in your genre and, if you can, one that doesn’t. Tap your community (writer community, social media et al.) for beta readers or suggestions; check Goodreads, or websites that offer the service.
- Be discerning in your choices, clear in your decisions.
- Ask for honest feedback and mean it – don’t be precious.
- Provide guidelines for what you’re looking for with the beta read, and ask if it can be met within a realistic time-frame.
- Reciprocity is your friend – if someone you’ve approached is a writer, offer to beta read for them (and mean it).
- Be professional. You may not agree with/like the feedback you receive, but this isn’t about you, it’s about getting the best out of your story. Leave your ego behind.
- You don’t need to take on every point your beta reader makes; the decision to move forward with alterations or not, rests with you.
- If more than one of your beta readers points out the same issue – it’s an issue.
- Don’t be precious (yes, it needs reiteration).
Remember, beta readers are the heroines and heroes of your publishing journey, be respectful to and thankful for them – they’ve earned it.