Several years ago, a new phrase crept into my vocabulary. I wasn’t sure where I first heard it, but it was repeated regularly among writing circles in online conversations such as, “Three of my Beta Readers agreed on it, so I revised it.” Beta Readers sounded like something I could use, so I set out to discover them, wherever they were hiding.
I had an editor, and a proofreader. Or two or three… but my pockets were already running pretty thin, so I was concerned about what an additional pair of eyes would cost me. After conversing with a few authors of Honest-to-God Stature, I realized that instead of an additional staff item, Beta Readers were actually a rare species that writers needed to treasure and conserve once found.
There was a time when their species was restricted to the narrow spaces in publishing office cubicles between desks of editors and the place where the mailcarts were stashed, next to the slushpile. They were never very abundant, but once they were discovered, they usually were treated pretty well, unless they mentioned they really wanted to grow up to be editors. Then they were worked to the bone and fed scraps only. Some of them migrated to the darker halls of academia where the majority scraped out a thankless, meager existence while a few flourished, once shown a modicum of appreciation.
The point is, for self-published authors today, finding readers who would be willing to read your novel before it is actually published and then report back to you is a critical part of putting the final polish on a project. However, there are some writers who seem to be of the belief that if you throw an unedited manuscript at a group of beta readers, you’ll get a group edit at a cut rate. That is not the case. Group edits are a terrible thing to indulge in. In order for your project to actually read like something you’ve written, it’s critical that you and your editor have a solid relationship defined by trust. You don’t get that from “friends” who’ll “take a look, no problems”. Editors have some cred that comes from experience as well as some connection to the industry to give them a useful viewpoint. Beta Readers, on the other hand, provide a completely different service.
A Beta Reader is a reader who enjoys the genre of your project, is vetted to be worthy of your trust, but is still seen as a reader. It isn’t a Beta Reader’s job to proofread a sloppy manuscript and write notes all over the margins so that the writer can clean up the mess. Nor is it a Beta Reader’s job to pinpoint all the glaring dead-ends and red herrings in a meandering novel and suggest every fix. A Beta Read is supposed to be a pleasure read. It should be a finished novel, not a manuscript. That means all the tidying has already been accomplished and that the story is almost as completely polished as it’s going to get.
Some Beta Readers are personal friends who just enjoy reading, but don’t mind jotting down a few overall impressions or annoyances. Some of them even know how to write well and may be authors themselves. Beta Reading is not a job description, because it’s not supposed to be a job. A Beta’s report isn’t a high school book report. It may only be two paragraphs, or even two sentences, but sometimes, those impressions, when compiled along with impressions from other Betas, can create just the right bit of suggestion for a writer to get an even higher shine on the project before it goes to pitching or to production. Of course, if they catch a few instances where the spell-checker bounced over real words in the wrong places, that’s even better.
The real value is in learning how to separate out one reader’s unique impressions from the shared findings of a group of Beta Readers. I’ve known some authors rely upon as many as six of them. These are readers who know and enjoy the writer’s work and voice and can share their impressions with enough clarity that together, they can be parsed down into a few discrete ideas. The writer may or may not see any or all as something the project needs. For example, if the Betas are all over the map, but sparing in their criticism, many writers will simply see that the read went pretty well. If, however the Betas’ comments connect with each other and are directed, then there may be an issue at the heart of their impressions that needs to be addressed. It’s not a checklist kind of thing, more of an interpretive art that gets better with age and repetition.
Besides those you know and love, finding Betas in the wilds of the internet can be difficult if you haven’t done lots of research first. One of the best ways to research potential readers is to join reading groups and spend a lot of time listening and reading posts about other writers’ work. It also behooves you to keep your own writing close to the cuff. Online Reader Groups tend to make revealed writers about as welcome as a Baptist preacher at a poker game. Do, however, take part in conversation about the kind of writing, stories and characters you like within a specific genre and see who engages with you. Mention books you’ve read that you really love. Provide lots of opportunities for group members to find common ground with you. When you find honest points of agreement and can honestly say you enjoy communicating with another member, you may have found a potential Beta Reader. But remember, it takes time and patience. Don’t just run out there beating a drum while offering free books. If you present it as a sideshow, those are the kind of results you can expect. It’s more like leaving a trail of crumbs in the moonlight than a flashing neon sign with big arrows.
Finally, after all a Beta Reader can do for a writer, there are just a few things a writer can do to make the Beta want to hang around and keep in touch. Beyond not asking for a Beta Read and then expecting a free proofread and edit, acknowledging their help and critical suggestion is very important. Some writers do it in a section of the book along with all the other thankyous. At the very least, it should include a free drink or five and a copy of the finished book along with the toast. If the Beta is another writer, you will need to keep reminding yourself that you owe a reciprocal favor of their choosing. While the world may see writing as a solitary profession, those of us who do it, know better. There are so many people who help a writer in the process of creation and perfecting a project, we need to do whatever we can to remember them and give them our sincere thanks. In part, we do it because we want to cultivate their help for use in future work, but in part, there’s a bit of their spirit in the final mix, and it would really annoy our muses if we didn’t acknowledge that. Where would we be, then?
It isn’t always easy to coax Beta Readers out in the open to rally around your current work, but make sure they know that you’re not asking them to muck out a neglected stall. That’s a good start. Once they emerge and are willing to share the ride with you, even only a short distance, it will mean better writing for you and for all your eventual readers. If you are really lucky, they may even stick around long enough to share the next ride with you, too. Good luck in your hunting.
(Originally posted at: http://www.sailletales.com/?p=3740)
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