Who are they?Beta readers can be anyone you like: your friends, your family, people you trust, people whose opinions you respect. Are you too nervous to expose your work to your family and friends? Join a writers association. They can be found everywhere. They exist to build up and support one another and to provided the much-needed feedback writers require to produce a good manuscript. Join a Facebook group focused on your specific genre. Just Google it. You will find more options than you will know what to do with. Many times these groups are far more helpful than your family and friends as they will tell you the truth, not prop up your ego.
What do they do?
Beta readers read your manuscript and tell you what they think of it so you can improve it. Authorship is one part writing and nine parts rewriting. Be open to their suggestions.
Why are they important?Beta readers evaluate your work through a perspective completely different than our own. When you utilize beta readers, you are compounding the knowledge and experience dedicated to creating a marketable work. They see mistakes you might make or points you may have missed. Often times, as writers, we have the images and ideas so clearly defined in our minds, we believe our words work perfectly, when, in truth, they fail to convey the message we intended. We leave the reader behind and befuddled. However, beta readers come into the project free of the background to which we are privy. Their ignorance provides a fresh canvas on which we paint and thus provide much better idea of our clarity or lack of it. Their input tells us if we have painted a clear picture with our words.
|István Nagy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
What if they shoot me down?You want to be in the publishing business. Every rejection letter is going to shoot you down in the simple and completely neutral phrase “we cannot use your work at this time”. Chock it up to experience, toughen up your skin, lift your chin, put on your ‘objective’ hat and pick out the criticisms that you can work with. Most people in such groups who are willing critique you have been in exactly your same shoes. They are honestly and sincerely trying to help. Personally, my ears burn with mortification. I hate to be corrected or be seen as less than perfect. But I force myself to put away my hanky and my bruised feelings and see the message they are truly trying to convey. I always come away the better for it.
How often should I use beta readers?How deep is your bench? How often can you ask? I recommend you use beta readers at least twice: once after your initial draft, and a final time right before you are ready to submit query letters. Of course, this may prompt revisions and more beta reading, so the real answer is, as often as you need to.
Sidebar: it is also very productive to talk about your ideas with people who share the same interests before you ever start writing. They will help spark your imagination and inspire you.
How many beta readers should I use?The old adage “too many cooks spoil the soup” is a good one to follow in the early writing process (after your first draft). Limit the input to one or two of your most trusted advisors who actually read that genre of book. They will help guide you through the modification process.
However, when you are preparing to submit your query letters, a well-prepared author will enlist the help of 4-6 beta readers for a full-length novel. Here, you address the issue of marketability. To know what appeals to the masses, you need to draw from a larger pool of opinions, with the added benefit that several people pointing out a particular weakness helps us release our sacred cows.
Points to remember:
- Enlist the help of true beta readers, not back-patters. Your adoring mother strokes your ego (always important) but probably provides little truly helpful feedback.
- No pain, no gain. Their advice may sting, but make use of it. Remember, you asked for their honest opinion.
- Utilize those who read the genre. Ask the help of fans of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer if you write Regency romance. Tom Clancy aficionados will probably provide little useful feedback.
- Express proper appreciation, so they will want to help you out next time. Thank You notes are great. Autographed works of your best seller are even better.
- Reciprocate when given the opportunity. It's good karma.