The Importance of Beta Readers

She’s aliiiive! After a month plus away from the blog and website, I have returned. I apologize for the absence, but, well, revisions trump website and vacation trumps revisions, so… I’m back now — browner (thanks to Florida sun) and on draft 3 (thanks to hard work). Now on to the blog!

Over the last month or so, Patricia C. Wrede (one of my favorite writers from childhood) has written a blog series entitled, “The Care and Feeding of First Readers” . It’s a great series from an author who has graced the publishing industry for years, and the posts reminded me of an important point — something that even the most-practiced writers know.

Writers always need feedback and will always have room for improvement.

Everywhere I look these days, writers are thanking their crit-groups, thanking their beta readers, and singing praise for those little helpers that make a manuscript become a book.

So, what is a beta reader?

Well, an alpha reader is the writer since he/she is the first person to read the MS. That means the beta reader is the second reader. There’s more to it than that, though. A beta reader has a purpose, and that is (according to wikipedia):

to read a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described as “a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.”

Lately, I’ve allowed my mother to read the first pages of Eleanor Fitt (my WIP), but I don’t qualify her as a beta reader. I mean, don’t get me wrong — I love you, Mom — but I could probably vomit bad German on the page and she’d still think I was a star. That’s why we love our moms, right?

The key to a true beta reader is in the feedback. We all need support and love for our WIP, but we also need criticism. Our MS needs to be viewed by someone with an objective interest in the story, someone willing to be honest when he/she does or doesn’t like the story, and someone who wants to help.

To be a good beta reader:

  • Determine up front what’s expected from you. Does the writer want you to find plot holes, character issues, grammar problems? Everything?
  • Consider how much time you’re willing to invest in the story. A beginner will need more help (and therefore more time) than an experienced writer. Also, be sure to ask how quickly the writer expects you to return his/her pages.
  • Take notes on the story as you read. It’ll help you and the writer when you discuss the story later.
  • Make your feedback specific. It doesn’t help the writer if you say, “I disliked this character” but you can’t explain why.
  • Don’t take it personally if the writer disagrees with your feedback. It is his/her WIP, so it’s ultimately the writer’s decision what stays and what goes.
  • If the work is too much or if the writer isn’t appreciating your feedback, then END the relationship! You’re here to help, and if that darn writer won’t listen to your helpful advice, gets angry/defensive, or expects too much from you, then don’t waste your time — that writer isn’t ready for a beta reader.

How to get the most from your beta reader:

  • Be considerate of your beta reader’s time. We all want instant feedback, but a good critique can take a while. Patience.
  • Remember, your beta reader is here to help, so if he/she has criticism, LISTEN. There’s a reason they noticed what they noticed, and it isn’t a personal reflection on you, the writer.
  • Assess your beta reader’s skills — an experienced writer will notice different things than a beginner (or non-writer). Both types of readers are invaluable!
  • Never, never, NEVER give a beta reader your very first draft — especially if you’re a beginner. First drafts are terrible, and only experienced writers can produce first drafts that sing on-key. As such, be considerate; offer your beta reader a second (or later) draft.
  • Say, “thanks”. Say it often.
  • Reciprocate! If someone takes the time to read your MS, then read his/her MS as well. Take the person to lunch, give them a gift card, whatever — just be sure to offer some reward for all your reader’s hard work.
  • If you think the criticism is wrong, if you think the criticism is mean rather than helpful, or if the initial agreement isn’t being met, then END the relationship! Perhaps another person will serve you better.

Thanks to my own beta readers, which for Eleanor Fitt are two fabulous people: 1) my husband, and 2) my critique partner, Holly. Thanks to Laura, who has workshopped with me on Eleanor Fitt’s synopsis and query letter. Thanks to the teens from YALitChat, who read my first 25 pages and gave me great support and honest feedback. Thanks to editor Patricia Tanner, who critiqued my synopsis, query letter, and opening lines with the eagle-eyes of an senior editor. And thanks to my blog readers, to my commenters, and to all my friends who’ve helped me turn a dream into a reality.

Oh, and thanks, Mom. I appreciate when you read my WIP too.

Happy writing!