I’ve got a manuscript out with beta readers at the moment, and it’s a tad harrowing, so time to turn that into a blog post that’s hopefully useful.
Here’s the thing. If you’re a writer, and serious about writing for publication, eventually you’ll probably dip your toes in the tepid-to-icy water of beta readers, or be pushed into the river by other writers insisting that they’re necessary. Either way, really. And yes, I am one of the writers who does the pushing. I think beta readers are a wonderful idea. Software doesn’t go out without beta testing, machines get prototypes, drugs get clinical trials. Getting a whole lot of testing on your work is just a darned good idea.
I find, for myself, I occasionally still get an irrational pang of awkward over beta readers. If they tell me to change something, how do I know it really needs changing? If it’s a huge plot change, does that make the idea and execution less *mine*? I can point to sections of some stories where I can say “This idea came from this other person” – what does that mean about my claim to authorship?
First off, some link love to Michael J. McDonagh, who writes posts about betas and crit partners and alphas that are lovely and concise. Here’s the first one, defining terms and basic advice, here’s the second, talking about how to beta well. I don’t entirely agree with his definition that betas always have to be non-writers, and I am certainly one of those awful people who uses ‘beta’ as a catch-all term (for me, alphas help me flesh out my ideas, betas help me fix my book, and crit partners do … stuff … I don’t really use that term).
I’ve talked a bit already about how to take outside input, but that’s a bit more along the lines of balancing wanting to change to make people happy with not wanting to change your story because that change is integral to the plot/theme/whatever. A quick recap on other things that I think about beta reading: Try to get many betas, because of the law of averages, and really think about the comments you get before you make any changes.
All good? Good. On we go.
Because as useful as all that stuff is, it’s not really what this post is about.
This post is about getting good beta readers, and getting the most out of them.
Post-preamble-preamble: How many beta readers do you need?
How many can you get?
Honestly, that’s going to be one of the main deciders. I like as many as possible (it also means that if one or two get distracted and don’t get back to me, it matters less). But I know other people who don’t have that many at all, because they have a group of three, five, whatever, who basically cover their writing weaknesses between them. That’s cool, too. Whatever works. Some of us need more than five people to figure out all the myriad ways we went wrong.
So – my process for finding a good beta reader:
Step One: You need to trust your beta
I cannot stress this enough. This doesn’t just mean “someone unlikely to take my manuscript and hock it online as their own work”, although that’s also kind of important. You need to know that the advice is coming from someone who knows what they’re talking about. This doesn’t mean they’re a writer or a professional editor. It doesn’t even mean they’re particularly “good” at grammar or sentence structure or paragraph structure or whatever. Some of my best betas have no desire to write themselves – but all of my betas love to read. They might not know whether my paragraphs are structured just right, but they can tell me (unequivocally) when the dialogue was wooden as a stake for the world’s most stubborn vampire, or when they wanted to dropkick my main character out a plate glass window.
They’re also the people I will trust to be honest with me. There are many people among my friendship groups whom I love dearly, but I wouldn’t get them to beta my work, because I know they’d be too kind to me. They say you shouldn’t measure friendship by how considerate you are of each other, but by how many insults you can hurl before the other person gets offended. Beta reading is a bit like that – always judge a beta reader by how much they’re willing to risk hurting your feelings to tell you what you need to hear.
Step Two: You should be able to talk to your betas openly
Kind a corollary to the above – you may need to ask clarification from your betas, and you’ll need to be able to communicate with them for that. You’ll also need to let them know what to look for, and sort out issues when you’ve both read things totally differently.
Step Three: Direction is Good
For someone who’s not used to beta reading, it can be a little daunting to get an entire novel and be asked to give an opinion on all of it. Make it easy on your betas – give them a list of questions, or a list of “things to think about” while they’re reading. And make it clear that you’re also open for any and all other observations they have. Guidance is good, making beta readers do a pop quiz isn’t. Give them somewhere to start and let them go from there.
Step Four: Variety is the Spice of Criticism
On my last book that I sent out to betas, one of my betas said that I’d completely messed up the economics in the first chapter. The second said that when I’d delved into engineering, I’d done it really well, but they wanted to chat to me about the particulars, because there were some interesting places to expand that I’d missed through inexperience. A third told me that my ending was much tighter and more exciting than the beginning (actually, most people told me that, but that’s beside the point). The point being, I have a lot of beta readers who like a lot of different things, and have a lot of different areas of study/interest/geekery. It means they all pick up different things. The only thing they have in common, as I said before, is that they like reading, and specifically, they like reading fantasy books, preferably of the kind I write. I can guarantee you every single one of my betas knows more about a specific subject than I ever will, and that’s what makes them so helpful.
Also, get a variety of writers, non-writers and editorial types. They’ll look at three very different levels of your writing, and that’s excellent.
Step Five: If someone is an unpleasant person, they shouldn’t beta for you.
Corollary to my above point that a beta should be honest – I don’t care how good the advice someone gives you is, if they deliver it in the form of nasty remarks, it’s not worth getting.
And a final note. This sounds really odd for me to say, since I’m a professional editor myself who makes most of my money through editing novels, but here goes. You don’t actually need to pay someone money to edit your book for you. Except, I would say, if you’re going to self-publish. But if you’re going the trad publishing route, you’ll find more use in a good set of beta buddies than a professional editor. Use the Internet, online writers’ forums, find writer’s groups in your area and see if you can find one that clicks for you.
Here is the one advantage of a professional editor: You are paying someone to not be your friend. Professional editors worth the money you pay them will be honest and not nasty. After all, you’re paying someone to be honest, and you’re likely not to pay them again if they’re nasty. They’ll also have a bit more practice at communicating why they’ve suggested changes, and have worked on a wider variety of manuscripts. That’s not to say they’ll be better, but they’ll have a higher average.
And that’s about all from me.
I’ve done more than enough preachy posts recently. I think it’s about time I wrote some more humorous, ranty ones. And given what my next few weeks look like, blowing off the steam will probably prove to be very entertaining.