Writers hear a lot about “Beta Readers” these days. A Beta Reader is someone (ideally NOT related to you!) who agrees to read through your revised and polished manuscript and then offer feedback. But writing is a curious pastime—it can be very subjective. Do you know what to look for when gathering your Beta Readers?
Writing Tip for Today: What qualities and actions should an effective Beta Reader give to the writer?
First, Be a Reader
As a writer, you probably know a lot of other writers. They often hold critique groups and work on honing their craft. That’s great, but when you look for your Beta Team, consider this: Are your writer buds truly in your audience? Do you know who your ideal readers are? By now, with a finished draft and revisions, you should know your novel’s genre, sub-genre and exactly where in the bookstore your book might sit. For digital, know some vital key words for your book. By understanding what kind of book you have, it will be easier to target your Beta Team. If your novel is historical, a fantasy writer who doesn’t read your genre may not be the best choice. In the same way, be sure that if you include other novel writers on your team, that they will be able to read like a reader—and not so much as a writer, at least as far as editing goes. Why? Writers can develop tunnel vision when it comes to technique (such as using or not using dialogue tags or how back story is handled) and might not be able to focus on what matters most to readers: story. Readers often don’t care about whether the story has all the writing craft ducks in a row—as long as they are pulled along by the characters and story.
Marking Up Your Baby
In my little opinion, Beta Readers shouldn’t be asked to mark up the manuscript the way an editor might. Many readers won’t be able to keep themselves from red-penciling your manuscript, but going in, ask the readers to consider only how the story moves. Give them packs of sticky notes to slap on the manuscript, and ask them to note their reactions: I was riveted, I was bored, I skipped past this bit, I cried through this scene, I got confused, etc. These reactions can tell you a lot about how compelling (or not) your present draft is. I think it’s more useful than seeing your spelling corrected and far better than, “I liked it!”
The Most Valuable Feedback
Speed and that “I couldn’t put it down” line we all long to hear might be the most valuable feedback a Beta can give to a writer. If your readers zip through or claim they stayed up all night reading, you can at least gauge how much tension your story has. Be sure to request feedback on places that bog down or slow the reading. If your Beta Team members all say Chapter one was great but I got bogged down in the middle, you can conclude that you still need to work on tightening your novel. A Beta Team can help you find areas of high tension, clarity of goals, places where the tension is slack, parts that don’t feel logical or that are extraneous to the main story. If you have too many characters or place names, a confusing number of Point of View switches or a climax that isn’t satisfying, Betas can help you pinpoint those places. And most of all, do not allow the use of a Beta Reader Team to prevent you from getting a professional edit at some point. Betas and Editors may seem similar, but should be different in both scope and purpose.