Monday, January 11, 2016

Beta Readers: Why, Where, and How

If you've been writing for a while, you probably know what beta readers are, unless you're like me and you came to the party a bit late. Though I'd heard  the term in the past, it wasn't until about two years ago that I finally started using them. It changed my work dramatically, and this past month I published my first novel, THE LAST ANGEL, to positive reviews

That would not have been possible without my beta readers. They helped me take a good concept and turn it into a polished work of fiction. If you're new to the writing game, (I've been doing it for over twenty years) don't wait like I did. In this post I'll outline exactly what beta readers are, why you need them, and where to find them.


In short, a beta reader looks at your piece of fiction (or memoir) in advance of publication and offers feedback on why the story works or doesn't work. Now, if that's all they did (and some beta readers do only that, but we'll talk about that in a minute) they wouldn't be terribly valuable. 'Yes' or 'no' is only mildly helpful, unless, as a writer, you really can't judge your own work. (And this DOES happen to writers who don't show their work to others.) 

The good beta readers, however, do far more than give you a simple answer. They offer feedback on characters, on scenes that work and don't work, and tell the author when they were pulled out of the story. Many of them can tell you "why" as well, which is incredibly helpful. I bounce story ideas off my beta readers when they tell me a scene doesn't work, or if a character seems inconsistent. I'll re-write it and hand it back to them. The process becomes incredibly collaborative. 

But not all beta-readers are the same, and they shouldn't be treated that way. Some will offer you ideas about story, but won't be able to pinpoint why something went wrong. (It just didn't "feel" right.) That's okay! That's still good information to have. Some, especially if you have a fellow writer as one of your readers, will offer editing at a prose level and red mark your work because of awkward sentences and phrasings. Every beta reader is different, which is why you need more than one. I use five. Two of them, Shelley and Caitlin, offer the deepest amount of information. 

Caitlin is a literary writer (she's brilliant) so she focuses on two things, my prose and grammar, and, because she's a feminist (like me), zeroes in on my female characters, making sure they are strong and well-rounded. Shelley is not a writer, but a prolific reader who really understands story. When she reads my work, she'll offer comments throughout the manuscript describing her experience as a reader, as well as a full report at the end as to what she liked and didn't like. She is particularly good at helping me to maximize the impact of every scene. Without her, my work would not be as good. The same is true of Caitlin and the rest of my readers.


That sounds great, right? But where do we find these amazing people? Especially since so many of us writers tend to work alone. 

The easiest way to find them is to ask people you know that like to read. Pretty simple. Most readers, especially those that don't write, enjoy being part of the process. What I did was put out a call on my Facebook page. (If you're a writer, you need to be active on social media, and while I do use twitter, I prefer Facebook for connecting.) And with 1100 friends, it was relatively easy to find a few people who were willing to read THE LAST ANGEL. Now, I got lucky with Shelley, who is the prototypical beta reader. And with Caitlin, for whom I serve as a beta reader as well, I've also been lucky.

There will be some who want to help you, but they won't know what to do. That's an easy fix. Give them four or five questions (not too many, you still want them to be enjoying the book, not doing homework) to answer when they're finished.

Example: How do you feel about my main protagonist(Name)? Are they likable enough?
                Was the story too slow, or were there parts that it slowed down too much?
                Can you just make a mark every time something takes you out of the story?
                Was the dialogue between (Name) and (Name) believable?

There are many questions you can ask, but the key is to a) limit the questions, no more than four or five (b) Don't ask for essay answers. Something that can be answered in two or three sentences or less (c) know your beta reader; understand what they're capable of, and keep it simple.


1) If you're a writer, even if you also work as an editor or are moving in that direction, as I am, you should be functioning as a beta reader, FOR FREE, for a fellow writer. Or, as I do with Caitlin and another writer, I read for them and they read for me. Even then, it shouldn't be about "give to get." Artists need to support one another. Beyond that, editing and reading someone else's work will improve your skills and give you a better eye when you're editing your own work.

2) BE HUMBLE. I can't stress this enough. If you've asked someone for their opinion, don't be a diva when they tell you they don't like something. They are doing you a favor, a HUGE favor. That doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but thank them profusely for taking time from their busy schedule to help you and tell them you will consider deeply what they said. When a beta reader knows you take them seriously, and even better, when you can point to how you changed something because of their suggestion, they'll want to help you in the future. Any time I help someone with their work, and they are grateful and humble and involve me, I'll move heaven and earth to help them again.

3) Make sure that your manuscript is ready. This seems counter-intuitive, because I said earlier that beta readers help get your manuscript ready. This is true, but I hear horror stories all the time about people sending a first draft to a beta reader. Ugh. Your first draft is going to be unreadable and filled with mistakes. I wait until at least the fourth draft, sometimes the fifth, before sending it. You want the manuscript as polished as possible. You only get the "first impression" from your beta reader once. Don't blow it by sending them a shabby copy. It also reveals a lack of professionalism. Most people want to help professionals who take their work seriously. Very few want to help someone who sends them something half-assed and unedited.

Beta-readers are the difference between a good story or a great story, between publishing something professional and publishing something that won't sell. It's that simple. And the first step to finding a beta reader is to be one. 

If you're new to this game, and don't know anyone that will help you, feel free to send me your first chapter and I'll look at it for free. Use my CONTACT page to reach me, however you like. 

Artists helping artists. That's how it should be.

Stephen R. Burns is the author of THE LAST ANGEL, now available on Amazon, the first volume of the Desolate Kingdom series. Three more in the series are due out in 2016.