Selecting beta readers.

| Monday, August 8, 2011
Today's Tune: Part of Your World (cover)

Thank you all very much for the congratulations and well-wishes last week! We had a lovely weekend <3

I imagine you can tell what stage of writing/editing/etc I'm in based purely on the topics of my posts. ANYWAY.

Let's talk about beta readers and how important they are in getting feedback on your work. First, let's discuss what, exactly, beta readers are. Beta readers are a set of people you select to read your work after it's completed and reader-ready. They are people who will read the work as a whole and give you feedback on your pacing, plotting, characterization, themes, dialogue, and more. They're also sometimes good for catching typos/mechanical errors you may have missed in your initial editing, but you shouldn't depend on them for that.

Beta readers are not critique partners or editors. They're not supposed to comb a manuscript page by page and line edit for you. They don't generally get into the minutia of "fixing" your manuscript. Betas are readers, first and foremost. You shouldn't be giving them a first-or-second draft manuscript that's riddled with errors and still needs a lot of work. That's what your critique partners are for. When a beta gets your work, it should be reasonably polished. Not perfect, but at least ready for an average person to read as they'd read any other book.

Now, let's talk about who you should select to beta read your manuscript. This is pretty subjective, since every manuscript and writer are different and will have different needs, but there are a few important things to keep in mind. Consider the following when selecting your readers.

Have enough readers to give you a variety or responses, but not so many that you get overwhelmed and have a bunch of conflicting opinions. Really, this is completely personal. You should have as many readers as you feel comfortable with, which may be just one, or it may be 10. Be mindful that although it's super exciting that people actually want to read your book (!!!), too many cooks in the kitchen... you know. Having a group of readers lets you know whether several people are seeing the same issue (which means it definitely needs to be fixed), and it also means you'll get a variety of opinions. It's important to find your preferred balance between enough variety and being pulled in too many directions.

Don't select people who will only flatter you. It's awesome to hear that someone read your stuff and thought it was OMG SO AMAZING. We all need that little ego boost once in a while. However, you want to make sure that's not all your hearing. If everyone you're allowing to read your MS is telling you that it's wonderful and perfect, then you're not being selective enough. Why? Because no manuscript is universally wonderful and perfect. The purpose of beta readers is to help you find the existing flaws. Hopefully some of them also stroke your ego in the process, but overall they should be helping make the work stronger.

Do send it to your parents and/or good friends. For moral support, I mean. The unabashed flattery is their job. If you need it, get it there. Of course, also keep in mind that they're, you know, heavily biased toward not making you cry.

Select people who read widely, and who read within your genre. It's not a requirement that each of your betas exclusively read your genre, but it's extremely helpful for some of them to be familiar with it. You want people who read enough to know a strong book from a weak book and who understand your genre/category well enough to know its existing cliches, pitfalls, etc.

Go for a good variety. You want readers who have something to contribute. Select people who will be able to strengthen the work because they have their own special brand of knowledge they can apply. My current betas rage from a pair of writers (who will read differently than "just readers") to a literary professor to an art/culture historian to someone in child development. All of them have unique insight to bring to the work, and all of them have helped find things I missed.

You can't please everyone. Read all the comments with a grain of salt. Give them some time to soak in. Remember, you don't have to change something just because one person found it odd. At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide which comments you're going to work with and which you'll let slide. HOWEVER. Don't disregard everything. Odds are good that some of the advice is going to be worth heeding.

Remember to be polite and say thank you. Even if you disagree with someone's comments, they still did you a favor by taking the time to read and write notes on your work. If their comments upset you, by all means, take some time to cool off. Never get defensive, whiny, or insulting. Say thank you. If they're a serious jerk, (like, they called you a hack and told you never to write again), then ignore.

How do YOU select your beta readers?


{ Bobby Mathews } at: August 8, 2011 at 10:20 AM said...

i ask people i respect -- hence my asking you to read LMP. i found your criticisms to be fair, too -- unfortunately for me. ;-)

i kind of ask several different types of people. other writers i know, some family members, and some just regular readers.

congratulations on your engagement, btw! very happy for you.

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: August 8, 2011 at 10:37 AM said...

I stagger through phases of critique partners-to-beta readers and keep my questions for them fairly open-ended. Does the storytelling flow? Do you care about the characters? Are the stakes clear? My early readers are pretty avid YA-consumers and are good for broad strokes. Once I get farther into beta territory, I branch away to a friend who's a copy editor/freelance writer and to friends who are just happy to read a good book (or, in many cases, a book that could be better with a couple of tweaks).

{ Kurt Hartwig } at: August 8, 2011 at 10:39 AM said...

Livia Blackburne has a 3-part blog series on beta readers - this is a link to the last bit.

{ Old Kitty } at: August 8, 2011 at 11:38 AM said...

Great advice on selecting beta readers! They're so important to get right! I have two I trust implicitly - I think it's their honesty and positive criticism that I treasure most! Take care

{ Claudie A. } at: August 9, 2011 at 1:09 PM said...

Wow, tons of good advice here. I've yet to select any beta readers, and I keep wondering how others find these wonderful and essential people. THanks a lot, Steph!

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