Have you ever sent a text message you really regretted? I have. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mistake on your part or that darn auto-correct, it’s still embarrassing. Now imagine sending your book to an editor and finding out that you’ve made a major mistake – a mistake that could’ve been avoided if you approached your project with fresh eyes.
It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re still going to make mistakes, and you’re still going to miss things. Beta readers give you a fresh set of eyes to point out any mistakes you’re overlooking. Maybe it’s something innocent – you’ve changed one of your character’s hair colors halfway through. But maybe it’s something big – your realistic depiction of New York fails because you have the subway going somewhere it doesn’t actually go.
A beta reader can give you an overall impression of your story, some ideas on what is and isn’t working, and help you with small errors you might overlook.
Beta Readers Are Not Editors
Your beta reader sees your story before you submit it to editors. They’re the first person to see your story besides yourself. However, you should know that your beta reader is not an editor. Their job is to give you an overall impression of how they feel about your story. Their job is not to tell you how to fix it.
Pretend that you’ve built a car. Your beta reader is the first person to test-drive it. They’ll tell you if it doesn’t handle well, or if the engine won’t start, but they won’t tell you how to improve the handling or fix the engine. That’s true most of the time, at least. Some beta readers will go as far as offering line edits.
I Was a Beta Reader
It’s true! In fact, I’d wager most writers were beta readers at some time – it’s great experience. I was one of the beta readers for Gayle Carline’s “Hit or Missus.” If you’re looking for a beta reader, or you want to be one yourself, here are some traits you should be looking for:
The Target Audience
If you write romance novels, you probably don’t want a beta reader who only reads horror. No matter what you do, the romance novel isn’t going to please someone who hates romance novels, which means you can’t get an honest opinion from them. However, if you have a friend who devours romance novels, that’s perfect!
The ideal beta reader understands that what they’re seeing is a work in progress. They know that you’re aware there are problems and that you plan to fix them. As such, you don’t want someone who’s going to laugh at every mistake you make. You want a beta reader who realizes what their place in the process is, and is willing to point out the weak spots of your novel without crushing your ego.
But Not Too Friendly
It’s one thing to have a beta reader who doesn’t attack your weaknesses; it’s another to have a beta reader who refuses to see them altogether. If someone is too close to you or cares about you too much, they’ll know how hard you’ve worked. Romantic partners and parents are rarely good choices for this reason – they want you to feel good, and part of being a beta reader is pointing out flaws.
Plus, it’s a natural instinct as a writer to be defensive when someone points out the mistakes you’ve made. If your beta reader is too close to you, it’s easy to hold a grudge.
Sometimes They Write, Too
It’s good to have a mix of writers and non-writers as your beta readers, as both will notice different things. Non-writers typically notice how they feel about things, whereas writers are much more likely to notice smaller details – if you’re using passive voice too much, or if you have an excess of exposition.
Fair warning: beta readers that write are more likely to offer opinions on how to fix your story problems. Sometimes these suggestions may be brilliant, sometimes they won’t be. You need to know when to take these options into account and when to disregard them.
Specialists Please Apply
If your novel deals with a particular community or niche, it pays huge dividends to find a beta reader in that community. For example, if you write crime novels, a retired cop can tell you a lot about how the police force works, including what they would and wouldn’t do. Likewise, if you’re setting a story in ancient Egypt, a curator who’s highly knowledgeable about that time period can help your story feel truly authentic.
Finding Beta Readers
While you can look through your friend circle, sometimes they’re too close to you. Instead, you can try a website like Goodreads. Typically, writers make an agreement to beta read each other’s work. Try to find a writer you’re in-sync with for a better experience. Readers like the idea of being beta readers because they get to peak behind the curtain and help a writer out.
A Fresh Set of Eyes
Almost all writers use beta readers. They’re a fresh set of eyes that will check your blind spots and point out any problems you may have missed. If you’ve used a beta reader, or you’re looking for one, I’d love to hear your experience on the Be a Best Seller Facebook fan page.
Voice matters. Dare to share yours. Impact the world.