Every writer benefits from engaging with alternative perspectives, and using beta readers can help with this. Without opening ourselves to other points of view, how can we learn to write characters different from ourselves?
Exposing ourselves to other viewpoints is also essential for learning how readers may react to our work.
What are beta readers?
Beta readers read your completed, self-edited manuscript and provide feedback before you publish your novel or submit it to agents. You can send your manuscript to beta readers either before or after hiring an independent editor for a developmental/structural/story edit.
Alpha readers, by contrast, read your work in progress as you write.
Why work with beta readers?
Obvious answer: to see how readers respond to our novels.
Let’s examine this simple answer in more detail:
Beta readers act as a fresh set of eyes
It’s impossible for any writer to be completely objective about their own manuscript.
We can succeed to a certain degree if we try hard enough to assess our drafts objectively (hello, Fictionary Storyteller!), but in truth we’ll never achieve complete detachment.
We know our story and world and prose too well; we care for our characters too deeply.
Beta readers provide subjective “reader-like” feedback
Beta readers won’t be entirely objective either.
Unless they’re trained editors, their reactions will be subjective. That’s why they’re no substitute for a professional editor.
Nevertheless, if you’ve thick skin and a willingness to stand back and remove your ego from the equation, subjective feedback can be eye-opening. Once you publish, you can expect to receive tactless criticism: consider this useful training.
Beta readers provide honest reactions to your work
Honest reactions can help writers see if they injected more of their own personal viewpoints into their novel than intended.
For a deeper examination of how writers can unknowingly include their own prejudices in their writing, see this blog on writer tropes by Dawn Field.
Tips for working with beta readers
Tip #1: Avoid Family and Friends
Since you want your beta readers to be honest, avoid family and friends.
They may either avoid giving potentially hurtful feedback, or may provide feedback based on their own pre-conception of you, or may even provide such thoughtless criticism you end up falling out.
Tip #2: Use multiple Beta Readers
Don’t rely on just one beta reader.
Subjective reactions are more useful when you have a few of them to sift through. How many you use is personal preference. I find between three-seven helpful; some writers prefer more.
Since you’ll have multiple drafts for feedback, don’t send your first draft to everyone.
Tip #3: Choose people who read your genre
If possible, ensure your chosen readers enjoy your genre and have read your comparative titles.
Tip #4: Ask fellow writers to beta read for you
Fellow writers often make ideal beta readers, since not only do you speak the same craft language, you can beta read for them in return.
This has an additional advantage: you may find a beta reader’s feedback reflects their own writing weaknesses. Take this into account when accepting or rejecting their criticism.
Your beta reader suggests removing all your sequel (reaction) scenes because they were ‘boring.’
You then read their manuscript to discover they’ve no sequel/reaction scenes at all, and jam-packed their story with (in your opinion) excessive action. If so, beware following their advice. Which leads us onto…
Tip #5: It’s your story, so you don’t have to accept all the feedback
Don’t follow every piece of advice you receive.
As Neil Gaiman said:
When people tell you something is wrong or doesn’t work for them, they’re almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are nearly always wrong.
It’s your job (perhaps with help from a professional editor) to figure out how to improve what isn’t yet working.
In the above example
Don’t just remove all sequel scenes. Instead, ask yourself should I make these scenes:
- More nuanced through subtext, highlighting inner or outer conflict?
- More atmospheric through sensory detail?
- More tense?
- More relevant to the story goal?
- Less frequent?
To help figure the answers out, you should….
Tip #5: Ask questions
Ask your readers specific questions to focus their feedback, such as:
- Where did you get bored?
- Where did you stop caring about a character?
- Where did you struggle to visualise action?
- Where did you struggle to follow the plot?
Focus on your known weaknesses, but don’t limit feedback to these.
Where to find beta readers?
You can find beta reader in all the following places:
- Writing groups/online writing forums
- Writing classes/conferences
- Distant acquaintances
- Specific beta reader forums such as:
- Goodreads beta reader group
- Beta readers and critique partners Facebook group
- The Fictionary Community—Storyteller users have the advantage of a shared ‘story structure language’ through use of the story elements
Good beta readers are invaluable.
Seek out beta readers who share your passion for stories, who you trust to be open and honest, and whose opinions you respect.
(Quote from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/477087-remember-when-people-tell-you-something-s-wrong-or-doesn-t-work)
Article Written by Polly Watt
A former refugee lawyer in the UK, Polly Watt honed her skills working on cases where careful editing often really was a matter of life and death.
As a Fictionary StoryCoach Editor, she will apply the same care and attention to detail to your structural story edit. She’s passionate about stories and loves working on all different types of literary genres.
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