The Role of Beta Readers

This week I’m delighted to be publishing a guest blog post written by the utterly fantastic Meg Trast, owner and editor at Overhaul My Novel, LLC and author of “Write That Book You Keep Talking About”. Meg here shares some of her hard-won wisdom on the process of beta reading, including what it involves, what you should be getting out of it as a writer and how to find somebody to do it for you.

A common part of Writing Community vernacular is the term “beta read.” As writers, or perhaps even as a consumer of literature, you’ve likely heard the term more than once – and from more than one person.

While no two beta readers are the same, and no two authors are looking for identical beta experiences, there are some common themes important to the service by definition.

            What is a beta, and what do they do?

A beta reader is commonly a person who assists in identifying glaring issues, such as plot holes and character inconsistencies, within works of fiction. Beta reading applies of course to books other than genre fiction, but for the purpose of this entry let’s narrow the it down to genre fiction beta reading.

Stories usually move in a somewhat linear fashion – after all, they need to make a modicum of sense, right? So what about that blue dress you mentioned in chapter two that’s suddenly pink in chapter 3? The job of a beta reader is to spot that deviation and point it out.

Beta is the name of the second letter in the Greek alphabet. It’s often used to refer to the second version of something, or the “test” version. Video game companies release beta copies before their official product launches, and a beta read follows the same concept. You’re testing your book.

In most cases, the beta read is exchanged for the privilege of being among the first consumers to read a book. However, some beta readers do charge a fee for their feedback, and some authors prefer this method.

Image by lil_foot_ from Pixabay

            Why do I need a beta reader?

As with any creative pursuit, it’s a good idea to try your ideas out on a small audience before releasing them to the public. This is especially true for the stories we tell. How does it feel to read? Which sentences evoke emotion? Which ones need more attention?

Aside from any inconsistencies, it’s important to understand how your potential audience is going to feel about your work. Much of what we as writers do is evoke emotions or thoughts. If you’re writing a sad scene, it’s important for the reader to feel sad. In creative literature, you should aim higher than the simple communication of information. That’s not to say that your stories can’t be a rip-roaring good time with or without the more “highbrow” aspects of writing, but that’s a different blog post (if you’re curious about this, ask me about the Pre-Joycean Fellowship).

In large part, beta readers help you identify the strong, emotional parts of your story. They sift through your blind spots. In fact, blind spots are the exact reason you need a beta. Your prose may be grammatically perfect, your plot sound, but at the end of the day it’s difficult to see your own work objectively. You’ve been wading in the muck for too long. Further, whether we intend to or not, each of us puts little pieces of ourselves into our writing. It’s a joyously personal pursuit, but this can be both a great strength and a devastating weakness. A beta reader can offer a bird’s eye view of what you’ve written.

Because it’s important for beta readers to be objective, it’s beneficial to recruit one that you perhaps don’t know very well – or maybe don’t know at all. Having (and employing!) an outside perspective helps you elevate your writing beyond what you could make it on your own.

            But I’m hiring an editor.

I’ve heard this objection go both ways: authors utilizing beta readers don’t think they need an editor, and authors utilizing editors don’t believe they need a beta audience. The simple truth is this: editors and beta readers perform two crucial yet vastly different services.

Editors can and often do stand in for beta readers, but just as with your own perspective, it’s quite possible they will grow too close to the project to objectively see all of the deeper issues. Likewise, an editor is someone who knows quite a bit about the technical aspect of writing. While there is nothing wrong with being well-versed, beta readers often offer a new take…the audience’s take.

Something that provokes your audience may fly totally under the radar of your editor. You and the editor may both understand a concept quite well…but what about the layman? Will your target audience be impacted by your words?

Additionally, an editor is still only one person. Your beta audience should consist of 2-3 members of your ultimate target audience. Even if they can’t exactly pinpoint why they felt a certain way about a scene or sequence, if you at least find out they do feel that way, you and your editor can work together to discover why and help change, alter, or improve the scene in question.

            What should I expect from a beta reader?

A beta reader is not your editor. A beta reader is not your proof reader. It’s courteous to consider these things before beginning your search. Perform a rudimentary edit of your own manuscript and a rough proof read – you may even find and correct some issues by yourself in this fashion – and then begin your search for a beta reader.

Once you’ve done that, it’s good to have a series of questions prepared for whomever will providing feedback. There are plenty of suggestions for questions on the web, and I’ve compiled a list of them at http://www.overhaulmynovel.com/betaqguide to help you get started.

Expect and request clarity. If you don’t understand a comment or question the beta reader poses, ask them about it. Don’t be shy; communicate all of your uncertainties. Asking the right questions can help you and the beta both identify why they had a certain reaction to something.

On the flip side of this, resist the urge to correct them or to explain how their perception was wrong. I spend a great deal of time talking about this in my book: if your beta reader didn’t grasp it, your audience likely will not grasp it. That’s one reason it’s good to select beta readers from your target audience – and to have multiple betas. If two or three people have misunderstood or reacted a certain way, it’s probably safe to say your target audience will, too.

Give your beta reader time. Resist the urge to hound them or follow up to excess; you don’t want to rush them through your book. Let them read at the pace that’s comfortable to them. That’s how they’ll get the most organic experience from your book. If it feels like a job, they might treat it that way – and that could taint the feedback. Of course, the allotted time should be reasonable. Any deadlines you may have should be clearly communicated before the beta process even begins.

In short, every aspect of the beta/author relationship can be boiled down to clear and open communication. Each of you should feel comfortable asking questions and providing commentary.

            How do I find one?

There are many resources for finding beta readers! You can join a local writing group, which can be found on websites like Meetup or Craigslist (or even virtual writing groups on websites like Facebook). One popular method is to use content tags on Twitter or similar social media.

My favorite method is to find databases which sport lists of beta readers, along with their preferred genres. These are people who love to read and can usually get through a book fairly quickly.

Violeta Nedkova’s Indie Helper Database is one: https://violetanedkova.com/indie-helper-database

I also run a beta program that connects authors to the right beta readers, which you can find at http://www.overhaulmynovel.com/betaprogram.

Whatever method you choose, finding the right beta reader will serve only to uplift, improve, and grow your writing.

Check out Meg’s blog, follow her on Twitter, and be sure to check out her book on Amazon!

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