Friday, February 12, 2010

Beta Readers

Treat these people like royalty. They are worth their weight in gold. Who are they? Beta Readers are, at best, a mix of people. Parents and lovers are going to read your masterpiece and say you are brilliant. In their eyes you are.

But an agent hasn't fallen for you yet, so let's get some real input and prepare to go through the ms again when they are through.

My beta readers are diehard readers who respect me enough to tell me where my story doesn't work. Some of them are writers and some are not. Most of them (as it turns out) don't read literary fiction. But usually it is good to get some beta readers who read in your genre.

Care of beta readers: First off, it takes much longer to beta read an ms than a printed book. For one thing, they are looking for things for you rather than laying back and reading for enjoyment. So never, ever be argumentative to a beta reader.

It is fine to disagree, but consider if they missed the point of what you wrote, then likely you didn't write what you meant. Encourage them to tell you the hard stuff, the stuff they fear might hurt your feelings. This isn't personal. The point is to make the ms the best it can be.

I have found when a beta reader questions a sentence or word that the problem is a bigger problem than they realize. Sometimes it needs to be rewritten, moved, or deleted. So look bigger than they point out. I like to engage in a dialogue with my beta readers when they have a question and draw out as much comment and opinion as I can. They can only get a first impression the first reading, so make it count.

Some of my beta readers have been with me for ten years. We're like family. I trust them not to sugar coat things. They trust me to respect their opinion, even if I disagree.

Always be courteous. I know, that shouldn't have to be said, but when I've beta read, sometimes the writer forgets that I could have been doing something else, like my own writing rather than reading for them. I always give them a gift, a signed copy of the published book.

Sometimes I have several sets of readers. The first group goes through, I make changes, then the next group goes through. Regardless of how many or few groups of beta readers I have, there are a couple of people who I save for last because they are the gatekeepers. Nothing gets past them, nothing. Wear thick skin with these types, but they are priceless.

I don't give my beta readers strict instructions because I don't want to limit the feedback to a set number of items. I want every thought. I usually ask for them to point out things that seem amiss and things they really like (or I might change them if I don't know that is a good part - it all looks bad after a while, know what I mean?).

Some of my readers prefer paper copies and some digital mss. I accommodate them. I rather have them read on paper because it is easier for me to mark their notes, not that I incorporate all of them. Others send me a list with page and line number and change or comment. Basically, I go with the flow because the input is so valuable.

Then go back to your ms (also called WIP - work in progress) and fix the places you agree with the beta readers need fixing. By this point, I'm totally sick of the story, the characters, the title, and so ready to start something new that I could delete half of it. Then at some point, it is all okay again and I'm happy with it. I usually read through it aloud one more time. That might be a bit much, but things get missed with all that editing and rewriting and deleting.

From here, most of you will polish your synopsis and query letter. I do other stuff because I'm happy with what I'm doing with my books now and I wasn't happy before. But that's me. You have to figure out what is best for you.

Whew, I've told you all I know. Guess I'm done with this blog unless I come up with something else to write. Oh wait, the short story contest is still going on. Guess I can't quit here.


  1. I know writers read this blog, so jump in and give your opinion. Tell us what you do different. Share...

  2. I just want to thank you for explaining exactly what a beta reader is...I'd seen the term used in other blogs and had pretty much figured it out, but the way you fully explain it helped me fully understand.

    I'm already trying to think of ideal beta readers for my ms and I'm only beginning the 2nd draft! Ha!

    Thanks so much, Nadine!

  3. Erin, glad it helped. I found I needed more help on the first ms than the rest. Part of it was the amount of work it needed, part of it was my confidence level once I seriously started rewrites. Some people give them strict instructions, I'm more open to any comment they have.

    I forgot to mention, sometimes beta readers try to do the rewrites and take the story in a totally different direction. Don't let that happen, but remember they are just trying to be helpful. You might even awaken the writer in them.

  4. Erin, When I finished the first ms, I gave it to a person (not even a friend, just someone who offered) who was used to writing and checking reports for the Police. She checked through. Picked up silly spelling and grammar as well as story lines she didn't understand. I don't think she'll recognise the final book when I give her a copy for her initial help. But that first read through by someone else was a great help.

  5. An informative post, Nadine. I think having a beta reading group is really helpful. As part of my MA Writing course, we read and critique each other's work, and I've always found this useful.

    Hope you are magically well, my friend. x

  6. Very timely for me. I am a baby writer and have just submitted a piece for a competition. I have a fantastic group of friends, all scientists and educators,complete perfectionists and very, very honest. It was difficult, in particular when I got some criticism *after* my submission. But I have learned so much about how to handle the criticism, how to cope with several people's different opinions, and how to treat these people who give their time for no particular benefit to them. They often spotted something they thought was minor but which lead to a complete change of approach. Absolutely brilliant.

  7. Carol Anne, good to hear from you again. If you have MA tips, please always add them.

    Babs, yes, getting past it feeling like criticism is hard. Once you do though, it becomes emotionally neutral and helpful. Thanks for commenting and welcome.

    Both, I think it helps others to read comments from others so they know that we're all in the same boat.

  8. Boy that last sentence really sounds great! I need beta readers for this blog too!

    Seriously, some people won't even tell anyone their working title. Maybe their partner reads their ms, but no one else. For those with an agent, it is probably not a big deal. For those first timers planning to seek an agent, it seems to me better to test the ms on friend than to risk blowing it with their first pick agent.

    Alswys look for some regular people who read in your genre, if you can. Most reading maniacs are thrilled to read something prior to publishing. I tell mine they are free to brag to their reading friends, just don't tell too much about the story.

  9. I agree, beta readers are wonderful treasures.

  10. Agreed. Plus developing writer friends helps too. You can bounce ideas, ask questions to someone who knows the craft (like Carol Ann mentioned), and the moral support is priceless. Non-writers are great, but some of this stuff they just don't fully understand. So, I'm glad we have each other and that you share comments on this blog.