Beta Readers: Bane or Boon?

betareaderblissThis spring, I’ve had my second – and third – encounter with a group of beta readers. Even as my stinging ego debates whether they are the bane of my existence or a boon to my career, I can’t deny they are essential.

If you’re a writer, you need beta readers. Further, you need beta readers who are willing to tell you what they think, regardless of how much your feelings might be hurt (and I mean demolished – picture me curled in a fetal position sobbing).

What are beta readers?

In my mind, a beta reader is like a software program’s beta tester. They take the product for a ride and find everything that’s wrong with it.

In the case of books, much of the beta feedback is subjective – as a reader’s preferences are varied and unique. Some people adore Shakespeare. I despise reading him, but I’m all about watching his work performed on stage.

In any case, betas are the first real readers of a manuscript. Sure, Aunt June may have seen your first draft and raved about it becoming a best seller. This isn’t the same as having an objective reader give feedback.

Beta readers read your rewritten and lightly edited second draft. They read it as if it’s a book they picked up off the shelf. The only difference: every time they see something they don’t understand or  something they dislike, they comment on it.

What I expect from my beta readers?

Unlike beta testers for software, beta readers might be expected to look for different things by the author. Software programs are meant to work a certain way, and the betas are supposed to find the bugs, so the code can be repaired before the program is marketed.

In a similar manner, beta readers are expected to see if a story works. Does the plot progress in a sensible fashion? Do the characters grow and change? Is there an obvious story problem that is resolved before the book ends?

Of course, my idea of what makes a story satisfying could be different than yours. This is where the subjectivity comes into the picture.

As far as expectations go, I send a detailed checklist to my beta readers. I generally ask about story structure, setting, believability and character likability and growth.

I consider every comment from beta readers, but that doesn’t mean I always change the things thy find problematic. After all, I’m the author.

Bane

Two types of readers tend to be the bane of my existence when it comes to betas: non-genre and published writers.

First of all, having readers who don’t generally read your genre take your manuscript for a test drive is an excellent idea. They are going to be more critical of story elements and plot holes. If you can suck them into the story, great. It’s more likely that they are going to be on the outside noticing all the things they don’t like.

Remember, I don’t change everything they suggest. This is especially true for non-genre readers. However, I do take their thoughts on plot and character seriously to heart. After all, if they can’t relate to my characters, I’ve done something wrong.

Published authors – especially if they are in your genre – are harsh. And, I’ll be honest, it hurts to have someone you respect dissect your story. It feels like being gutted alive.

Once you stop bleeding, however, you’ll be able to sort through all those comments – meant to help not scald – and use them to make your story better.

Boon

I always make sure I have some avid readers of my genre and some members of my focus audience read my early manuscript. These people are going to be a boon to my story.

Avid readers know what works. They’ve read so many books, they can predict outcomes and wade through poor prose without losing touch with the story.

This makes it sound like they aren’t going to be helpful. Not true. They will be able to spot a plot hole a mile away. If your plot is too predictable, you can be sure you’ll hear about it. And, they can tell you if the character you’ve chosen works in the story.

Since my novels are aimed at a young adult audience, it’s essential that some of my betas are in this group. It can be difficult to find young readers who can give helpful feedback.

Luckily for me, I have connections at the local middle school. Further, I can interview the readers in person, thus tailoring my questions based on the answers they give me.

Time consuming? Without a doubt.

However, I’ve discovered problems with character consistency, magic systems, weak resolutions and plot progression from my target audience. The investment is worth the outcome.

In the end, books are meant to be read. As the author, I’m too close to the work to determine if the story is clear. I know my characters so well, I might miss the fact that on paper they don’t appear at all like they do in my head.

This is why authors need beta readers. Without unbiased reader feedback, a novel will never reach its fullest story potential.

Bane or boon, if you’re a writer, get your manuscript to beta readers – before you send it to agents, editors, publishers or -worst of all – publish it yourself.

2 thoughts on “Beta Readers: Bane or Boon?

  1. My best betas are my bane. I have had some beta readers rip my stories to shreds and I cried and cursed them for days. And then the dust settled and I went to work. My novel is so much better because of them, and my skin is so tough. I’d much rather the news come from my beta than my publisher.

    1. Jenny-
      That observation is spot on. In my case, I need the manuscript to launch a rocket so it will find a home with a publisher. As much as the criticism made me doubt whether the story was worth the work, I know that all the changes I’ve made have improved it, tightened it, made it more marketable.
      I thought my skin had toughened up, but your notes sucker punched me. And I was getting too comfortable after all my short story acceptances. A novel takes more skill and finesse. Perhaps I’m not at the level to tackle it just yet – but the only way to get there is to climb on.
      And so…I’m climbing on. More edits ahead with a printed copy next week.

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