Beta-Readers. They are arguably the most important part of our writing process. They get the first glimpse of our work with all its warts and pimples. They give us crucial feedback and set us on the right path long before we turn our babies over to professional editors. You could say that they’re the ones who point out the broccoli in our teeth.
Every writer needs a posse of good beta-readers. But where do you go to find them? How do you separate a good beta-reader from a not-so-great one?
The most important qualities to look for in a beta-reader are honesty and savvy. You want someone who knows what makes good writing and who is able to be honest with you about whether that’s what you’ve got. It might be tempting to give our work to people we know will like it, and while that kind of feedback is gratifying and essential, it’s not going to help you to produce the best book possible. Along those lines, it’s not going to do you any good to give your work to someone who has something to prove and who will find fault with everything just because they can.
No, what you need is someone in the middle. What you need is someone who reads a lot and has a discerning eye. That person might not have a clue how to sit down and write a novel (or maybe they do) but they are familiar enough with what flows, what hums, and what clicks to be able to point out the places in your novel that resonate and those that fall flat.
I’m lucky. I have one of the best beta-readers that a writer could possibly have, my best friend and soon-to-be sister-in-law Kristine. Now I hear you saying that Kristine couldn’t possibly be a good beta-reader. She breaks all the standards of who makes an impartial judge. She’s my best friend and she’s family. And aren’t we always told to stay away from getting writing advice from our closest friends and family? Isn’t the school of thought that they will be too afraid to hurt our feelings or too complimentary because they love us too much?
Well, Kristine isn’t like that at all. Yes, she loves me. In fact, she loves me so much that she can be brutal about my novels while still confident that I’ll speak to her on the other side. Kristine is as honest as they come about my work. One of my favorite comments from her includes “Michael West is a complete asshole. I can’t stand the things he does and I wanted to smack him for it all.” That was her first reading of Our Little Secrets.
Now, I could have been offended by that. Michael West is possibly my favorite hero so far. I love him to bits. But Kristine’s comments drove home that a reader might not interpret his actions and intentions the same way I did. I know him, she didn’t. What Kristine told me was that I needed to find a better way to get Michael’s motivations across to the reader. So back to the drawing board I went. And sure enough, she liked him much better the second time through.
But it’s more than just honesty that Kristine brings to the table. She’s been a voracious reader for as long as she can remember. She devours books. And judging from her shelves, she has really good taste. Way, way back a couple of years ago when I was just beginning to contemplate publishing I asked her to level with me. I asked her if my writing was truly good enough. Were the fun stories I used to give her to read on par with the volumes of books she read each year? When she said yes I knew I was ready.So now Kristine gets all of my first drafts. She is my go-to person for first-round feedback. She also gets the last draft before publishing too. She’s my copy editor (*cough* blame her for typos *cough*). Just kidding.
I have other beta-readers too, friends and fellow writers. Each one is there to provide a different kind of feedback. I’ve got the ones I go to for emotional response to the plot and characters and ones I go to for more technical aspects of writing. Each of them is so important to my writing process.
I’ve also been a beta-reader before. Offering to beta-read your peers’ work is an experience I urge all writers to have. You can learn so much about your own work by helping someone perfect their own work. Even best-selling authors do this, by the way. I’ve had interesting conversations with some of the top names in Romance about their “critique partners” and how they work together. Critique partners are beta-readers with credentials. We all need them.
And, of course, I can’t go without mentioning how vital beta-readers are for self-publishing authors. Especially ones that feel they can’t afford a professional editor. (But sell your blood, donate your kidneys, do whatever it takes to get the money to pay for a professional editor!) If professional help isn’t on the cards then you absolutely must find the best, most honest, most savvy beta-readers you can.
So who are your beta-readers and how have they helped you? Time to sing their praises!