This article is by Julian Saheed.
There is a reason we all leave space for acknowledgments in the first few pages of our books.
Though our names appear on the front covers as the architects of the story, there are those who check to make sure the final product is what people want. Those whose eyes are red from reading, whose hands are tired from scribbling and whose contributions must never be taken lightly.
I speak of course of that most noble of vocations, the Beta Reader.
We should look upon them as the jeweller who takes the diamond and shapes it into its final sparkling form. With tireless proofreading they enable an author to see all those things which they are naturally blinded to. They form the final line of defence before sending you manuscript out to the wide world for consumption. Without them we would all be lost. Yet they never share the limelight with the author.
Why Beta readers?
We must not confuse our Editors with our beta Readers. Editors take your first draft and show you exactly where you went wrong. They identify why your engine isn’t humming as smoothly as it should. Going back to the jeweller analogy, we as authors mine the ore, the Editor scrapes the ore away to find the diamond. Once we have that edited draft, or diamond, our Beta readers polish it up nicely for consumption.
Beta readers are there to take a look at our story from the viewpoint of our consumers. They take a much broader look at our writing and provide us with feedback on themes, plots, character development and interactions. They explain to us how our story made them feel, at which points they cried, at which points they laughed. Most importantly, they tell us what they did not like. Their feedback is provided from the mindset of a reader, not the mindset of an editor, whose approach is much more technical. This is precious feedback. Feedback that can help you avoid displeasure in your fans, something we all strive towards.
Getting the most out of your Beta Readers:
So you have finished your story. An editor has drenched it in red ink and fixed all of your grammatical errors, told you what to cut and what to fix. Now you want to send the finalised draft to your Beta Readers. Take a step back, take a deep breath. We know how excited you are to be this close to having the story finished. Ask yourself these questions.
Do you have the right Beta readers?
Anyone can call together a group of friends and get them to read a manuscript. Don’t do this. It’s the equivalent of asking an economist for advice on playing football. You need people who know their stuff. If you are writing Fantasy, you need people who are well read in Fantasy literature. Only they can tell you if your target audience is going to enjoy your work. An avid reader of romance and little else may help spot missed grammatical errors. They won’t give you much on the believability of your magic system.
Select individuals who themselves are good at expressing their opinion. Ask them to give you their in-depth opinion on a book which you have both read. If you get an answer akin to, “I really liked it. It was great.” Move on. You want the person who can spend an hour telling you their favourite scene, character and how they thought that the powerful themes resonated with them. They will give you the feedback you need.
Do they know exactly what they are supposed to be doing?
When you hand over your manuscript you need to let your Beta Readers know exactly what you are looking for. I make it a point to email them all the specific things that I am looking for. Often I provide them with the questions that I will be asking them once they have finished reading. This gives them the right frame of mind to begin reading. If you wait until the end to ask them all of your questions they might struggle to remember certain points. It’s much easier to build a model when you have an instruction manual.
Have you set up an efficient way to receive their feedback?
There could be little worse than having access to a wonderful Beta Reader and then only getting a handful of comments from them over a coffee. It is fantastic to receive feedback about your work. But a conversation is never going to be efficient. Whether it is giving them each a hard copy manuscript to make notes on, or asking them to use a digital reader which allows for note taking, you must ensure that you receive your feedback in writing. Get together with your Beta Readers. Talk for hours on end about your work, but make sure you take notes yourself and also collect theirs. I myself have made the mistake of hearing wonderful criticism to only forget half of it by the time I returned home.
And at the very end do not forget to say thank you. Acknowledge them in your front matter. Send them a cake. Get a tattoo of their name. Do everything you can to make them know how grateful you are for their hard work. Most of the time they aren’t being paid. Pay them back with the respect they deserve.
To all the Beta Readers out there who have given their time in service to the cause, on behalf of writers everywhere I salute you. May the gods of a thousand worlds shine their blessings upon you.
For Further Thought
Have you worked with a Beta Reader? If so, how did the experience improve your novel?
What particular questions have been most effective at getting quality feedback from your Beta Readers?
How have you thanked your Beta Readers?
About the Author:
Julian Saheed works by day and fights dragons at night. He resides in Melbourne, though most of the time he is wandering through dimly lit castles, tangled forests and forbidden dungeons. You can find his blog at juliansaheed.com and his latest novel, The Tyrant’s Onslaught, at Amazon.