Recently I submitted a short story to the Writers of the Future contest. I poured over that bit of fiction for three months. I had my beta reader pour over it. I revised and edited then showed it to another beta reader. Then revised some more and then, I submitted it. Proud of myself for my submitting accomplishment, I then went and showed it to a friend who’d expressed interest in looking at it and her first comment was, “I really like it! Do you want me to point out the typos I found, or is someone else doing that for you?
Lesson: There is no such thing as too many beta readers.
I mean, sure, ok, maybe more than 10 people is a bit much, but less than? No. It can never hurt to have more eyes on your fiction.
Yes, you should have the ability to write something with complete sentences, and yes you should have a character in a setting with a conflict so that the reader has something to do, but before you can get to the point of HAVING a reader who spent money on your work, a writers needs someone to read their words and makes sure at A, they are good and B, that they didn’t leave in the entirety of your grocery list on accident or some other such nonsense.
I was first introduced to the concept of a beta reader when I got my start in writing by in fanfiction at the tender age of 11. I used to post my work to Fanfiction.net. (I believe that account has been deactivated and all my work taken down…but with the internet, one can never tell.) There used to be a column on the site that would give writers advice for improving their fictions. I didn’t recognize writing advice the first time I saw it, but the lesson of showing your work to someone before you put it up for the world to see has always resonated with me.
When I joined my first writing class, I was introduced to the very vital rule that Writing is Re-Writing. Before that class, I’d always felt a lot of frustration that nothing I put on paper came out the way I saw it in my head. I felt like I couldn’t show anyone my writing without being horribly embarrassed. There were exceptions of course. In high school I co-wrote a few stories with some friends via a swap-journal. We’d get a book and start writing out bits and pieces of a story and then hand it off when you were done with your part. Yet even that wasn’t true re-writing because we never edited or criticized what the other one was putting down.
That, dear fellows, is what a Beta-Reader is for.
First, you don’t want just anyone you meet to be a beta reader. If you are writing about sci-fi, perhaps your friend who hates sci-fi isn’t the best person to ask. Make sure that your reader is someone who is familiar with the subject that you are writing about and would be a good audience for the story you’re trying to tell. Find someone who is good at picking out errors and pointing them out. As someone to close read for unexpected scene shifts, head hopping and pacing problems. A beta reader can point out that you wrote that last passage as if your character had three arms and whether or not she remembered to actually use the same name for the type of mythical time keeping method you have in place for your fantasy world. Or if your murder suspect’s alibi changes between location moves.
A good beta reader will be blunt but kind. They will take your baby into their arms, lay it out on their exam table and using a steady hand, draw the dotted lines around where the incisions need to be made for a better version of your work. A beta reader does not tell you what to do. A beta reader does not re-write your words and change your novel without talking to you. They don’t share your work around to other people and they, above all things, do not tell you that it’s fine as is on the first pass.
These qualities can take a while to cultivate and find. For me, the best way to get a good beta was to become a beta. When I found out that one of my close friends was working on her writing, I immediately volunteered to look at her work. As I began to go through it and give her that needed extra opinion, we began to feel each other out, to realize where each other’s strengths and weaknesses are. Personally, I’ve been told that I’m a decent story-doctor when it comes to recognizing pacing issues. She is amazing at grammar. It all evens out to create a better product.
Finally, recognize that your beta reader probably should not be your life partner or parent. There needs to be some boundaries that exist and both those people are unlikely to give you the completely honest feedback you need to improve.
Good places to find Beta Readers:
-Online Writing forums
-Writers circles – Most writing circles offer critique. I know that I was in one for a few years where we emailed out what we were going to critique and you came and discussed it together.
-Social media – Follow people who read the types of books you do and make some friends. See if they will look over your work
-Online forums – There are several communities that spring up around areas of interest and here is a good area to hunt down readers who would be interested in what you’re working on.
-Writer’s blogs – A lot of writers (including myself) are usually interested in some sort of swap. I like to swap the first 500 words of a work in progress with people when I’m trying to nail an opening or hook.
Writing is Re-writing, friends. Don’t be afraid to change.