You’ve put in a lot of hard work. You’ve polished, you’ve cut, you’ve had the sleepless nights and the caffeine highs but now it’s time to let your story fly the nest. Or is it?
There comes a time when we must stop writing (and editing) and release our work into the world. This can be the most daunting prospect faced by a writer. Having someone read your work for the first time is never an easy thing. What you need is a beta-reader.
What is a beta-reader?
Beta-readers (sometimes called alpha-readers or critical readers) are individuals, or a group, a writer uses as a test audience for their work. As the name suggests, they are readers but readers with a specific task and that is: tell me everything you like and don’t like about this book, including a full list of notes and supporting references. They are the ones we trust to be honest, to cast a critical eye over our grammar, spelling, flow and any other improvements in narrative that will make the story better. Beta-readers are typically the first, after the writer, to read the work and are essential in pointing out the gaping plot holes, loose ends, continuity issues and whether or not the story is even believable.
It is a pretty foolish endeavour to release a book without first running it by a beta-reader.
What should you look for in a beta-reader?
When drafting this post, I came up with a list of all the things to look for in a beta-reader and soon realised (after two full pages of A4 paper) that it’s a matter of personal preference. However, there were a few items on that list that are essential.
A good beta-reader should:
- Have a good sense of grammar, spelling and flow;
- Enjoy reading and be avid readers;
- Be able to give constructive criticism;
- Be able to maintain an unbiased view (friends and family members don’t always make for the best beta-readers);
- Be willing to give an honest opinion of the work; and
- Not resort to violence after the writer asks them, for the nine-hundredth time, if they’ve finished the book yet (and we will).
Beta-readers don’t have to be other writers but I would strongly recommend having at least one with a sense of what it’s like to be a writer or have some knowledge about the world of publishing.
How to be a beta-reader
Okay, we’ve covered the what, the why and the who and now it’s time for the how. Being a writer’s beta-reader can be difficult (what with all the constant nagging about reading the book), so here’s a few tips to help you along.
What has the writer asked for?
For me, getting feedback from a beta-reader is exciting but there’s nothing more frustrating than reading through page after page of notes to find that none of the questions I’d specifically asked have been broached. If the writer ask you to tell them about plot holes, then mention the plot holes (or tell them there aren’t any). If they ask about grammar (I will), tell them about my changes in tense or questionable punctuation. Don’t assume they will pick up on things themselves because they may not have seen the problem.
If a particular scene doesn’t work for you then say so, but also say why it doesn’t work and what you think can be done to improve on it. Comments like ‘I don’t like this’ don’t really help. Be specific about what you don’t like and suggest alternatives if you wish. It is also important that you…
Don’t focus on the negative
It’s easy to list all the things that you don’t like about a writer’s work but remember that what you are reading is someone’s labour of love. Even if you don’t like the story, it’s unlikely you’ll not find a single thing you enjoy about it. What about the description of the birdhouse? Didn’t it remind you of the one in your garden when you were a kid? Tell the writer what you do like as well as what you don’t. And remember to explain why you like it.
Concentrate on the work, not the writer
Writers have pretty messed up heads, it comes with the territory (you try and stay sane with random characters popping in and out of your head). But just because we sometimes write about dark thoughts doesn’t mean we share them. Do not surmise that a character’s actions and opinions are shared/condoned by the writer. Likewise, avoid asking probing questions to see if the author has committed a felony/romped in the breaking waves/danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. The question to ask is ‘does this fit the character or story?’
The work you are reading is a work-in-progress (WIP) and is likely to be evolving as you’re reading it. Because it’s a WIP, the writer will want your feedback as soon as possible. Be conscious of any deadlines or timescales the author has set and be sure to return any comments on or before these dates. Also, if other matter become a priority or you can no longer commit to the deadline, let the writer know as soon as possible.