Thursday, November 10, 2022

Beta Readers

It's about a week after hurricane season here in South Florida, but apparently nobody sent the Atlantic Ocean the reminder text, so I've got two days off for Hurricane Nicole, who is currently sending us a trickle of rain and weak wind that nonetheless ruined my run this morning because I am getting too old and Nicole is mean. I keep seeing all the memes online about teachers dancing and cheering at these days off, and I don't doubt some are, but a lot of us are dealing with cabin fever combined with anxiety about how to catch up when classes resume.

I've graded everything that needs grading, except for the dozen or so emails from students crying about late assignments, which I've chosen to ignore for now, and the kids are either napping or playing games on the Switch. With all this free time, I've decided to tackle a chore that I've been putting off for some time. No, not housework, it's my Beta Reader Survey!

A tan sandwich sign on a red brick walkway says "awesome" with an arrow pointing right and "less awesome" with an arrow pointing left.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

For writers, beta readers are crucial to the success of any text, whether it's a short story or a novel, fiction or nonfiction. Beta readers are generally the first people to read an early, polished draft of your work and give you feedback about the story and writing quality. I used to wonder why they're called beta readers instead of alpha readers, since they're the first ones to see the (semi)finished story. But that's the thing, the writer is the alpha reader, the truly first to read the story all the way through. And that's why writers need beta readers, because we suck at evaluating our own work. Think about some of the most obvious reasons why writers are the worst judges of their writing:
  • We tend to always think our work is either terrible or terrific, and that opinion usually fluctuates with our mood, sleep debt, relationship status, and hunger level.
  • We know all the possible paths the story could have taken, all the "deleted scenes" as it were, so we can't really judge the story arc on its own merits.
  • We have a built in connection to the characters because they are people we know, people who live inside our heads, or people who are really ourselves with different names and hairstyles.
  • We're often just tired of the whole thing already and want it to be on bookshelves and over with, for goodness sake.
On the other hand, a good beta reader has none of those hangups. They evaluate the work as it appears on the page, without the baggage of self-doubt and the fear of people laughing at them. Because they are only seeing the draft in front of them, they can focus on whether it works or not, instead of the hundred revisions that might have been better. Like your best friend meeting your new girlfriend for the first time, they don't have any innate attachment to the characters, either negatively or positively, and will only feel connected to them if the writing accomplishes that feat for them. Lastly, a beta reader is seeing the work with fresh eyes, without the fatigue of hours and hours of writing and editing, and (if they're a decent person) probably still wants to see it on bookshelves wherever fine novels are sold.

Furthermore, if you're serious about publishing your work, whether through traditional houses or self-publishing means, you really don't want the first person to find the flaws in it to be an agent, a publisher, or a reader who will drop a one-star review that tanks your algorithms.

Now, you can always pay for good beta readers, and you'll usually find very professional and competent ones for hire. But some of us ain't sold a book yet, and ain't got that kind of money, so we need free help.

However, that doesn't mean that just anyone would make a good beta reader. Any literate person can read your work, but it takes a special person to respond in a way that actually helps guide your revision process. Your beta reader needs to be someone who can tell you your book sucks without jeopardizing the relationship, or at least be able to give constructive criticism that you can receive without catching feelings. If the reader is someone close to you by blood or romance, they might be hesitant to tell you anything other than "It's great!" and you might be too invested in the relationship to hear anything else as well.

But aside from the emotional connection to the person, you have to consider how likely they are to give you the kind of feedback you can use. If you choose someone who isn't really a reader, who might not even like reading (can you imagine?), then their reaction to your work is going to be equally dispassionate, assuming they even want to read it. On the other hand, just being an avid reader who goes through five or six books a month doesn't necessarily make someone a good beta reader for your work. You might be better off with someone who reads fewer books, but reads them more critically, and especially someone who can explain very clearly why they did or didn't like a book. A reader who is voracious but shallow will probably only be able to give you a thumbs up or down, and be eager to move on to their next conquest. But a thoughtful reader who can articulate their reactions to story, plot, character, theme, and style is a the perfect beta reader. This doesn't have to be someone with a degree in English or writing, although it helps. Just look for someone who can actually talk about the books they read. Any time you find yourself in an interesting conversation with someone about a novel or short story, get their contact info and ask them if they'd be willing to beta read for you sometime. Frame it as a compliment about how insightful they are and how much you think their opinions would help you.

Also, consider whether you need a beta reader with a special or unique background. Is there a question of cultural authenticity that you want the reader to address? Or maybe some occupational insight into a field of work that you want to ring true in your story? Do you need the perspective of someone with a particular gender, nationality, or ethnicity to read your work in order to evaluate a specific character's motivations or reactions? For my last (unpublished) WIP, I wanted to write about a boy growing up in Zambia, like my nephew. I was able to consult with my sister who adopted him about that experience and some general questions about the country, but she also referred me to her friends who are both Zambian nationals and academics. They were able to answer so many questions about how the plot of my story would have to work, what could and couldn't happen, and how different people in the culture would react to a specific conflict. It wasn't the focal point of the entire novel, but I want it to be authentic and respectful of Zambian culture, and these readers gave me tons of material to work with. Likewise, for my current WIP that involves a lot of scenes in the ocean, I was lucky enough to find a marine biologist willing to read the relevant chapters and let me know what worked and what didn't, scientifically.

So, the best beta reader is someone who can properly assess your novel's merits and is willing to tell you the truth about it, but also someone who has the time to actually commit to the project. If you're trying to publish, you can't wait months for someone to finish reading your novel. Not only that, but providing proper feedback is a whole other chore itself. It involves making notes while reading and probably a more holistic response at the end. It's work. For that reason, try to avoid asking the single parent with two kids and very little free time to beta read for you. They might even really want to do it, but if they can't get it done in a timely manner without disrupting their own personal lives, then it's really not a good idea for either one of you.

Of course, you can ease some of the burden on your beta readers by providing a formal method of feedback that relieves them of the pressure of trying to respond to absolutely everything in the novel or story. I've been using this Google form to collect feedback, and I add, remove, or change questions to suit the specific concerns I have about a given work in progress. This way, my beta reader doesn't waste time wondering what I want to know or over-responding, and I don't end up with completely useless feedback that doesn't address my concerns about the work. In addition, I can keep the feedback all in one place, and view all of my readers' responses to a specific question together.

Lastly, one of the best ways to find good beta readers is also the most obvious. Swap WIP's with other writers! If you're not already connected to a group of writers, this is one important reason to find your people. This could be an in-person, local writing group or an online, informal Twitter or Instagram circle, but it's really important to network with other writers, aside from all the other benefits, having other writers in your circle is the best pool from which to draw beta readers. Given all the necessary qualities of a good beta reader, another aspiring or successful writer is a perfect fit. They already know the craft as well as the process, they are probably not so close to you to cause emotions to interfere with feedback, and they have a vested interest in providing meaningful feedback if they are relying on you to do the same for them. Everybody wins.

So, by all means, copy the Google form above, if it helps, and modify it however you think will help you. Also, try listening to this podcast episode about being a good beta reader by K. M. Weiland at her podcast "Helping Writers Become Authors." She gives some good advice about being a beta reader that can also help you choose the right person to read for you. Also, watch this video from Shaelin Writes about how to handle feedback or criticism, and how to actually apply it to revising your work. She gives some insight in what to do with the criticisms your readers might make, other than rolling into a ball in the corner and telling yourself that you were stupid to even write your name on paper.

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