What Is a Beta Reader?
Let’s start by laying out the differences between a beta reader and an editor. They perform a similar function, certainly, but they are very different kinds of readers.
An editor is a paid professional, typically with academic or professional credentials that qualify him or her to look at a piece of writing with a critical eye. An editor has the judgement and skills required to make (often extensive) changes to a story’s plot, character development, structure, and grammar without sacrificing its style or voice. For a comprehensive audit of your story, a professional editor is your best bet.
A beta reader, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have the same credentials. That’s not to say it’s never happened. In fact, it’s probably happened a lot. But typically, a beta reader is unpaid, and his or her feedback tends to be that of a casual reader or observer rather than a professional. To put things in perspective, your beta readers could be your neighbour, your co-worker’s brother, and your mom. (But it might be best not to rely on your mom for critique. She might have a hard time being honest. Or maybe not. You know your mom better than I do.)
Why You Need One
Before you pitch your story to a publisher—or send it to a freelance editor—you want it to be the best it can possibly be. The film industry commonly conducts test screenings of movies to identify problems with storytelling and editing. Beta readers perform the same function.
Good beta readers can pick up on inconsistencies in characterization. They can identify plot holes and continuity issues. They can tell you when you’ve rambled on too long about the rolling green hills and shaded forests. If there are dangling plot threads, they’ll likely catch those. Some can even talk to you about spelling and grammar, but many others may not be equipped to do so.
Talent-wise, you could be the next Shakespeare, but you still need someone else to read your story so you can get an objective take on it. When you spend weeks, months, or even years working on a project, it’s difficult to look at it from an outsider’s perspective. You’re more willing to let plot holes slide, or worse, you don’t even notice them anymore.
Every written project needs a team to succeed. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
How to Find One
Getting people to beta your story isn’t the easiest endeavour. You can ask your family or friends to give it a read for you, but as I mentioned, you may not always get an honest critique from them. Acquaintances and complete strangers will be less inclined to spare your feelings.
•Try social media. Are you on Twitter? Send out a tweet with the #amwriting and/or #betareaders tags and see if anyone’s willing to pick it up. You could also join a writing group on Facebook or Pinterest and try to get beta readers that way.
•The NaNoWriMo forums are always crawling with writers, but the bad news is that they’re really only active during the main event (in November) and Camp NaNo (in April and July).
•Goodreads has a forum dedicated to connecting with beta readers.
•Join a writing group in your hometown. Meetup.com has many writing groups in different cities.
Remember, not all beta readers will have a familiarity with your genre. You probably wouldn’t want a sci-fi reader to critique your Victorian-era romance. Make sure that anyone who agrees to beta read your story has read enough of your genre to offer meaningful feedback.
The Beta Reader Contract
Working with a beta reader is a two-way street. They’ll have obligations to you, but you’ll also have obligations to them. Let’s get into them, shall we?
What Your Beta Reader Owes You
•Commitment. Even though beta reading isn’t typically a paid gig, the beta reader should come through for you with a meaningful critique, as promised. If you’re like most authors, you’re probably working under tight deadlines, and you shouldn’t have to adjust your publishing schedule just because you’re waiting on a beta reader.
•Communication. Beta readers mustn’t take your story and disappear without another word. For an author, it’s incredibly nerve-wracking to hand one’s story over to someone and then hear nothing for weeks or months on end. To the best of your ability, make sure your beta reader is reliable and responsive.
•Honesty. Beta readers shouldn’t beat around the bush. They should tell you exactly where your story is weakest and what they think you can do to improve it. And they should do it concisely—this is not the time to be vague.
•Kindness. While they’re being honest, the beta reader should also be kind. Through writing, you’ve put a piece of yourself on the page, and it may be hard to divorce criticism of your work from criticism of you. It helps if the beta reader also points out what you’ve done well in addition to what needs work.
What You Owe Your Beta Readers
•An open mind. One thing authors must do—and I can’t stress this enough—is listen to beta readers without getting defensive. Don’t start coming up with excuses for your plot holes, and don’t treat your beta readers as if everything they’ve said is wrong. Otherwise, they may feel they’ve wasted their time and won’t want to help you out next time you’re looking for feedback.
•A thick skin. Accept that your work will never be perfect, no matter how much you’ve honed your craft. In fact, taking criticism like a champ may be the most important tool in your writer’s toolbox. Recognize that criticism, should you choose to act on it, will only make your story stronger and more marketable.
•Adaptability. You don’t have to accept every single piece of criticism that comes your way. Your gut feelings about your story are important, too. But sometimes, through a beta reading cycle, you may discover that large segments of your story need to be re-written. You need to be ready to take on this monumental task. You need to be ready to cut out characters and plot threads you loved—to kill your darlings, so to speak.
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can answer it.