Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Inez explains how to identify a good beta reader and how YOU can get the most out of a beta reading experience!
We all have to work with an alpha reader (the poor soul who reads your first draft), beta readers (who read increasingly better versions), and sensitivity readers (who help check yourself before you wreck yourself). Somewhere in the foggy lights of optimism, hopefully, an agent, editor, copyeditor, and finally, one day, a regular reader who picks up your book from the shelf of a quaint bookstore and marvels at the glossy cover, glowing reviews, and the words NEW TIMES BESTSELLER - NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE. Oh, we writers do love to slip into fantasy worlds, don’t we?
Ahem. Anyways, before we get carried away with daydreams of Shadow & Bone levels of success, we need to talk about the long and painful struggle after drafting your manuscript and before querying agents (or self-publishing).
There are different reasons and ways to work with alpha readers, sensitivity readers, and editors, but today I’ll focus on beta readers and how to identify a good one. And trust me, a good beta reader is worth their weight in gold! However, it can be challenging to find a good one and perhaps even harder to be a good one yourself (if you’re doing a swap).
What makes a beta reader "good"?
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes a good beta reader because we’re all at different stages of our writing journeys, and we need different things at different times. There are points when we need more positivity and encouragement and other times when we need tough love. Still, I can say with some degree of certainty that a good beta reader should:
1. Know your genre and age category well. They’re generally knowledgeable about the current publishing industry (bonus points if they have worked for a literary agency, publisher, or have successfully self-published).
2. Understand the “core” of your work. That is, they ask you what you’re trying to do and are willing to help you achieve it. They mention the details but don’t get caught up in them. Rather, they start from the big picture and help you work towards it without nitpicking endlessly at minor issues.
3. Tell you like it is. That means giving bold constructive criticism, but that’s not all. They should also be able and willing to point out when you nailed something.
4. Give you specific feedback. If they say vague things like “Your world-building is lacking” or “The story is slow and unengaging”, that’s an OK place to start, but they should then specify what could be addressed. For instance, “Your world-building is lacking. Can you add more details about the clothes and food? I didn’t understand the political system mentioned in chapter 3; maybe you can add more clarification there.” Or something like, “The travel scenes in chapters 2 and 3 don’t have a lot of action. Can you condense them or do a time jump to move the characters to their destination faster? Alternatively, is there an action scene you could add to the journey? Maybe they are attacked by enemy soldiers or a wild bear?”
Those are my core criteria for a good beta reader, but are there any I missed? Sometimes, it’s difficult to identify when someone is doing something right because they make it look easy. However, it is much easier to point out when someone is doing something wrong. There are dozens of ways to be a bad beta reader, which I explain in this article.
How can you get the most out of a beta reading experience?
Another crucial dimension to the beta reading experience is how you engage with the beta reader. We’re all humans with emotions, and writers are especially attached to our work. Therefore, it can be easy to let our emotions prevent us from making the most of a beta reading experience. To work with a beta reader, writers should:
1. Expect critical feedback. If the beta reader is any good, they will give you negative feedback. The precious darlings that you’ve spent countless hours carefully crafting will be undoubtedly found lacking. Yes, this happens to EVERYONE. No, you’re not the exception. Yes, it’s going to hurt. Expect it and plan accordingly. Personally, I only read feedback on the weekend with a glass of wine in hand. I don’t reply to it or ask clarifying questions until Monday. That way, I have time to let the negative emotions fade somewhat.
2. Don’t scare the beta reader away from giving real feedback. It’s a MILLION times easier for a beta reader to say, “Everything looks great, you’re a genius!” and move on. If you prove yourself difficult to work with, the beta reader will do exactly that, and you’ll be left in the same place you started. Even if it kills you not to snap back or argue with the criticism, don’t give in! (Easier said than done, I know!)
3. Ask for clarification (as politely as possible). No one is a mind reader, and it can be difficult to precisely identify issues or solutions. For example, I once had a scene where the main character escaped on a ship with the baddies close on her heels. In the text, I used the phrase “The crew arrived at the ship” to mean that the crew reached the end of the dock, and I assumed that since I didn’t mention they’d gone up the gangplank onto the ship, it would be clear. However, multiple readers were surprised that the baddies weren’t on the ship at the end of the scene. I kept adding descriptions of the gangplank and ship, trying to make it clear that they needed to go up the gangplank, and therefore, since they hadn’t, they weren’t on the ship.
Finally, I asked a beta reader to point out the place where she was confused. She pointed at “The crew arrived at the ship”, and everything clicked. It was just a matter of changing it to “The crew arrived at the end of the dock”, which totally transformed the scene. Sometimes, writers are too deep in our own work to see it from readers’ perspectives. Beta readers can help get you out of your own head!
4. Enjoy the journey. Writing is not a destination. Don’t expect to craft the perfect novel right out of the gate or even ten drafts later. Even successful authors need to constantly develop their craft, and it’s an ongoing, endless process. So, learn what you can from every beta reader. But always remember, you’re the writer, and it’s ultimately your story. If you carefully consider the beta reader’s feedback and disagree with it, then stick to your guns. After all, it will be your name on the cover of the book, not theirs!
Now, if you're like me, you're probably looking for some snarky gossip about the BAD beta readers. Well, you're in luck - check out the full article here!
If you're struggling to find a good beta reader who will provide constructive criticism and is sure to help you improve your writing, you're not alone! Why not enter the Slushpile Monster's writing contest to win a free critique from an experienced beta reader?
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Inez Rodk (@inezrodk) is obsessed with all things fantasy and sci fi, both as a writer and reader. When she's not lost in a book, you can find her getting rowdy at a pub or tiling her house. She is an official beta reader for the Slushpile Monster's writing contest.