Beta readers

So when you’re not in a MFA program, as I was for a while, and when you’ve already exhausted the good will of your critique group by making them look at the same MS and the same scenes how many zillions of times, it turns out that you need beta readers for your manuscript.

Beta readers don’t replace the hired editor who can evaluate your manuscript for plot, pacing, and character development, and it’s probably too much to ask them to do line-editing. (I don’t turn it down if they offer, though!) The trick, I’ve found, is to take advantage of talented friends. When you’ve been in a writing program, they’re thick on the ground, but you can also hunt around for fellow writers in workshops, local writing centers, and local author fairs. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from the process so far:

  • Make sure you have a manuscript ready to go. Giving out a few chapters from the beginning or getting feedback when you know you have a revision or three more to do is not the best use of beta time. Have something you think is ready to send to agents, and then send it to your betas first.
  • Search for a variety of viewpoints. I’m writing historical fiction set in 19th century England with a strong female lead, a courtship subplot, and mathematical and feminist themes. So I’ve tapped not only friends who write historicals but also friends who write contemporary fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, mystery/thrillers, and nonfiction from memoir to scientific manuals. Each of them has a different take and very valuable feedback.
  • Beta reader feedback works best as reader feedback. Ask them for an all-over opinion: where does it seem to move? Where do things slow down or lag? I asked mine to flag spots where historical vocabulary was confusing, the detail bogged them down, or an unknown term tossed them out of the story. I’ve also asked them for high-level responses to the characters: love them? hate them? which one do you love most to hate?
  • Be respectful of their time. You can hint that you’d like a turnaround within a specific amount of time, but your betas are probably busy people. Be willing to be flexible. If you need a fast turnaround, pay for the service.
  • Offer a novel swap. I did this with a couple of friends, and while we’re writing vastly different books, we turned out to have some great conversations about the challenges we’re both having. I learned something from their books, and learned more about mine by reading through their eyes.
  • Have a way to say an enormous “thank you.” This is where I’ve fallen down. I’ve just said it verbally, several times. But betas are catching the things that readers will find in a published manuscript, and probably say something about in reviews. They’ll catch your mistakes and contradictions–like when she walked into a room with a yellow dress, and is suddenly wearing green. That’s worth a lot. I’m thinking flowers or chocolate. Or maybe just gift cards to our favorite bookstores?

The next thing to tackle is how to deal with and use all your beta advice. My feedback is still coming in, but I’ll be thinking about this a lot in the next few weeks, and I’ll share my thoughts here. In return, I’d love to hear what you think: What were your experiences with beta readers? As a beta reader, or as a beta finder? Any dangers of the process you want to warn us about, or best practices to add?

Beta readers

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