Beta Readers


Broken healthcare concept image of plaster on egg

I was dining with a group of creative colleagues, and the topic of beta reading came up.  To go straight to the point, beta insight is absolutely vital to an author creating a story.  However, it can also take on a patently inhumane effect under the wrong conditions.  I’ve been the recipient of horrible beta experiences, but I’m even more aware of the times when my feedback has not had the desired supportive effect on the authors for whom I beta.

For those of you who are committing to NaNoWriMo, we’re approaching a high-pressure, fast paced project during which we’ll be in a heightened emotional state.  The process of giving and receiving feedback will be on warp speed, as well.  Hits will bruise us harder than normal, and positivity will be crucial.  We won’t have days or weeks to let our egos scab over after they’ve been wounded.  This makes it all the more important to think about beta process now, while we’re still in big-picture mode.

1. What kind of feedback do you need?

Not “what will make you happiest” or “what do you wish to hear?”  What type of feedback will make you most successful?  If you aren’t sure, draft a list of areas you are most concerned about or challenged by as an author.  Plot, character development, theme, pacing, worldbuilding, description, showing versus telling.  What do you want to know about?  Specifically.

2. What kind of feedback don’t you need?

If you know that you’re unwilling to compromise on a plot point, character, or unique aspect of your style, acknowledge it to yourself now.  If there’s a certain tone of criticism that cripples or upsets you, do some hard thinking about when and why you experience that feeling.  You want to get feedback that helps you succeed.  Suggestions that are meant well can fall flat if your beta doesn’t understand where you are emotionally.  Be straight about your insecurities or apprehensions so your reader knows which buttons not to press.

Many who are highly creative are also fairly sensitive, and understandably invested in their creations.  While learning to take non-constructive feedback better may be a personal goal for you, the developmental phase of your novel is not the time to try out these new skills.  If you respect someone as an author, but you know they’re going to chip your bark every time they review you, save that reader for a later draft.

3. Who is your beta, and Why?

An unfinished story is extremely fragile.  Don’t hand yours to just anybody.  Think seriously about who you can trust to be your cheerleader and critic in one package.  Ideally, your beta reader is someone who:

  • Shares your tastes in writing and regularly consumes your genre
  • Responds favorably to your story premise
  • Is expressive and detailed when sharing opinions, without vagueness or generalization.
  • Gives feedback in a way you can emotionally handle.

These may sound obvious, but often, the people clamoring to see “that book you’re writing” will not necessarily be the ideal beta readers.  Your mom, for instance, may love you to death, but if she’s never read a fantasy novel and hates violent movies, your conflict-ridden high-fantasy adventure will not impress her.  Your colleague may support you, but is she ready for that sex scene in chapter 6?  If you can already imagine yourself censoring what you want to write about for the sake of your beta, put on the brakes.  It’s also all too easy to become disenfranchised with your ideas when someone who means the world to you just isn’t ‘getting’ it.  Save the personal fans for a more stable phase of your creative process, and focus for now on someone who is part of your target audience.

4. Give your reader some structure.

Give your reader structure.  This is not the time to passively hope they say something about character A or plot twist B.  Tell your reader what you are focused on.  Ask questions that you need to know.

  • How are they feeling about character A right now?
  • What do they think the King’s general is really up to?
  • What do they wish would happen next?
  • What do they want to know more about?
  • What are they most enjoying?
  • What is most distracting?
  • How does the pacing feel at this part?

If you do not provide examples of what you’re looking for, don’t be surprised if they come back with suggestions or ideas that frustrate you, that are off the table, or that you weren’t planning to deal with until later.  If you want to know how your story feels to the reader and he or she thinks you want proofreading, you risk wasting each other’s time.

What do you look for in your beta readers?  How do you make the process effective?  Share your advice in the comments.


One thought on “Beta Readers

  1. Good post. A proper beta read to me is someone who understands writing at a professional level. Hence, one’s mother is probably not the ideal choice (Mine will say “It was really good” when it’s good and “It was pretty good” when it’s terrible).

    If a person does not enjoy fiction, there’s no point using her as a beta reader, even if she understands the craft of writing on a mechanical/compositional level. I want feedback from someone who recognizes the writer’s voice and who isn’t trying to rewrite the story how she would have written it. I’ve gotten beta feedback in which I was encouraged to move a psychological breakdown drama to Europe and weave in a papal conspiracy subplot. Uh…

    Liked by 1 person

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