December 17th, 2012

Beta Readers – Why You Want Them, Why You Need Them

Photo by LMRitchie ~ via WANA Commons

Photo by LMRitchie ~ via WANA Commons

by Orly Konig-Lopez

Is your manuscript good enough to hook an agent? Make a sale?

If you have the beta stamp of approval it just might be.

And no, I’m not talking about your critique partners.

A critique partner and a beta reader are two very different animals (and honestly, neither should be fluffy and soft.)

Beta Reader vs. Critique Partner

I’m very lucky to be part of two amazing critique groups. My CPs were a tremendous help during the drafting process of my last manuscript. Critique groups aren’t for everyone, but I couldn’t do without mine. Why?

A critique partner will:

  • Nit-pick chapter-by-chapter
  • Catch your tense shifts
  • Find your missing commas and catch your typos
  • Cajole fresh phrases out of you when you fall into the cliché pit
  • Question why your character just walked out of the house when the page before, she was in the shower — and you haven’t shown her getting dressed. Hello neighbors!
  • Cheer you on when you’re ready to torch the manuscript and get a job as a barista

And then one day, you’re done with the draft. Woo hoo. Squiggle dance. DONE!

And that, my friends, is the point when many of us run head first into trouble. Because, let’s face it, we’ve poured our hearts into these books and we have blisters on our butts from hours in the chair. We want to query!

STOP! Send the manuscript to a few beta readers instead. Trust me!

I hear you whining … “but it’s done and I want to query.” After all, you’ve already gotten feedback from your critique partners. And your mom read it and said it was positively brilliant. Why the heck should you take more time and wait for more feedback that will lead to more revisions?

Because your manuscript will thank you for it. Mine did.

Why? Because your beta reader will:

  • Read it from beginning to end without stopping and tell you what works and what doesn’t
  • Find the plot hole or the thread that unraveled three-quarters of the way through
  • Call you out on the main character who just can’t pull on her big girl panties and learn from her mistakes. Yeah, mine was wearing granny bloomers.

Finding the Right Beta For You

I have a few beta readers I turn to—there are the “writerly” ones and the “readerly” ones.

A couple of the writerly betas are actually my critique partners as well, but others are writer friends who I trust and value their feedback. My readerly betas are close friends who I know won’t tiptoe around the truth.

Why do I want both types of readers? Because they approach reading differently. Remember the days when you picked up a novel and just read for enjoyment versus analyzing what the author did right or wrong? I want to know both types of readers will like my book.

I’ve had a few people recently ask advice on finding beta readers.

First of all, if you’re in a critique group, ask one of your CPs. Not everyone wants to commit to reading a full manuscript, and that’s okay, but you might be pleasantly surprised. Don’t forget to return the favor though.

Writing groups are another great way to make connections. If you’re on a yahoo loop, for example, try sending out an email asking if anyone is interested in exchanging manuscripts.

Engage in discussions with other writers about where they are in their writing process. You might be surprised at who steps up with an offer to help if they know you’re looking for readers.

As for the “readerly” betas, ask a close friend or someone in a reading club or knitting club or whatever club. Just make sure it’s someone whose opinions you value.

I’ll fully admit that I was incredibly intimated asking friends to read my work. But guess what? The couple of friends I did ask were tickled at being part of the process. Those friends have become my loudest cheerleaders.

Feeding Your Beta Reader

So now you have beta readers lined up and they’re anxious to rip into the manuscript. Most of the time I season the manuscript with a few questions before tossing it over:

  • Is the main character likeable?
  • Does the story ring true?
  • Is there a subplot that particularly works or doesn’t?
  • Is there something or someone you wanted to see less of? More of?

Sometimes there’s one nagging question about a story, maybe a comment that came up during critique group and I want to make sure I addressed it properly in the rewrite. For example, in the manuscript I just finished, one of the characters has Alzheimer’s so I asked a reader with personal experience of the disease to read for authenticity.

There are times when I want a gut reaction.  In that case, I wait until I get the feedback before asking any specific questions. Regardless of who is reading, I want them to be brutally honest—they’re not doing me any favors by being fluffy and soft.

Chew Slowly and Swallow

When the feedback comes in, I read through all the comments once, and let them sink in. Then I read a second time and make notes in the manuscript. If a couple of people call me out on one particular point, I know there’s work to be done. Sometimes one beta reader’s comment perfectly nails what’s missing. Other times I’ll scrunch up my nose and discard a comment if it doesn’t fit with my story. Why?

Because at the end of the day it is YOUR story.

What about you? Do you have trusted beta readers who help make your manuscripts better? What kind of feedback do you look for?

No comments yet to Beta Readers – Why You Want Them, Why You Need Them

  • Lara

    Great advice! I’m at the point where I’m starting to think about beta readers and crit partners. Thanks for all the hints.

    • Thanks for reading, Lara. I hope this helps. 🙂
      Both critique partners and beta readers can be incredibly helpful. But as you’ve heard many times before, take every bit of advice as just that – advice. It’s still your story!
      Good luck.

  • This is a great post! I have a few readers, and a few writers in my genre and out of it that beta read my work. One thing I like about the “readers-only” types is that they point out problems without trying to offer solutions–there’s something very fresh and helpful about that.

    I also think a beta read can be helpful before you do a first round of critique, for feedback about character and plot and pacing–the big picture stuff you mentioned. That way, you are not wasting time perfecting scenes you may majorly revise. That’s how I approached my recent NaNoWriMo project, and I think I will continue to do so.

    Thanks for another insightful post!

  • Because I treated most of my 9 non-fiction books as manifestos, I didn’t ask for feedback before publishing them. They said what I meant.

    But fiction is a different beast. Working on my second mystery (and third, at the same time) I’m taking a different perspective. Realizing that I do, indeed, want to know if my beloved readers get this, that, and the other thing.

    One quibble I have, one I always have when the phrase is used, is “brutally honest.” I don’t ever want anyone to be brutal with me. Honest, of course. (Except my wife. Her job is to honestly tell me I’m brilliant and it’s wonderful, but we both know that’s her job and I get my criticism elsewhere.)

    It’s not just the sensitive among us (I admit it, I’m sensitive) who benefit from tact and good manners. We’d all love our writing process more if the word “honest” weren’t so often preceded by the word “brutally.”

    • Tanya Cienfuegos

      100% agree about brutal honesty. Brutality and honesty don’t always need to go together and there’s a difference between being honest to help and being honest to be hurtful. I know that I’m incredibly brutal to myself and having others agree with that hurtful part of myself doesn’t help me.
      But I think when people say they want brutal honesty, what they mean is that they want honesty and that they realize that often honesty stings, no matter how tactfully it’s delivered, and they understand they have to take that.

      • Yeah, I know what people often mean. But we’re writers, yes? Let’s actually say what we mean, rather than succumbing to common (mis)usage. Or next thing you know, we’ll all literally be using literally to mean figuratively.

        And your comment about your self-talk is pertinent. We use harsh words and pretend it doesn’t matter. But the connection between your prefrontal cortex, where reasoning and language live, and your limbic system, where emotions live but language does NOT, is dependent on a set of rules in our unconscious mind. We don’t get to choose how the limbic system and prefrontal cortex exchange information. Try to circumvent that process and you’ll damage it.

        • Tanya Cienfuegos

          I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean about the prefrontal cortex or limbic system. Am I right to assume that what you mean is that precision in our use of language is important for the right emotional response? Because I did know that but being harsh to myself is a very hard habit to break.

        • Sorry, Tanya. I tend to go off on psych tangents sometimes.

          Yes, you’re right. Saying what we mean, even in self-talk, is vital to emotional health.

          Habits can’t be broken. (Awww, that’s bad news, eh?) The good news is, they can be replaced, which is the solution.

          I spent years suffering from brutal self-talk. When I finally started replacing the negativity with positive truthful statements every time it came up, it didn’t take long to shift my perspective and fundamentally increase my happiness.

    • Ahh, Joel, you’re absolutely right about the “brutal” part. That’s why I’m very selective about my CPs and betas and we have the same definition of “brutal” – never mean or hurtful. We’re in this to help each other, not tear anyone down.

      If anyone gets into a situation with a CP or reader who is mean, get out!

  • Great post! I have both – critique partners and beta readers and they have proven to be priceless! I will say this though, if you have numerous individuals read your work, you definitely have to be prepared for the varied feedback. If you’re not ready, it can be a bit overwhelming. With that said though, I’d rather have too much feedback, than none.

    • Sharon, your point about varied feedback is spot on. We all know how subjective this business is. The key, in my opinion, is to first read and absorb the feedback from everyone. Don’t jump into changes immediately. Not every suggested edit needs to be made and sometimes you’ll even get conflicting edits. You can save yourself a lot of headaches and heartaches but stepping back. And who knows, with a bit of distance you might even see that the one edit you thought was totally off the wall, makes a heck of a lot of sense. 🙂

  • I don’t know which of my treasured group here at WITS wrote this post … but whoever you are … you are walking inside my brain. YES, YES … there is a vast difference between the critique partner who guides us bit by bit through draft ideas, outlines and often a query, and the BETA reader who gives us the reaction we might get from any reader with the added bonus of feedback.

    I am blessed with two BETA readers (occassionally a third comes along for the ride) and they are not only different in their approach to my work, they are as clear as the edge of a crystal shard. Tough love is a good way to describe what they give me and grateful I am to get it. Honest and loyal are the other two words I use to describe these two angels in my life.

    And why are you walking in my head today ? Because this w/e I sent off the last draft of my current novel to two of my readers and I am printing the hard copy for the third today. How did you know I needed that emotional lift … to know that feedback is the “back” bone of everything we do as writers? Thanks. Another great week begins with WITS 🙂

  • I’ve not tried Beta readers but would like to. At the same time, I think I want cold readers, not friends, not family. Although I’d admit after a time even those people may become friends, I think close friends won’t always give the truth and I’d want the readers to talk honestly. Where do other writers find these kind of readers? Book clubs?

    • Sharla, try asking around your local RWA chapter or a book club. Just make sure it’s someone you feel comfortable. For friends, you might actually be surprised – I had that same fear but explained to my friend that it was very important that she be honest and that I’d rather hear from her than get rejected.
      O.

  • I did a Beta Read for a friend. At first I felt weird but as I read more and got into the story I found a couple of things. I made the suggestions, and she said one of my suggestions matched one from her editor.It was a strange feeling at first as I said but a friend said that’s what a beta reader does and my friend said that she asked me because of the things I found in another of her read throughs.

    • The first time I agreed to be a beta reader I had the same reaction. It was uncomfortable giving feedback. And the first time I had someone read my manuscript I’ll admit to being incredibly anxious about their feedback. I still get nervous handing my manuscript over but I trust that my readers are there to help me.

      Your friend wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t feel you could help her! 🙂

  • Fantastic post and great advice. Personally, I use three or have defined three types of readers I use. After drafting my complete rough draft, I send it off to what I call my beta-readers to make sure I have a story worth telling.I get the manuscript back along with a 6 page form I have them fill out. I take the information they provide and start on the rewrites and first round of edits. When I feel it is clean, I shoot chapters over to my CPs (often one chapter at a time). More edits, more rewrites. Once, I feel I have done all I can do the manuscript is sent to another set of beta-readers who I call post-readers. (in actuality they are beta-readers but their purpose is clearly defined – they read the manuscript as if they were reading a finished product. Another form is completed by them and returned with their comments. If need be, I make additional adjustments to the WIP. If more edits or rewrites are needed, I of course make them then resubmit to the readers and or cps long before sending it off to publishers, agents. or self publishing. Again, great post.

  • In the past I’ve depended upon my crit partners to read for me, along with a proof reader for my last book. I’m thinking I need to find some beta readers for my current WIP. Thanks for confirming my instincts about that. Great post!

    • Each of those readers will look at your manuscript with a different eye. I think as writers we sometimes get so deep into the craft and editing and fine-tuning that we forget the big picture. That’s when beta readers are a true gift. 🙂

  • […] Beta readers bumped my manuscript from okay to publishable. What did these beta readers do? Continue reading →  […]

  • I wouldn’t make it without my beta readers.

  • Excellent post – very thought provoking as are many of the comments! I love a good discussion! 🙂 Delighted to learn the difference between a critique partner and a beta reader. I always learn something new from this blog! BTW I voted it my number 1 blog for blog of the year!

  • Jenny did a Beta read of my biker-chick book. I was glad that she’s my usual critter (but hadn’t read this one, chapter by chapter) because she knew me and my writing – my weaknesses. She caught things no one who was critting could have caught – mostly places I missed putting emotion in – tying up emotional threads. The book was SO much better for it!

    This week, I’ll find out what the *dum-da-dum-dum* editor thinks….

    • You bring up an interesting point, Laura – the advantages of beta readers who know us and our writing styles and the “fresh” readers who won’t be influenced by our past, umm, defaults.

    • Sweet merciful heavens, “critter” ? Really, Laura?

      See, where I lived in Texas, or where I live now in Wisconsin, critters ain’t workin on literature, they’re scampering and scurrying through the underbrush.

      Though, perhaps, this was what you had in mind. Because now I’m going to go in search of critters for my book instead of the stew pot.

      Speaking of critters, do you know AutoCrit?

      • Never heard of it, Joel…I’ll have to go look it up. But NOTHING is taking the place of my (non-furry) critters!

        • Oh yeah; some things require a human touch. But AutoCrit does a good job of automating the discovery process.

          It’s an online service ($120 a year, or thereabouts if you want to check an entire book) that looks for repeated phrases, cliches, spelling punctuation grammar issues, sentence length and variation: all kinds of textual analysis which a human reader may or may not catch.

          It doesn’t change anything, and it doesn’t moralize. It’s just an analysis tool.

          One of my favorite benefits (I’ve only played with the free sample tool) is that it helps me identify my darlings, so I can kill ’em. (Do we all know Quiller-Couch and his admonition to “kill your darlings” ?)

  • Just finished with WIP, deciding best moves forward. I thought about beta readers, but needed a nudge and your post was it. Great info. from picking the readers. I love the “readerly” and “writerly” friends suggestion to questions, expectations and digestion ideas.
    Perfect Post! Thank you Orly~

  • GREAT post. I love my beta readers and depend on them heavily. They’re very honest, and I too have both writerly types and readerly types – it definitely helps to get a reader’s eye view of the work!

  • […] Beta Readers – Why You Want Them, Why You Need Them by Orly Konig-Lopez […]

  • So timely. My CG just raised the issue. Thank you.

  • […] at WITS Orly just did a blog about Beta readers. The following blog is about Mathew Turner who wrote a book about women and how […]