Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Five W's (and one H) of Beta Readers

Everyone needs beta readers. Here are some tips for why you need beta readers and how to find them.

Beta readers are an incredible tool. I always suggest them to every writer no matter what stage they're at. I even know agented and published writers that still have trusted beta readers for each new WIP. There is never a point at which a fresh eye becomes unnecessary. Beta readers can catch things that the writer -- who may be too close the story to see it clearly -- will miss. This could be something as small as an overused word or a spelling error, or as large as an elephant-sized plot hole, slow pacing, or flat character.

It's best to find someone that you trust and know will do a good job. This could be a real life friend or someone you may never meet. I will say that out of all my beta readers, I have only met one in real life. I don't suggest family or friends you know personally because sometimes it can be difficult to give someone you really know an honest opinion. I know, I've read work for my friends and I find it impossible to give them a real critique.

What your beta readers will read is totally up to you. I've read the first five pages, the first three chapters, the first fifty pages, three-quarters of the book, and full manuscripts. It all depends on what you and your potential beta reader decide. With new beta readers, I'd suggest starting with a few chapters or the first fifty pages just to make sure the two of you will be a good match.

Beta readers are best when there is nothing left in the book that you can see to fix. This will probably mean you'll have to go through several drafts and maybe even a rewrite before it's ready to be seen by others' eyes. And that's okay. There are special readers called alpha readers that read first drafts. If you want to get an opinion on a first draft, make that clear while looking for a beta. Many beta readers will not read first drafts because the mistakes make it impossible for them to properly critique the work. For example, I am a Spelling Nazi. In nine out of ten cases, I will turn down first drafts because I know that I won't be able to pay attention to characters and plot holes and voice when I am distracted by looking for spelling errors.

Some of my biggest regrets come from sending drafts that weren't ready. When I was a green newbie, I rattled off my first draft and quickly mailed it to a friend (who wasn't really qualified to give me a complete critique on my work). To this day, I am eternally sorry for putting her through the crap that was Andra at that time. More recently, I wrote out a first draft called for creative writing class last year and let one of my real life friends -- who is also a writer -- read it as I went. She was in love with it, but it didn't take long before my honeymoon phase ended and I realized Fire was a blatant Hunger Games spin-off and couldn't bring myself to write the ending.

Betas can be anywhere. If you're going with a beta that you don't know personally, it's probably best to email the draft to them as an attachment that will suit their computer. Actually, that's probably best even if you know your beta personally. It's easier to make comments on a computer than it is with a hard copy, but once again this is something you and your beta should discuss ahead of time.

Betas are fairly easy to find. There are many opportunities to find beta readers in writing communities and perhaps offer to read something of someone else's in exchange. I met most of my beta readers on AbsoluteWrite and I wouldn't trade any of them for anything.


Melanie said...

DITTO, DITTO, DITTO. On everything. I totally agree. When I first started writing, I'd never heard the term "BETA reader", but I've learned A LOT since then and one of the best discoveries is the value of a BETA reader. I can stress to people enough how insane it is to submit work to an agent without having your work go through several trusted BETA readers (and by trust, I do not mean your family or friends, who as you say, can not give you the honest and sometimes harsh feedback you need). I too found my beta readers through AW and the experience has been almost as amazing as discovering my love for writing!

This is a GREAT post.

Erin said...

Great post! Beta readers are absolute life savers! It never fails to amaze me when I get something back from a beta and realize just how many mistakes (big and small) that I missed. And that's AFTER all the editing and revision work I put in!

Sometimes an author's eyes see only what they want to see, not what they should see...