So you’ve finished a manuscript and polished it as much as you can muster on your own. If you don’t have a regular critique group, then you might want to find a few beta readers. What’s a beta reader? Anthony Lee Collins wrote up a good description in a previous comment:
“beta reader” comes from “beta tester” in software, somebody who tests a program to see if it works correctly. So, beta readers read your book or story in advance of publication, to give feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Ideally a beta reader won’t know anything about the book in advance, so they’ll be approaching it with no preconceptions, as a regular reader would.
As writers we’re often too close to the material to see the difference between what’s on the page and what’s in our heads (especially multiple revisions later), and a fresh set of eyes on the work can be helpful.
Tips for writers who want a beta read:
How many beta readers do you need and where do you find them? Liva Blackburne did an interesting series on this. It’s worth the read! You may want a handful beta readers or fewer, depending on your writing method. Too many and you may end up with noise/conflicting feedback, but too few and you may not be sure what is a matter of personal taste vs. a real problem. You should also take into account that some people might drop out of participating, or get too busy to finish.
To keep your writerly sanity, I recommend having one trusted cheerleader. It doesn’t matter if the cheerleader is entirely biased, that’s the point! The cheerleader’s job is to encourage without judgement. After all that hard work, you deserve that! It can make the writing feel worthwhile, and it’s a good cushion against the criticism to come. Maybe all you need from a cheerleader is a single note: “I read it, and liked it.” At least now your story has been read, which is the point, isn’t it?
Tell your beta readers what you REALLY want. Be honest. If you just want encouragement, then say so. If you want readers to focus on the big picture, rather than nitpicking the grammar, then say so as well. It will save you and the reader time.
You are not perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect novel. A novel length work is no small beast. There’s a good chance you’ve dropped plot threads, or some parts of the narrative don’t have the effect you desire. No matter how brilliant a story is, it can always be picked apart, so expect criticism.
Don’t take the criticism personally. It’s hard, I know, but your readers are well meaning and trying to help you. It’s all aboutmaking the story the best it can be.
Take criticism with a grain of salt. If multiple readers point out the same issue, then there’s likely something wrong, but if not, it might boil down to a matter of personal taste. You need to trust your gut about which feedback resonates. You don’t have to act on all of it, though you should at least consider it. YOU are the writer, and it’s your story. You don’t want to lose your voice by trying to please everyone.
Remember that a beta read is a huge favor and time commitment. Any feedback is a gift. Always say your thank you’s. People are busy, and you need to respect that, with generous timelines if possible. Returning the favor is usually welcome.
And some extra tips from Kristan Hoffman: be reasonable but honest about your timeline (“I’d love to get your feedback in the next 2-3 weeks”), and remember that beta readers might identify a problem, but it’s your job to fix it in your own way / in a way that best suits the story.
Next week I’ll post a few tips for beta readers.