Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Building A Book: Beta Readers

So, you've written your book, gone through several edits, and things are shaping up nicely. Or so you think. That's when the beta readers come in.

What is a beta reader for? They just read the story and tell you what you think, right? Isn't that the same as a review? 

At this stage in the game, no. What they do at this point is much more important. These readers aren't doing this to edit for you, though some may point out the more obvious errors. Beta readers are for pointing out serious mistakes in the manuscript while you still have time to fix them. 

Beta readers are readers. First and foremost, and as such, at this stage of the game, they're pointing out things which make them stop and put the book down. Things like characters appearances changing, or characters not acting in ways consistent with how they've been described. Holes in the plot. Loose threads which seem important but that are just left dangling. Twists which are so out of the blue, it's like a shark just attacked them in their own hallway.

(Because that just makes ALL the sense in the world.)

Beta readers are there to tell you the things in your story that just. Don't. Work. It may be hard to listen to them at times, because they may point out that the whole sub-plot from page 24 through page 317 makes no sense; something which would require a major rewrite to fix. But that is exactly the point. These are the things which will flat out kill a book that they're trying to point out to you. Things you will need to fix before your next great work heads to a professional editor for a grammar and punctuation cleaning.

That being said, there are different levels of beta readers. You have your close friends and family, who are likely to tell you that everything is awesome and not to change a thing. Enjoy the praise, but don't trust it. After all, these are the people that want to see you happy and to see you succeed more than anything and they're likely to overlook discrepancies in order to tell you what they think will make you happy. 

That doesn't mean you shouldn't ask them to take a look and tell you what they think, it means you need to be prepared when you approach them. Include a list of questions for them to answer when they've finished reading. Questions like: "Did you like the main character?" "Did the scene on page 154 make sense?" "How scary was the scene on page 243?". Specific questions make it easier for them to mention and talk about things that didn't work for them, as it lets them know that you're aware there might be issues without putting them on the spot to pick things out on their own. 

After close friends and family, you have people that you know and trust, but that may not be so attached to you personally. These include experts in fields that your book contains, people you've come into contact with professionally, maybe people you consulted on certain subjects for your book, and that have a personal interest in making sure you have your details right. These are the people who, while likely to still be able to tell you that your main character is unlikable and they were waiting for him to die, are going to point out things like whether Ford made Escorts in 1978. It really can be a detail that small which rips someone out of your book with enough force that they won't go back to it. 

Then you have professional beta readers. Some editors offer this service in addition to working on the punctuation, but make sure you don't get the two things confused. These are two completely different steps in the publishing process. These are the best you can do for a good beta experience, although they aren't free, you usually get a written report after they've gone over the work, explaining what worked well, what didn't work at all, and depending on the service, you may even get a list of suggestions to fix the issues they found. 

So what comes after all this? More revisions. You listen to what the beta readers have to say, see if comments line up along multiple beta readers (You should at least have three to four, though I would say not more than seven, that way you have a tiebreaker if you need one). If the book needs a minor touch-up, great. More often than not though, you're going to be looking at a rewrite or two. An additional scene to get a particular relationship across, maybe re-write a scene so that your main character's actions make more sense or so he's more likable. 

Remember, this is all for the betterment of your book, so keep at it. Don't fret! Even if your work requires some major work, every step forward is a step closer to the end, and the end is almost in sight. 

~ Shaun


  1. One of the best explanations of beta readers ever. Thank you. I did actually have beta readers for my first two books (though I didn't know that was what they were called), and they are an extremely valuable step in the process.

  2. Beta readers rock! Good ones will save you from a host of errors. Most people would rather hear it from a beta in the pre-publishing time than a reviewer on Amazon when it's too late. One of my best friends is a skilled beta reader and the details she picks up are amazing. It's a good move all around.

    1. Yeah, she's actually looking over my most recent work this week. Looking forward to seeing what she has to say.

  3. I swear by my Beta Readers.

    I don't really know how necessary professional Beta Readers are, though. In my experience there's no shortage of skilled Betas willing to do the job for free or for reciprocation, and I've seen so many people who have gotten "professional editing" done but the end product has been worse than what my (pro bono) Beta Reading generally produces.

    I know that there are really, really good professional Beta Readers, but with how easy it is to connect to people over the internet I wonder if it's not better in the long run to strike up relationships with other people who can do the job just as well but for free. At Absolute Write, for example, I had a published author go over one of my stories line by line, and I didn't even go to her, just put it out on the forums.

    Also, RE: the hall shark, I don't see how land sharks can ever possibly be a bad thing, random or not. :D

    (now I want to see Stephen King write a book about land sharks in the service of Randall Flagg)

  4. Professional beta readers may seem a bit unnecessary, considering you're really just paying someone for their opinion, but there is the bonus that these people don't know you personally, and have no reasons to hold back on their thoughts. A well-written and organized report on their thoughts like some will give you, also goes a long way to helping to understand where the book, and sometimes even where you as an author, needs work.

    Of course, if you're lucky enough to find a good circle of skilled beta readers, hiring one is pretty much unnecessary, however, if you have a lack of people you trust or a perilously small circle, they certainly can't hurt as long as you keep in mind their comments are still only one person's opinions.

    Also, there was an old Saturday Night Live skit about land sharks back in the 90's. Can probably find it now on Youtube actually.

  5. What most of your money is going toward, then, is not the skill of the professional Beta reader but the guaranteed distance and willingness to say whatever needs to be said, regardless of your opinions.

    Am I reading you right?

    If so, then that's a way of looking at it that I hadn't considered before.

    And yes, I love that skit.

    1. Well, I would be remiss to make the statement that there's no skill in professional beta reading. Especially if they've been doing it for a while there is some experience there in reading stories looking for problems, but yes, the distance is definitely something important to be valued as well.

    2. Pardon me. I didn't mean for it to be taken that way.

      I was meaning that, while it isn't that hard to get somebody who's very good at Beta reading (even thorough in their comments) and willing to do it without financial compensation, it must be very, very difficult to avoid developing any sort of friendly, non-Beta/author relationship with them over the long-term.

      So, barring a constant search for good Betas to replace the ones that are growing closer to you, the "key irreplaceable element" of a professional Beta reader is their distance and impartiality.

      In other words, if somebody were just looking for a really good Beta then I would suggest that they try to build relationships (assuming time permitted) because that would be cheaper in the long run, but if distance and strict editing were required then I would suggest that they look into getting a professional Beta.

    3. Sorry, it wasn't that that's how I took your comment, I just wanted to make sure I didn't come across that way in my own response.

      After all, if you start with solid beta readers that you then become friends with over time, I don't think it would be as much of an issue since they've worked with you from the start of your relationship and they know the kind of opinions you're looking for and how well you take criticism.

      There are definitely pros and cons to either approach though.