Beta Readers. They are such an important part of a writer’s toolbox. Another writer who reads your work, gives you an honest opinion, makes your writing better, and does it for free? Sign me up! I’ve talked about the importance of a good beta reader here, but what exactly does it look like when you have/are a beta reader? If you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating and scary, so I want to give some of my experiences and some tips about beta reading.
As I mentioned in the post I linked, I’ve met pretty much all my betas through Absolute Write. I’ve formed relationships with other writers through the forums, writing contests, and Twitter. I know their writing and reading styles, and I trust their opinions. Some of these relationships have organically flowed into sharing work, and now they’re my initial go-to people when I need another set of eyes. These writers are more than just betas, though, they’re friends, and as wonderful as they are, sometimes I need untainted eyes on my manuscript. By that, I mean people who aren’t worried about hurting my feelings, which can happen with friends, as well as people who don’t know anything about my story–people who can look at it completely fresh.
That’s when I turn to the Beta Readers thread on AW. There are other great sites, like Agent Query Connect; AW is just the place I, personally, spend the most time. I post my query, what I’m looking for in a beta reader, that I’m willing to repay the favor and swap work, and the genres I like to read. (Here’s a hint: people are more willing to read your work if you’re willing to take the time on theirs). Willing readers respond either in-thread or through private message. They’ll describe their manuscript and if I think we’ll be a good fit, I’ll suggest we work together. If not, I’ll thank them for their interest, and move on.
There’s an important key here that I don’t want you to miss. I don’t beta with writers in genres I don’t typically read, and I don’t use betas who don’t typically read my genre. Don’t think I’m being mean, or snobbish or anything. It takes a lot of time, from both parties, to beta, so it’s super important to get a reader who is familiar with the genre you write. Different genres have different tropes and cliches, different types of plot and pacing, and readers expect different things. For example, I don’t read much epic fantasy, so I wouldn’t know the first thing about critiquing it. I wouldn’t know if a particular plot device is overused or cliche, or if the pace should move faster or slower. I wouldn’t benefit that writer by reading their manuscript, and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs, you dig?
Okay, so I’ve found a willing beta, we read each others’ genres, and we like each others’ story concepts, what now? We exchange email addresses and agree to swap the first two or three chapters–that’s enough to get a feel for the other person’s story and their critiquing style. Beta reading is a relationship, regardless of how brief it may be. You’re going to be with this person through thousands of words, the relationship will work better if your critique styles mesh. If you write sparse descriptions, you’re not going to benefit from a beta who constantly comments that descriptions should be more detailed. Personally, the type of critique I look for depends on where I am in my process. After my first draft, I’m usually looking for overall thoughts: Does the plot work? Are there any holes? Are the characters consistent? By the third, I want that baby to shine, so I need more nit-picky critiques: Are there glaring typos I’ve missed? Are there continuity issues that got messed up between drafts? When I’m reading for someone, I want to make sure I’m giving the level of critique they need, as well as receiving the sort of critique I need. If either of you aren’t getting what you need, you should find a different beta.
As I’m writing this I keep thinking, “man, this sounds kind of selfish.” Here’s the thing: it is selfish, but that’s okay. I have a really hard time putting myself first, so this has been a tough lesson to learn. My tendency when I first started beta reading was to dig in and stay there throughout the whole manuscript, regardless of writing caliber, trying to make it shine as much as possible. “We’re helping each other,” I would think. But then a couple things would happen. I’d either get my ms back from my reader, and it wouldn’t have near the level of critique I gave, or I’d send them their ms back and they’d be angry with how in-depth I went. The more serious I got about writing, and the more I beta read, the more I realized that I didn’t have time to spend weeks going line by line through someone else’s manuscript, and write my own stuff too. I was more invested in their writing than my own, and that’s not a place you want to be. It’s one thing for writers to help each other, but it has to be balanced. Like with any relationship, if one person is putting in an unbalanced amount of time and effort, it’s not good for either of you. (I also learned that not only can I not “fix”* everything, but I shouldn’t try, just like they shouldn’t try to “fix” mine. Instead of re-wording another writer’s work, it’s better to leave a comment of “hey, this sentence feels off, what if you tried something like ‘blah blah blah?'” and let them put it in their own words). You and your beta need to be on the same page when it comes to your critique style. If you’re not, sometimes the best thing you can do, for both of you, is to let them know the relationship isn’t working and move on.
If everything gels for those first few chapters, the beta and I will swap full manuscripts. How it goes from here depends on the reader. Some people I’ve worked with like to critique a few chapters, then email them and read a few more. Others prefer to read the entire thing at once and send it back when they’re done. Be sure to ask how they like to work. Sending your entire manuscript to a stranger is scary. Knowing when to expect it back in your inbox can make the process a bit easier. You also want to be sure and tell them how you like to critique; just because they like to send a few chapters at a time doesn’t mean you have to. Make sure they know that, though.
You read, you critique, and you send it back. You receive their comments back, and hopefully, their critique is helpful and you make your manuscript better. As I mentioned before, one beta reader and I worked so well together, we decided to keep it up and became critique partners. Most of my betas, though, have simply gone about their lives. We had a moment, we helped each other, we’ll be thrilled if the manuscript lands an agent or a publishing deal, and that’s the extent of it. But what happens if it’s not all rainbows and kittens? You liked those first couple chapters, you liked their critique of yours, but you get in and the plot falls apart, or there are so many grammar issues you get a headache. What happens if you realize you hate their story? Or, less dramatically, it’s just not ready to be beta’ed?
Well, that’s kind of tricky. I think it’s important to be honest here. I had a beta who got a few chapters in before emailing me that it wasn’t working for her. We discussed the problems a bit and I ended up cutting a major plot-line. That manuscript later landed me an amazing agent. If I hadn’t cut that plot, who knows what would’ve happened? On the other hand, I read for a writer once who just fell off the planet. This was one of those earlier manuscripts where I knew the writing needed a lot of work, but tried to stick in there. One day, I sent back a couple chapters and never heard from her again. I wish she’d talked to me about it, though, because I’m not sure what she didn’t like about my critique. Was she looking for something different? Was the relationship just not working for her? I guess I’ll never know. It can be really, really difficult to tell someone a relationship isn’t working, but it’s better to be honest and end it than to stretch it out and not give the manuscript your best. Again, that doesn’t benefit either of you.
If you think you’re ready to dive into the beta pool, here’s a couple things to keep in mind:
1. Make sure your manuscript is polished. If it’s riddled with glaring grammatical errors and typos, it’s going to be really hard to read, and you’re going to have difficulty finding a good beta who will stick in there.
2. If your manuscript is not polished and you’re just looking for feedback on your writing, or if you’re unsure if a single chapter works, the you’re not ready for a beta. There are several places on the writing forums to share your work and get feedback from other writers on a chapter or two. Use those to work through the snags and look for a beta when you’re done. (If you’re concerned about a plot point, writing the query is also a great way to see if the plot itself works. You can write the query at any time, before, during, or after you finish the manuscript, and post it in a forum for critique. I’ve cut entire plots based on query feedback).
CAVEAT: If you’re partially through a manuscript, and are afraid you’re going off the rails, or just feel like you need another pair of eyes before you get any deeper, it’s okay to enlist a beta, BUT make sure what you do have written is polished, and be up front about the manuscript’s status. Tell the beta it’s not finished, and I recommend that you still be willing to read their full manuscript.
3. Don’t be afraid of someone stealing your story. I had this concern when I started, and I still get asked by family and friends, “You’re giving your book to stranger? What if they steal it and get it published?” For starters, everything you write on your computer is time stamped, so it’s pretty easy to prove you wrote something and when. Second of all, if you found your beta in a forum, there is a history of the posts and proof that you sent them the manuscript. Third, they’re trusting you with their work too, so this is a two-way street. The vast majority of writers are honest people who don’t want to plagiarize. They want their own work published as badly as you want yours.
I’ve met a lot of great writers by beta reading. I’ve read so many amazing stories, and my writing has improved immensely both by enlisting a knowledgeable reader and by critiquing someone else’s work. Sending your hard work to a stranger to dissect can be frightening, and thick skin is a definite plus, but it’s so worth it.
What are your beta reading experiences? Where do you find your readers? For some more thoughts on beta reading, I recommend this great post at The Daily Dahlia on The Basics of Writing Relationships, Part II: Beta-ing. Dahlia has some other great posts on the subject too. In fact, go ahead and read this one while you’re at it.
*I’m in no way holding myself up as an expert writer or anything. What I mean by trying to “fix” the writing is that when I started beta’ing, I’d spend forever on a problem sentence, figuring out just the right way to reword it for the other writer, which is exactly the wrong approach. A few small wording changes are one thing, completely scratching what they’ve done and re-doing it is another. Looking back, I feel like this newbie mistake makes me sound arrogant, but really I was just misinterpreting the beta relationship–I thought that’s what “fresh eyes” meant, looking at the problem areas from a new perspective and taking care of it. Really, it means highlighting those areas and letting the writer figure out how to fix them. Make sense?