Do I need to use beta readers?
To be honest, this could be a very short column.
The answer is yes.
YES, YOU FUCKING NEED TO USE BETA READERS!
(I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear on this site, but no doubt I’ll soon find out if I’m not!)
Right, that’s the short answer for you, but I’ll play fair and give you the long answer too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re following the traditional publishing route or going down into the seven circles of hell that is self-publishing, you will be doing yourself a million favours if you find great beta readers and make use of them. (Or as my beta readers are probably thinking to themselves right now, use and abuse them.)
In fact, this article is a form of homage to my own very wonderful beta readers. Malin James, Jade A Waters and Delilah Night between them covered the lion’s share of beta reading my 200k-word Alchemy series, with occasional input from Jacob Louder, Dario Dalla Lasta, and Lace Winter. All of them are wonderful and their help and advice was beyond value to me.
Alchemy beta readers, I salute you!
They made a real and tangible difference to the final result, from picking up tiny typos, to weeding out clichés and knocking the Brit-isms out of my Americanese, to picking up inconsistencies and plot points gone awry, to giving me the benefit of their wisdom on writing, sex, life and universe.
Believe me, if you write for publication, using beta readers will improve your writing. So here are some observations on how to choose them and how to make them not hate you.
Yes, ask your friends to beta read for you…
You might think this is crazy—after all, your friends are the people who won’t want to hurt your feelings by pointing out what’s wrong with your MS. But in fact, if they’re good friends, they might be the only people who’ll risk hurting your feelings. They won’t want you to publish a crock of shit, so they’ll call it. But just being your friend isn’t enough to qualify them for the job…
Only ask people whose writing you respect—hugely
This is a no brainer! You don’t want to be taking writing advice from people who can’t, in your opinion, string two words together. You want to have your work critiqued by individuals who understand story arcs, character development, pacing and what knows their grammar. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Three’s the magic number…
Less than three, and something critical might get missed. More than three? Too many conflicting suggestions will make your rewrites way too difficult.
Then throw in a curve ball…
You can maybe afford to have a non-writing beta reader. If your other beta readers are completely to be relied on for the writing stuff. But this person should certainly be from the target demographic of your desired readership. Don’t get your thriller obsessed partner to beta read your sweet romance—really, it won’t be helpful. Pick your friend or work colleague who reads massively within the genre, even if they never write a word. This is the person who needs to finish the book in one sitting, fall in love with your characters and bug you endlessly for the sequel. Those traits are less useful in your rational-headed writing readers. But this is where you’re looking for a gut reaction. Build up aspects they love and take note of what they hate. But don’t let them give you any advice about your writing.
Help them to help you…
Don’t just toss the manuscript to your betas like throwing a bone to a dog. Tell them what your concerns are and what you suspect your areas of weakness to be. Don’t expect them to address every single aspect in a single read, from macro-plotting to micro-proofing. And understand, they’ll probably only be willing to read your work once. So spread the load between them—ask one to analyse the plot, another to assess your characters and another to comment on your style. Most good beta readers will in fact comment on more than one area, but give them a heads up on what’s most important to you. And don’t waste them on micro proofing. Find a proof reader for that.
Take their advice – but not all of it!
It is, after all, your creation—so you don’t need to take every criticism on board. Just most of them. And particularly if all of your beta readers make the same point. Strongly and repeatedly. Remember, you picked them because they know what the fuck they’re talking about. However, sometimes one of them will throw something random into the mix which doesn’t work for you. You can ignore that one. (After all, it’s not like they’re going to rush out and read the published work just so they can see which of their suggestions you took or ignored. Is it?)
Lavish them with love and cupcakes…
This needs no explanation and is where my beta readers are now shouting at the screen as to how thoroughly I failed in this area…
Sorry, lovely beta readers! Will this paean to your greatness do instead?