Published on: Nov 12, 2014
A year ago, I had never heard of beta readers. I stumbled upon the concept through Patrick Rothfuss’s website when he mentioned his own beta readers. As a writer, I knew I had to do more research, and I found significant information available. But nothing prepared me for the experience.
I am now on my second run of beta readers. Here is a list of things I wish I had known going in to the experience and a list of insight I gained that I wish I had then.
1 – Have the manuscript grammatically polished.
I’m not saying it has to be perfect. Perfect is impossible. But do make sure your grammar as clean as you can possibly make it because finding beta readers is hard. I have had a total of nine… and I wasted the first five. Why? Because they were so hooked up over my misplaced modifiers and ill-placed clauses that they could not focus on what I really needed from them… the story.
One of my beta-readers had to come back to me in almost every chapter and ask for an explanation. Another did nothing but edit for grammar. Fortunately, the editing was so heavy that it drew my attention to my lack of grammatical skills. I immediately hunted down a website, www.dailygrammar.com
, which covers grammar. When I was done with this program, I was able to re-edit my work. Is my grammar now perfect? No, but it is one hundred times better than it was before.
2 – Be sure your beta readers read your genre! My first beta-readers were romance fans. I wrote an epic fantasy. One of these two beta-readers had never even heard about Tolkien. That isn’t bad, but their lack of knowledge in the genre’s style and formula resulted in feedback that was, at times, unusable for my genre. They loved my story, but, when the beta-read was over, I had no insight from a fantasy reader that I could use to improve my story.
3 – If you can, have an attorney read your story. I say this often and I have had many writers come back to me insisting I was crazy, but I learned so much from them! Think about what an attorney has mastered. Logic, words use, and definition. Who better than to read a sentence and say, “Do you realize what you are ACTUALLY saying here?” I was surprised. Did they read the entire manuscript? No. They found so much wrong with it, that I took it back and revised it. But they read enough to discuss my errors with me. The experience altered the way I look at writing.
4 – Don’t be afraid to let someone challenge your writing. Throw it down and say, “Rip it apart!” Have them dissect it… because only then will it improve. My sister recently said to me, “Don’t you feel like someone is reading your diary when someone reads your writing?” Yes! I do. I feel naked, exposed, and vulnerable… now rip it apart! Show me where I went wrong so that I may fix it.
5 – Have a questionnaire prepared and ready to go. This is one topic that comes up so often by writers. Don’t ask if they would be willing to answer a questionnaire. Make this part of the beta-read. “Would you be willing to read my manuscript and answer some questions about the book when you are done?” Be sure your beta readers are willing to fill it out and speak to you afterwards. Otherwise, they’re not really beta-reading. They’re just reading.
Here is a sample of what I give my beta-readers.
What genre would you classify this book? Where would you expect to find this in the bookstore?
Was any part of the book illogical to you? Did the story make sense? Did the story flow?
Were there any parts that jarred you and took you out of the story?
Were the characters believable?
Did you find any word in particular difficult to pronounce (I write fantasy).
6 – Do not accept or offer to do a “blind read”! A blind read is when you commit to read without knowing if you’ll like the style, genre, or author’s writing. This is crucial! If someone agrees or offer to beta-read, slow them down. Tell them to read the first three chapters and then decide. Here’s what happened to me. I had someone come in very excited to participate in the process, then he stalled out and never finished the book. Why? Because my style and genre did not match his taste. This isn’t an offense. It is the reality of reading. No one has written a book so awesome that everyone loves it! Not even Rowling. Be realistic. If they can’t finish it, let them know they are under no obligation to finish it. Unfortunately, this reader (who, as it turns out, loves Science Fiction and not fantasy) now feels horrible for not being able to finish my book. Save yourself and them a lot of unnecessary hurt feelings and insist on no blind reads.
7 – Set a deadline! I didn’t. The result? Some readers didn’t get back to me for nearly six months. One month is sufficient for a 150,000-word novel. No book should take longer than two months to finish. If it does, you should probably cut back your word count, or cut the book in half… or thirds. In turn, writers, do NOT nag the readers. They are doing you a favor. Remember that.