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June 14, 2012

What Should We Look for in a Beta Reader?

Magnifying glass centered on the words "beta reader"

I thought I already had a blog post about this topic, but I didn’t. Is déjà vu blogging a sign of something worrisome? *smile*

Anyway, I want to thank agent Laura Bradford, who gave me the idea for this post when she shared several great tips on Twitter yesterday about beta readers and critique partners.  For those who aren’t familiar with the difference, let’s define these terms the way most people probably would (and how Laura saw them).

A beta reader is someone who reads our “the best we can make it by ourselves” draft and gives feedback about big picture things: the characters, the plot, the pacing, etc.  A critique partner is someone who gives feedback that includes all of the above—and can go more in depth on a sentence-by-sentence level.

Why All Writers Need Beta Readers or Critique Partners

Either way, the purpose of beta readers and critique partners is the same.  We can’t edit ourselves because we’re blind to our weaknesses and typos.  So we need someone with a fresh set of eyes to check our work.  Ideally, they’d catch our mistakes, saving us from sloppy writing, and push us to new levels with our craft and our story.

Laura brought up the topic because she doesn’t want to see authors reach a point where they think they’re “above” needing beta readers.  Just because we have an agent doesn’t mean we’re suddenly capable of editing our own work.

She pointed out that agents shouldn’t be the ones dealing with things like “spelling errors, plot holes, continuity issues, the wrong their/they’re/there, etc.”  Agents are agents, not editors.

The Essential Quality All Good Beta Readers Need to Have

But she also doesn’t want authors to think that having anyone as a beta reader or critique partner is good enough.  Why are we told we shouldn’t depend on our mom for editing help?  Because typically (yes, I know some mothers don’t fit this stereotype, but we’re talking typically here), our mothers would love our work even if it was in crayon and everything was spelled phonetically.

Our beta readers/critique partners need to have a critical eye.

They shouldn’t be reading our work for pleasure.  They should actively be trying to find things that are wrong.  When I beta read, I usually read the manuscript twice because I’ll unfailingly find additional issues on the second pass when I’m not as caught up in just reading the story.

What we really need to look for is someone who pushes us to go beyond what we think we’re capable of—but pushes us in a nice way.  Maybe they’re able to push us on a craft issue where their strength lines up with our weakness.  Or maybe they push us to see missing character motivations, low tension scenes, or new layers in our story.

However, if they aren’t able to critically look for those issues, chances are they won’t find them.  And a generic “I liked it” won’t help us craft our best work.  That should be our cue to keep looking for new beta readers who will be a better match to our needs.

Laura Bradford’s Tips about Beta Readers and Critique Partners

So let me share some of Laura Bradford’s advice about beta readers and critique partners from her tweet stream yesterday (edited for tweet speak).

  • Have Multiple Beta Readers

“Everyone has different strengths and they may catch different issues. … [E]xamine your own strengths/weakneses. … Seek beta readers that can help you monitor/fix those areas where you are weakest in your writing.”

  • But Don’t Have Too Many

“If you are getting too much advice and it is all over the place, that can be really detrimental. You need to learn (and there is a learning curve here) how to find the right betas for you.  And you need to learn how to filter the advice/suggestions they give. Do not change your work just because someone said to.”

  • Be Picky about which Beta Readers You Reuse

“[J]ust because you used a beta reader once does not mean that you have to keep using them. … [I]f you find yourself in a situation where a beta reader is not working for you, add another and see if he/she works better.  You can add as many betas as you want until you find a good group, phase out the ones who were not as helpful. … [Y]ou owe it to yourselves and your work to do what you can to serve your work the best way you can. … That means finding a good beta reader for you, not just a beta reader.”

  • Be Appreciative of Every Beta Reader’s Time (Even the “Bad” Ones)

“Even if they were a bad fit for you, unhelpful or soul-killing, they donated their time to you in order to help you. Say thank you. … Let me say this in big letters: BE APPRECIATIVE OF YOUR BETA READER’S TIME AND EFFORT.”

Additional Tips: How to Get the Most out of Our Readers

Others piped into her conversation with advice about making sure we’re sending big chunks to our readers.  This is often more a concern with critique partners, when we might send one chapter at a time, rather than with a beta reader who typically sees 50+ pages to a full manuscript at once.  A piecemeal approach makes it hard for the reader to see the forest for the trees, and they won’t be able to evaluate the overall story arc.

Emma Cunningham echoed my thought about giving beta readers some idea about the type of feedback we want.  Do we have specific questions or things for them to watch for?

That said, this insight into the type of feedback we want should not be anything along the lines of “only tell me the good stuff.”  We shouldn’t ask for “beta readers” or “critique partners” unless we’re willing to receive (hopefully, constructive) criticism.

One of my best readers is burnt out on beta reading because too many of her writer friends reacted badly to her feedback.  I think her feedback is amazing, and it’s frustrating to have her unwilling to read anymore because of people just looking for praise.

Sure, we all want praise, but that’s not beta reading.  If compliments are all we want, say we’re looking for “reading cheerleaders” or something.  But don’t call it beta reading.  *smile*

P.S. And now you know the secret to being a good beta reader: Have a critical eye. *grin*

What makes a “good” beta reader for you?  What makes a “bad” beta reader for you?  Do you know enough about your weaknesses to find beta readers or critique partners with that strength?  Do you disagree with any of the advice here? Are you able to read with a critical eye?

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What do you think?

53 Comments on "What Should We Look for in a Beta Reader?"

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James Bailey

Timely post. I just sent out beta copies of my new novel to a bunch of friends/trusted readers. I learned from the last go-round that “I liked it” is nice, but useless. I weeded out the too-kind souls and added some new folks, hoping they would find the holes that others might skip past.

I included a feedback sheet with some questions for them to consider (Are the characters fully developed? Are there dead spots? Is there any chapter that you felt just didn’t do anything or didn’t belong?), and stated at the top: “Please don’t be kind when you provide feedback. If something sucks, say so. Be specific.”

I’d much rather have beta readers tell me something doesn’t work than reviewers.

D.B. Smyth

My favorite beta reader tells me all the time, “You’re better than that.” She is critical, but she’s also 99% right. I love how she isn’t afraid to call me on the carpet with lazy writing–descriptions, plot choices, character motivation, etc–and she always follows it up with the idea that I’m capable of more. I like it. My writing doesn’t suck, I’m simply “better than that.”

Traci
Traci

Finding a good fit can be hard. And cutting reading-ties with people who weren’t a good fit can be even harder. I find that once people know you are a writer a flip switches in their mind and suddenly all their years of reading makes them an Editor. (With a capital E!) As one of those people who have a hard time saying no I have been in several awkward situations with people who want to edit for me but don’t actually know what an editor does. And (since all writers are rolling in dough!) they want me to pay for their efforts.

God bless them.

It’s been a long couple of years but I am happy to say I finally have a fantastic crit group and a couple of good beta readers.

Thanks for this post. : D

Emma Cunningham

Thanks so much for the shoutout! I actually did a blog post on beta reading a few months ago (http://emmacunningham.ca/beta-readers/). I think beta readers are absolutely invaluable, but I’ve noticed a trend in self-pubbed authors using them in place of professional editors, which makes me a bit nervous. So, definitely find some that work for you, but remember that they’re a part of the pre-submission phase, not the polishing phase.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc
I honestly cherish my readers. I have three critique partners. We work together perfectly, knowing each others strengths and weaknesses, writing vices and pet peeves. I believe that this, along with an ability to be brutally honest with one another, helps turn out the best manuscripts we can write. I think it also helps to know your CP’s character when it comes to feedback on your own novel. I know that one of my CPs doesn’t read romance on a regular basis. She’s into straight suspense, and gives fabulous, indepth critisism on plot and action, but I tend to overlook some of the issues she has with the passion I put in my stories…because I know that’s not her cup of tea. She’s not actually my target audience, but that doesn’t really matter. The input she offers on the other aspects of my story is invaluable. So, to me, I think it’s imperitive to know your CP (& I’m talking about the people you meet with weekly that line edit as opposed to a beta reader you might not know very well) inside and out. Otherwise you run the risk of (listening to everything they say) and then cutting certain things that characterize your voice. I also, however, rely heavily on beta readers. Getting feedback from someone who doesn’t know my personality quirks or writing style is incredibly important. I think it’s also important to get feedback from someone who has no clue what the story is about. They haven’t… Read more »
Amanda

I have two regular betas and two semi-regular readers-I send them stuff, and sometimes they read it and sometimes they doesn’t (it depends on the kids and whether they get left alone long enough to read anything 🙂 ). And on occasion…I use my mother. Yes, my mother. While she does the “Oh honey, I loved it!” thing, she actually given me some incredibly useful feedback, and since I see her regularly, I can pick her brain for suggestions on how she might improve something.

One of my other readers is an excellent sounding board as well. We just throw stuff out there and see if it sticks-sometimes we’ll end up with long email chains of ideas. I’m not the world’s best reader, though, and I really need to work on it. Too often I get caught up in my own projects and ignore everything else in favor of writing one more chapter, or editing one more scene, or revising my stupid query letter for the millionth time. Your post is a welcome reminder that I need to stay away from the keyboard and help out my friends! Thanks!

Marcia Richards

This is so timely, Jami! I’m working on the 2nd draft of my first novella. I’ve had two writer friends offer to beta for me and I’ll be looking for a few more. I like the idea of setting the guidelines–what kind of remark I’m looking for. I definitely want it ‘ripped to shreds’, but I also want suggestions of what would work better. What would be an average number of beta readers to use? 3-5?

Patrick Thunstrom

Oddly, I admitted to being a bit burnt out on helping friends with beta tasks recently. Being told I’m an ass for being detailed makes it really difficult to want to continue doing it. Thanks for the tips, going to need to put them to good use.

Carradee

…I posted on this, remember? 😉

And I tried visiting yesterday, but this post kept formatting as if for a mobile device, for some reason. :/

Anyway, beta reading is one of those things that tends to be either over-appreciated or under-appreciated, meaning writers tend to value the feedback too much or not enough.

There’s also a danger in seeking beta readers, though: What if a beta suffers from Overconfidence Effect in an aspect of writing that you don’t know much about? You won’t know enough to know where the person’s wrong.

Just pointing out a potential problem. 🙂

Julie Glover

Interesting stuff, Jami. Since I’m writing YA, I have realized that it’s good to have someone who reads or writes in this genre and teens themselves among my beta readers. I’ve gotten great feedback on my writing from a teen with even small stuff like, “We wouldn’t say that” or “We wear __, not ___.” Meanwhile, the beta reader group for my mysteries might need to be different since they would look for different things to make sure my writing speaks to the proper audience.

Crystal Collier

Great post!

Oh my… I’m discovering that even novice writers can be invaluable betas. In the last 2 years I’ve “tried” 7 different partners, and of those, I’ve built lasting relationships with three–but every single one has taught me new things. One made me utterly self-conscious about appealing to the senses, another to run on sentences and the use of small words, and another baffled me with her attention to character building. I will never read or write anything the same thanks to the invaluable experiences of working with these wonderful friends. Anyone who forgoes the joy/heartache of having your novel analyzed by another writer is missing out on half the experience of writing.

Stina Lindenblatt

Thank you for Laura Tweets. One of my beta readers told me about them after I got feedback from another beta reader that almost cause me to either shelf the book or cut out the subplot that my CP and other beta readers loved. I had put too much faith in the feedback, when in truth the beta reader missed the theme of the book that everyone else saw. But it wasn’t her fault. I called the book YA suspense when it’s really YA contemporary with suspense. There’s a big difference between the two.

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[…] had several posts about finding beta readers or what to look for in beta readers, but I haven’t written about the experience from the other side of the computer monitor: what […]

Taurean Watkins
I used to think I wasn’t a great beta-reader, but I have improved at being one, though I still struggle being more civil when I’m the one being critiqued. As far as having a “critical eye” I think it depends on what the story requires and what the writer your working with wants/feels can handle.When I “push” a writer as described above, I do my best to govern my opinions in the story I’m reading, not nessecarily use X book from writer’s genre to prove a point, that kind of critique has it’s place, but unless the writer asks that of me, I find it does more harm them good. If you’re going to stress what you feel as a glaring issue that hinders the reading of an otherwise solid story, back up the point with examples cited from the actual story. Showing the problem in the writer’s own work, as opposed to being asked to see it working “perfectly” in some other writer’s book, however valid, can do harm to a writer’s morale, which is often the reason writers get frustrated with critiquing or being critiqued. This is less about ego and more about respecting how someone views the writing process differently than you. Just because I don’t respond to “boot camp” style instruction and drilling, doesn’t mean I can’t take criticism period. That’s a fair point to make as well, right? I feel what we often label a “ego” problem is really a “Lack of respect” problem on… Read more »
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blue
blue

The best advice I can offer: be sure you actually want a beta reader.

One writer complained to me that none of his readers offered any criticism he could work with–just the occasional, “That’s great, good story,” and even that was rare since they’d all become too busy to read lately. I volunteered, read a few chapters, and gave him detailed feedback, only to be met with exasperation. He wasn’t looking for that kind of feedback either.

It turned out his idea of a beta reader was simply an involved reader who wanted to talk about the story with him. Not editorial discussion, either, of what worked and didn’t or how it flowed–the only acceptable ‘feedback’ was something that gave him an excuse to jabber about the world in his head.

After he attempted to guilt me into reading more of his story and on his terms, I suddenly became too busy as well. Life’s too short to be conscripted into someone’s sad attempt to manufacture fandom.

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Renay
Renay

Thanks Jami for the advice. I have trouble finding people willing to do critiquing or the type of Beta Reading you mention. Yes, it’s because too many people have taken the comments wrong, or were just looking for a cheer-leading squad. But thankfully I have a couple trusted readers that are also writers and offer good advice about how the story flows, do the characters work. Just would like to find a good critique group in my area that I could join for the tougher advice which I know my writing needs.

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Heather

I just sent out my ms to beta readers for the first time, and I asked for specific input, mostly about characters, and plot. I’m nervous about it. One read it straight away, and one didn’t. I’m looking forward to the feedback, because I know the one who did respond has a good view of plot and pacing.

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Sara Litchfield

Super helpful! I’m surfing the webs looking for tips on what to ask my beta readers – I knew this your blog would be a great port of call! I think/hope I’m ready for the critical feedback – I want it to be the best it can be and that’s not going to happen without some tough love… But I hope no one is mean :p

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