My post about combining comments from multiple beta readers in MS Word brought up a great question. How do we get beta readers?
In the comments, Amanda Byrne asked, “[A]ny hints on how you can scare up more beta readers? … [O]nly one of them gets back to me in a timely manner.”
Then Aldrea Alien pointed out, “I don’t wanna give someone my work and find I’ve not the time, or the skill, to properly reciprocate.”
These comments bring up multiple issues, and I’ll do my best to address each one.
What Does a Beta Reader Do?
The first thing to recognize is that just about anyone can be a beta reader. Our mom. Our neighbor. A random Twitter follower. Unlike a critique partner, who might comment on grammar and whatnot, a beta reader gives high-level feedback.
Can our mom be honest and point out confusing sentences or plot events? Where her attention wavers? Whether she finds the characters likable or sympathetic? If so, she’d make a fine beta reader.
Next question is to ask ourselves if we can answer yes to those same questions. If so, we’re qualified to be a beta reader as well.
For example, the last time I sent out a manuscript for beta reading, this is what I asked people to mark:
- Anything that takes you out of the story (confusing wording, voice/characterization seems off, too repetitive, no conflict/tension, etc.).
- Pacing issues (too slow, feels too “one note,” not enough of an arc, scene goes on too long, etc.).
- Emotional feedback (I’d love to see stream-of-consciousness emotional reactions when you notice them/think of adding them).
That’s it. Beta reading is not about the reader’s knowledge of the craft of writing, but about what works and doesn’t work for them as a reader.
We shouldn’t discount our ability to provide useful feedback because we’re not perfect writers ourselves yet. I can’t write a query letter to save my life, but I can still point out if someone’s query letter mentions too many characters by name, has a confusing-sounding plot, or reads flat.
Here, Beta Reader, Come Out Wherever You Are
Now that we’ve addressed why we shouldn’t think we’re “not skilled enough” to beta read for someone else, my advice to Amanda in the comments of the last post might make more sense.
“I think the key is to be a good beta reader yourself and then offer to help others with their work. If they find your comments helpful, you can usually work out a beta buddy exchange arrangement.”
It’s that simple and that hard. We offer our services to others. I’m always looking for readers with fresh eyes to check a reworked project. Probably many other writers are the same way. We welcome offers of beta reading.
This advice assumes we’re targeting other writers as beta readers, but I didn’t start off that way. My first readers were family members. I then “graduated” to one critique partner I met through the comments of an editing blog we both visited, and we gave each other line-by-line feedback. After I was experienced enough to take high-level comments and figure out what I needed to do to fix the issue, I switched over to using beta readers.
I met one at a conference, I offered to read for another because I love her blog and her writing, I answered a call for readers on Twitter for another, etc. If we’re being social on blogs or other social media, we’ll meet people we “click” with. Offer to read for them.
Are We Ready to Give as Well as We Get?
Why do I use mostly writers even though I pointed out above that non-writers can provide helpful feedback too? Professionalism.
Most non-writers don’t understand our deadlines, whether those are self-driven, contest deadlines, or an agent request. Non-writers are more likely to blow off the seriousness of our statement, “I’d like to have all feedback returned to me by such-and-such date.”
Even other writers might not take our deadlines seriously. Some of us are more professionally oriented than others. That’s not a bad thing.
The trick is finding people who match our level. The second trick is making sure we hold up our end of the bargain. We can’t expect professionalism from a beta buddy if we’re not willing to do the same.
Yes, that means sometimes we have to make their writing a priority over ours. If we promised them feedback by a certain date—and we want them to keep their promises to us—we have to be willing to put our work on the back burner and read theirs instead. If we want to get deep, helpful comments from them, we have to spend the time to give them the same.
Are They a Good Match?
Some writers might not know what it means to be a good beta reader, but will learn if they have it modeled for them. We should give others the style of feedback we’d like to receive.
To avoid burning a bunch of time on someone who might not be a good match, we can offer to give feedback on a query letter, synopsis, a short story, or the first chapter of their novel. See how they react to our feedback. Are they defensive, or do they blow it off? If so, we’ll keep looking for a better match.
If they seem appreciative and seem to “get” our feedback, we can ask them to check something small for us. Are their comments helpful and insightful? Are we able to take their style of comments (the harsh and honest factor)?
Yes, there is a give and take aspect to being beta buddies with others. We can’t ask others to spend time giving us feedback if we’re not willing to do the same. But I usually learn something new when I’m helping others, so I find that I win both when reading for someone else and when getting comments from readers.
Have you offered to beta read for others? Do you think you’re a good beta reader, or could you use more pointers? What drives you crazy when others read for you (they never get back to you, etc.)? Have you used writers or non-writers so far?Pin It