Help Wanted – must work hard for free: How to pick a beta reader

 In Editorial

Everyone throws the term beta reader around. Goodreads, blogs, forums, you name it…people are always looking for someone to read their book and pass judgment. Except, there is a key to picking the perfect beta and it doesn’t include expectations of edits and it certainly doesn’t mean they will or should blow glowing smoke up your perky backside. What a beta reader does is simple…they read and give critique, but they aren’t editors.

[pullquote align=”left”]”A beta reader (also spelled betareader, or shortened to beta) is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described[1] as ‘a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammarspellingcharacterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public.'” – The Free Online Dictionary[/pullquote] If you aren’t willing to hear the bad and the good, you shouldn’t publish, because even the most well-received books have naysayers. To get a feel for what the critical mass is going to spout at you once you publish your baby and upload it on Amazon or Goodreads, or send out those query letters you should enlist a beta reader. They are the spotters of what you need to recheck, redo, and revisit and they (should) find pesky problems you may have overlooked.

BUT they are NOT substitutes for pro editors. This is KEY people!

You don’t have to enlist professional writers, I don’t recommend friends (although friends can read your book, they will most likely give you biased feedback) and you should never count on just one reader to get a good feel for your work. Further, and I know I am beating the expired equine with this one folks, but you must never forego a professional edit in exchange for a bunch of unskilled, unpaid betas.

Now that I have listed all the “nots”, let’s move on to what you should look for in your testers. One, pull from a broad pool. You don’t want a mediocre book that only translates to people who like one specific genre. No, you want an exceptional book that appeals to the masses (or maybe not; it’s your bank account). So, in order for you to really understand what parts of your story translate and what parts are stale, you should find readers that love your genre and those that don’t. If the story reads well to both, you probably have the start of a good book on your hands.

Two, don’t just get writers to read your book, because oftentimes they are competitive and extra critical just for the sake of pumping up their own skills. You should focus on book lovers who have a solid grasp on the basics of structure and syntax. They must understand what works and what doesn’t, but more than that, make sure they can explain what it is they find wrong. Just a simple, “yeah it was cool.” or “Wow! That super sucked.” isn’t what you are looking for. You need someone who can explain in detail why it was cool, or super sucked.

There are a couple of ways to go about this, but they require a little work from you (ugh, I know). First, you should set up a standard form that you give to every one of your testers. It must ask the questions you want them to answer. Guide them and their reading. Have them think about the book while they are in it, but also reflect upon it afterward. Style it with checklists, ratings (1 to 5, etc.) and written answers. Then at the end ask them some broad and pointed questions, leaving the second side open for their own thoughts. Spend time on this part because it will be very important. You want to guide them toward an honest and fairly structured opinion. Tell them to make notes of any and all spelling/syntax errors they spot: repeated words; difficult names; dialogue that sounds forced; unclear sub-plots; distractions, etc.

Second, get on the phone with them (or Skype, or god forbid, spend time with them face to face). A lot of times there are elements that the reader noticed that they can’t put into words. Take them out for coffee (or send them a Starbucks GC and meet them online for a drink). Ask them questions and just discuss the book. It’s surprising what you can learn from someone just from a simple voice to voice conversation. Plus, it gives the reader a chance to say something they might have been afraid to put in writing for fear of a misunderstanding. And because the tone is often lost in emails, you might have taken offense to something that the beta intended to be constructive, so use this conversation to clear up any misconceptions.

Talk! Use your mouth, not your fingers…please. There are so many things to glean from this experience and I urge you to make sure you get the most out of it. It is free after all and an invaluable tool.

Finally, please read my post on protecting your work. Beta Readers have been known to steal ideas and outright work, so protect it! Good luck and please let me know if you have any questions.

Sara O'Connor
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