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Finding Your Best Beta

One of the toughest challenges I faced when I first started writing fiction was finding someone to honestly assess my work.  I didn’t know very many people who were fiction writers, and I had no idea where to begin.  At the same time, I knew I’d taken my story as far as I could on my own.  I needed a fresh set of eyes, someone who would be honest but not hurtful, who could push me to grow while reminding me I could do this.  I needed a beta reader, but I had no idea where to find one.

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Avoid the beta reader stink-eye.
(photo of betta fish by Daniella Vereeken)

For the uninitiated, a beta reader isn’t someone obsessed with fancy fish.  It’s a person who does a thorough read and critique of your manuscript.  Beta readers may help you with grammar and spelling, but they also point out plot holes, continuity problems and character issues.  They’re the test drivers of your story.

So how do you find one of these mythical creatures, and what makes a good one?   Here are a few aspects to consider:

Real life versus virtual:  Plenty of writers I know have real-life beta readers.  Often they find them through critique groups, in which members meet on a regular basis.  Some may serve as beta readers for each other.  If you are looking for support and for a tribe of fellow writers, this might work for you.

On the other hand, in my limited experience, real-life writing groups can also devolve into social groups, where there’s lots of chatter and wine but not a lot of work getting done.  I’ve also seen them turn into pile-ons, in which one person makes a negative comment and everyone else joins in attacking someone’s work, or in which one person has success and the others feel obliged to tear them down.  It can be hard not taking a beta reader’s feedback personally in such a situation. 

Virtual betas. With an online relationship, many of the emotional aspects can be eliminated.  You’re not getting together in person to receive feedback, which makes it easier.  And there’s the convenience of ‘meeting’ via email, so there’s no need to get dressed, slog to the coffee shop, and face society.

That’s not to say you and your online beta can’t become buddies.  I’ve become close friends with some of my virtual betas and been delighted when we’ve had a chance to meet in person.  Others I’ve never met in real life, even though we live in the same state.  It all depends on what you want.

Friends/family versus strangers. Who better to read your brilliant words than your best friend, brother, or mother?  After all, they love you and have your best interests at heart, right?

The answer to that is, it depends.  Sometimes the people who love us the best are the least likely to be honest, especially if they are concerned their feedback will hurt our feelings.  It’s the writerly version of “Do these pants make me look fat?”  And we know how that ends.

There are exceptions, of course.  One of my beta readers is an old and dearest friend.  She knows my literary history — the books that changed my world and that I aspire to emulate — and has no problem being brutally honest about when I’m hitting my mark and when I’m dogging it.  (She also has no problem telling me when I look fat, so there you go.)

Only you know how well your loved ones can give you criticism, as well as how you’ll react and whether that will impact your relationship with them.  Tread carefully.

Same/different genres.  When the book that I’m working on now was through its first draft and I felt I’d taken it as far as I could, I tapped a writing friend whose work is completely different from mine as my first reader.  It was a deliberate choice.  I write magical realism/women’s fiction, she’s a scientist who writes gritty technical thrillers.  I knew that she would find and comment on every single plot hole and continuity issue in my draft and help me make it as believable as possible.

Once I’d received her feedback and fixed whatever I could, I asked another friend — one who writes magical realism too — to read it.  I knew this reader would totally get the world I’d created and help me extend it.   Her knowledge of the genre, which might have made her blind to some of my problems in the first draft, was a huge asset to the second one.

Writer versus non-writer. Your ideal beta reader doesn’t necessarily have to be another writer, just someone who enjoys a good story and can give articulate feedback about what works and what doesn’t.  One of the last people I show my manuscripts to before I send them off to my agent is a Catholic-school-educated math freak, who takes great pleasure in searching out and destroying my grammatical errors.

So Where Can I Find a Beta Reader?

It can be hard to connect with other writers when you are starting out, especially ones generous enough to serve as readers.  Here are a few places to look:

Writer Unboxed! The Writer Unboxed Facebook group has a document with the names and contact info of members looking for/willing to serve as beta readers.  (If you aren’t a member of the FB group, look here [2]for more information.)

Other online writing groups/forums.  There’s a slew out there, often targeted toward specific genres and/or writing levels.  I hesitate to endorse any over another, but I personally had a good experience with zoetrope.com [3].  Writers post short stories/chapters for review, but must first review the work of others — a good way to see if you and a potential beta reader are compatible. 

Libraries and bookstores. Check the bulletin boards at libraries, bookstores, coffee shops — places other writers are known to gather.  You may find information about writing groups and writers looking to connect.

Writing classes.  When my first novel was close to being finished, I took a writing class about finishing your manuscript.  It was a great way to find a beta reader who understood exactly what the stakes were, because she was going through the same experience. We became each other’s readers AND cheerleaders.

Beta Reader Etiquette

So now that you are ready to take on a beta reader, what’s the care and feeding procedure?  Here are a few things you should know:

Be a giver, not a taker.  The best way to get a beta reader is to BE a beta reader, or at least be a part of the community.  Joining an online forum or writers’ group and having your first post or conversation be about what you need is, quite frankly, a turnoff. (So is emailing an author that you’ve never met and demanding they read your manuscript.  And yes, that actually happens.)  I feel silly saying this, but I’ve seen it occur often enough that it actually needs to be put out there.  So, don’t be that person.  Instead, hang out for a bit.  Get a sense of the place.  Comment for a while, and maybe help somebody else out before asking for assistance.

Adjust your expectations. Some beta readers are great on plot and characterization.  Others rock on continuity issues.  Still others are helpful when it comes to grammar, spelling, and technical issues.  It’s rare to find one person who can do all things.  It’s likely that you will need multiple readers at different stages of your manuscript. Before you hand over your pages, have a chat about what you need and what your reader is willing to offer.  And consider doing a single chapter first, so that you can get a feel for each other.  If your writing isn’t your reader’s cup of tea, or if there edits aren’t what you need, you can both walk away without too much time invested.

Don’t waste your readers’ eyes. Your manuscript is only going to be brand new to somebody once, so don’t squander that moment.  Make sure your story is in as good a shape as you can possibly get it on your own before you pass it along.  And think carefully about how you use your beta’s time.  If one of your beta’s is great on grammar and continuity, for example, it makes more sense to ask them to read toward the end of your manuscript’s journey than at the beginning.

The only words you need to say are “thank you.” Getting feedback is hard, especially if it’s not what you want to hear.  (And admit it — all of us writers want to hear that our work is perfect.)  Sometimes our immediate reaction is to argue and say they’ve misunderstood what we’ve written.  That’s not a very gracious response to someone who is essentially doing us a favor.

If you get feedback you disagree with, put it away for a while.  I usually skim my beta reader’s notes and then sit on them for at least a week, whether I agree or not.   Often in that time, I’ll come to realize that what they are telling me is right. Sometimes it takes me longer — multiple drafts later — to understand that they had a valid point and that by incorporating their feedback I’ll make my book stronger.  It’s hard to be open-minded, but the whole point of asking for feedback is to figure out what needs to be changed, right?  And if you aren’t open to change, then you aren’t going to grow as a writer.

And sometimes I just don’t agree with the comments.  That’s the beauty of being the author — I can make the story what I want.  But at a minimum, the beta reader has given me her time and effort, as well as something to think about, and for that I owe her my thanks.  (And usually wine and chocolate, too.)  So do what your mother taught you, and send a note expressing your gratitude. 

Okay readers, it’s your turn.  Where have you found your beta readers, and what are your tips for getting the most out of the relationship?

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About Liz Michalski [4]

Liz Michalski’s first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she’s downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.