The Case for Beta Readers

A great book is most often a collaborative effort despite what we know about the loneliness of the craft of writing.

Editors smooth out the narrative and copyeditors ensure pristine spelling and grammar. But a lot of self-published authors also find value in giving their manuscripts or unfinished, unvarnished work to what we call “beta readers”, those “testers” who can report back honestly on whether the story is working and the characters seem believable.

We turned to a number of our successful Kobo Writing Life authors for advice on how to build a team of beta readers who can help you hone your craft.

How do you choose a beta reader?

Choosing a beta reader is largely trial and error says speculative fiction author KC May. “I recommend a critique exchange site (such as critiquecircle.com or sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com), where you can give and receive critiques on stories or chapters on a regular basis,” she says. May tests the fit by submitting what she knows is her best work, to get a sense of the prospective reader’s critique style and level of expertise not only in critiquing but in writing.

May further recommends being a beta reader or critique reader yourself. “Developing skill as a “critter” can help us view our own work more objectively,” she says.

How do you know you have a bad reader?

Says May: “There are many ways to be a poor critter. Surprisingly enough, being too nice is very common. If I wanted to know how wonderful my work is, I would show it to my mom.”

Indie author David H. Burton agrees that nice isn’t so nice in the end. “Work can be very personal and critiques can be taken harshly, but I don’t want a beta reader that’s just going to inflate my ego – I want solid feedback,” he says. “I think it’s critical to be open to that criticism. Ultimately, it will help an author to put out a stronger novel, and that’s what we all want.”

May warns that some beta readers become belligerent and use critiquing as an excuse to be abusive. “It’s one thing to tell an author “This paragraph didn’t work for me because…” and quite another to write “This paragraph is so @$%!*& stupid. Don’t do it this way, you moron!””

“A good beta reader won’t try to turn your story into his story, but he will point out spots where the gun jumped from the dresser to the desk, the character’s name changed from Sue to Sally, or you used ‘there’ when you should have used ‘their’,” says May. “Having someone poke holes in our writing is never fun, but a good beta reader can spare embarrassment later.”

Would you recommend beta readers as a way to test the strength of a story?

“I am a fan of good beta readers, and I use at least two for every book,” says May.  Good beta readers can spot plot holes and credibility issues — things paying readers will surely notice. An honest beta reader will also tell you where the story drags or where they started skimming. “My goal is to make every page riveting, and so I value my beta readers’ honesty.”

What value do they have?

In a word? Huge.

Burton says a beta reader can play a different role from an editor, and the role is an important one. “Sometimes you need another set of eyes to vet the book — readers from different perspectives that have no vested interest in the novel. In particular, there’s an honesty that might not be found elsewhere,” he says. “I trust the feedback from my beta readers. Implicitly. And the best thing is that each one has unique suggestions or they each catch different things that need addressing. By the time my book has been run past my fabulous beta readers I’m quite confident that it’s solid.”

Says paranormal and erotic romance author Tina Folsom of her beta readers:  “They are your front line. They are the ones who should tell you immediately if your book sucks, where the weak points are, whether they hate the hero. Those are the things you need to hear before publishing a book if you want to succeed.”

Find out more about KC May here.

Find out more about Tina Folsom here.

Find out more about David H. Burton here

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