5 things to look for in (and love about) an awesome beta reader!

What's a beta reader, and why do I need one?

Writing a novel is fun and scary and stressful and wonderful and nervous-making and exciting!

At the end of the process, whether you wrote the thing in a month (ala NaNoWriMo) or over the course of a decade, you will have a first draft of something that is solely the product of your brain ... it's your offspring. 

The most important thing you can remember at that point is:

The sad, harsh, demoralizing, and anxiety-inducing truth is that nobody writes good stuff the first time around (my understanding is that Kurt Vonnegut worked on each page until it was perfect, and then shipped them all to his publisher for printing ... but let's face it, we're none of us Kurt Vonnegut, except for Kurt himself, of course).

You translated a mess of ideas and plans and whims and questions into a story, and it shouldn't come as a surprise to you, or anyone, that it won't come out right the first time. You need to fix it, and you need help.

You need someone (or a bunch of someones) to help for a number of reasons:
  1. you're too close ... to the story and even the words on the page
  2. you'll have trouble seeing what you're missing, what you have too much of, and what just sucks
  3. you can't look at the story with a stranger's eyes, and take it in with a brain unused to the characters and conflict
  4. your style and grammar and syntax may work for you, but be troubling for everyone else
  5. it's possible (easy, even) to know too much about the story and leave out important details or scenes or characters
This is where your beta reader comes in

A beta reader reads a written work of fiction, often a first/rough draft, with an eye to readability, believability, plot (and plot-holes), conflict, continuity, characters, and setting. A beta reader generally shouldn't concern themselves with spelling or grammar, unless there are such grievous problems that they affect the readability of the story.

Your beta reader will be the first set (or sets) of eyes on your writing, which will likely initially be uncomfortable and leave you feeling tremendously exposed (and possibly defensive); for that reason, and because of my belief that the importance of a functional/healthy relationship with your beta readers can't be overstated, I'm going to share my thoughts some traits to look for and foster in a beta reader, and your relationship with your beta reader.

Some my advice/thoughts/commentary on the role and function of the beta reader will differ from what can be found elsewhere, and all I can say to that is that I've successfully published two novels (and am most of the way done with my third) and a quartet of novellas, and feel strongly that none of it could have (would have) happened without my beta reader.

1) You have to know and trust and respect your beta reader

As I mentioned above, giving your rough draft to the beta is an extreme act of trust and bravery; exposing yourself, your work, your mind, to their critical eye will only really work if you have a pre-existing relationship with them that is based on trust and respect.

{a caveat to this rule is that the beta reader should not be the person you brainstormed the story with before writing it ... they need to come to it with as little foreknowledge as is possible}

2) Your beta reader must be an accomplished and voracious reader in the same genre as your book

The most important job your beta reader does is to tell you what 'works' and what doesn't in your rough draft; this can only be valuable if they read enough books (and books within your target genre) to know what 'works', what doesn't, and why.

3) Your beta reader needs to understand the elements of good writing and good books, and more importantly, the difference between the two

A beta reader should be able to determine if you've followed the basic rules of writing, and to tell you if poor writing gets in the way of the story; more important, though, they should have a good understanding of the arc of a story, effective use of conflict and characters and pacing and setting and voice and tone and dialogue.

4) Your beta reader should have, and be able to form and share, opinions about books and writing ... and do it without hosing you down with unnecessary negativity or praise

They should know how they feel about your book and be able to say it in a way that helps you figure out how to improve your writing; a beta reader too gleeful (or apologetic) about their criticism won't help you take your book from first draft to publication, and at the end of the day, that's their job.

5) Your beta reader understands their job, their role in your writing process, and is willing to put in the time and effort to help you get your story to the next stage

The beta reader is not your editor ... that comes later. They serve as a first set of eyes on your newly minted work of fiction with an eye to readability, believability, plot (and plot-holes), conflict, continuity, characters, and setting. 

They should expect to read the book twice (once to get a general feeling, and a second time to make notes about issues/questions), be comfortable with the terms used to describe/critique fiction, and be conversant in what makes a book (or parts of a book) great ... or awful.

Yup, got it, but what does that all mean?

Basically this means that they should read your book to see if it 'works' for them; a beta reader that points out specific things that they liked or didn't like about the book and/or how you wrote it is much more useful than one who gives you highly general comments:

Helpful - "I loved the consistency of voice/feel in the protagonist, but didn't feel that there were enough significant obstacles in the story before the conflict was resolved ... the part around his solving the mystery and breaking the code felt too easy and neat to me."
Less Helpful - "The characters were awesome, but the plot was 'meh' and then done."

Besides a list of 'big picture' comments about what they liked and didn't like about your book (and why), your beta reader should bring a list of questions that they have about the book, plot, conflict, characters, setting, and scenes; they may feel that you need to know more about some things than you gave in the first draft, and want other things cut or streamlined to reduce static in the storyline.

It's generally much more helpful for a beta reader to tell the writer what the problems (and highpoints) of a book are (and why, with details), than to offer prescriptive solutions.

In a perfect world, your beta reader will be willing to take a look at the book again after you've finished working on their suggested edits, to see if your changes made the necessary difference to the first draft.

How do you find this mythical beast, the perfect beta reader?

You probably don't ....

In most cases, you'll be able to find someone who meets some, but not all, of the criteria outlined above; make sure you take their potential shortcomings into account when planning the edits of your novel. 

Lots of people work around this issue by lining up multiple beta readers ... I don't, now let me tell you why.

My wife is my beta reader. We've set up a system so that we're both comfortable with the exchange of ideas and process surrounding our joint work on whatever my current writing project is. She's an enthusiastic reader and gives honest/balanced critiques of my work, never overstepping or apologizing for her thoughts/questions about my stories. Over the years, we've worked out a method for going through my books, scene by scene and also looking at the arc of the story; it gets better with each book that we work together on.

I am loathe to mess with a system that's working, but I've been thinking of adding another beta reader (or three) to the mix. I won't do it for the novel that we're currently working on, but am in the process of writing a lengthy piece of serial fiction that might benefit from additional sets of eyes during the formative stages (and since it's something completely new to me/us, it won't feel so alien to add more readers to the early stages).

My final thoughts on beta readers

Having written numerous novels and novellas, and seen the difference between first draft and finished product, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that having an excellent beta reader is vitally important to your writing. 

I have good ideas, and get about 60 to 70 percent of them out in my first drafts ... without a great beta reader that I trust completely, my stories might never get past that stage. 

With my wife's help, I am able to flesh out my ideas more fully, pruning and grafting where needed to improve the ideas and delivery and emotional impact; I can produce more effective writing.

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