So you've finished your manuscript and your story is now out of your head and on the page, waiting to be read. But who gets to see it first (after you self-edit, of course)? Before you send it out to an editor or to agents or publishers, start by giving it to your first line of defense: the beta readers.
What’s the Difference Between a Beta Reader and an Editor?
A beta is a representative reader – they give you an impression of how a reader would respond to it. Every beta is different, but most will give you feedback on how they're reacting to the story, tell you if things are making sense, and maybe make some cursory line edits, but not a full-scale grammar/spelling/style check. Editors are professionals who read critically, drilling down on the technical issues and helping you shape your story to get it to publishable conditions. Betas are wonderful, but they shouldn’t take the place of a proper editor.
Do You Need a Beta?
It definitely doesn’t hurt! Writing is such a solitary activity and often it feels like you’re working in an echo chamber, so having someone look at what you’re doing before you send it off is a good idea. You can get feedback from someone who’s not inside your brain and fix things that you didn’t realize were issues. It’s also going to make your investment in an editor more beneficial – instead of correcting numerous smaller issues of grammar, continuity, etc., the editor can give you more useful criticism without those distractions and advise you on how to push your story to the next level.
Ok, So How Do You Work With a Beta?
This varies between writers. Be very, very clear with your betas on what you’re looking for from them. How quickly do you want them to turn around their comments? How specific do you want them to be? How honest do you want them to be? What areas should they focus on?
Maybe you want someone who’s going to give you an overall impression of the story (this is usually called a cold reader). Maybe you want a beta who has a particular skill set and will look for specific things in the text. Someone might be great at pointing out continuity issues, or pinpointing exactly why a character isn’t ringing true, or correcting grammar issues.
Betas who are experts in a field are wonderful to have if your story is based in a specific milieu. Someone who knows the ins and outs of the historical period you’re writing in can ensure that you’ve created an authentic context for your story. Having a doctor on your beta team would be stellar if there’s a lot of medical jargon/issues in the text and especially if your plot hinges on the medical information being correct.
There’s also been a trend recently for “sensitivity readers” – if you have a character who identifies with a group you don’t belong to yourself, you might want someone who does to ensure you’re giving an accurate representation of that group, or if you simply want to check that there’s no racist/sexist/ableist/etc. language.
How many betas should you have? More than one so you can get multiple perspectives on your book. I think there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen so you don’t want to go overboard and have ten betas – you have to collate and synthesize ten sets of comments and corrections into one complete manuscript, and just the idea of organizing all that is headache-inducing. I’d suggest starting with two or three betas; you can add more later if you feel you need more feedback.
How Do You Find Them?
It’s tempting to turn to friends for beta help, but I’d be careful about this. Your friends might go too easy on you and not give you enough constructive criticism. On the flip side, how would you feel if your bestie savaged your manuscript? Would your friendship be able to handle that? If you think you can get good, honest feedback from a friend without the whole process being detrimental to your relationship, then go for it!
If you want more objective critiques, you can reach out to people on your social media platforms or join various writing communities in person or on the web to seek out beta readers. Scriptophile and Critique Circle both offer reward systems to encourage reciprocating critiques. Learning how to give critiques is also a useful skill to develop; you learn how to analyze writing and then can apply that to self-editing your own work.
If you’re looking for someone with specific expertise, there’s a number of Tumblr blogs geared to writers where they can pose questions to an expert in a particular field. For example, ScriptMedic answers medical questions; ScriptLawyer answers legal questions; ScriptAutism answers questions about autistic characters; ScriptCanuck answers questions about Canada; etc. etc. Check here for all of the resources that fall under the Script Family.
Betas Need Love Too!
Betas are doing valuable work for free so make sure they get their props. Thank them, acknowledge their contribution, give them a gift, send them a copy of the book once it’s published, etc. Whatever you feel is commensurate with the effort they put in to getting your book to print.
Do you work with betas? How? Let me know in the comments!