Good beta readers are more precious than rubies and their worth is above gold.
They’re also about as rare. And every writer needs them. And most writers don’t have them. And more writers than ever are going to need them as the publishing process opens up and as there are fewer editors to go around.
So, in no particular order, here are some facts about beta readers:
1- your beta readers are not a support network. Oh, they can be that, too. My beta group includes several people who are the ones to tell me it’s a bad idea when I start having loving thoughts of putting my head through a cultivator because it would hurt less than some of the phases of the so called career.
Yes, your mommy or your boyfriend or your cat can be beta readers for you. However, when they’re your beta readers, they need to take off the comfort hat, the hat that gives you cookies and tells you you’re the best writer in the universe (what, your hat doesn’t do that? Strange.) Instead, they need to put on their reading hat and be brutally honest about your book.
Of course, if your book is the best thing since Ogg the caveman carved his initials (he’d just invented the alphabet) on his cave wall, they should tell you that too (yep, happens to me all the time, why) which brings us to the next point.
2- your beta reader is not your torturer. Yes, sure, they can be that too. What you do in your private time is entirely your private business and please – please, please – don’t share. (Or for the love of heaven, if you do put it up on Amazon and see if someone pays you for it.)
Of course, if your book has issues your beta reader should tell you. Watch out though for the emotionally laden designed-to-hurt sentences, like “I hate this book” or “this is the worst thing ever written.” Or “How could you write something like this?” or “You revealed your moral turpitude in this book.” (Yes, I got that once, but not from a beta reader, just a writers’ group member. Shortly thereafter he stopped being a writers’ group member – I wasn’t the only one he slammed this way – I think he’s still unpublished.)
If you do get this type of critique, and if it is from someone who’s given good critique before, assume their cat just bit them, their boyfriend is sleeping with their lawyer and maybe they’re a little jealous. Ignore it. If this person has never given you good critique, then it might not be worth your time training them to become good beta readers.
3 – your beta reader is not your copyeditor. Again, yeah, sure, they can be that too. My beta readers include (now! Yes, I’m bragging) a professional editor (actually two, though one of them doesn’t get all the books because he doesn’t have that much time. I save him for specific ones.) So, of course, I shall be informed about my crimes of commission and omission about the English language.
But while the beta reader can mark things that really bothered him or threw him out, and can even – if it relieves his feelings – do a second pass and quickly mark typos, this shouldn’t be his main focus as he reads your book.
This is important because almost always the first time I ask a person to beta-read, that’s all I get. A long list of typos. It’s what most people have in their heads as “helping the writer” I think. But here’s the thing, unless I specifically tell you this is going indie, someone else is going to do that. Heck, even as indie, someone else is going to do that most of the time. Also if you’re betaing, you’re doing this before my last pass which is almost always a “language pass.” Phrasing will change.
More importantly, your job is far more important than typos. It’s to tell me “Why are they doing this on chapter three?” Or perhaps “Um… you know humans can’t jump that far, right?” Or “You haven’t mentioned this device before.”
Your job is other things too, which will be in the next point.
4) Your beta readers are your reality check. By which I don’t mean just the above “you know humans can’t….” I mean far more than that.
By the time this book is done, you’ve been living with it for months, sometimes years, or occasionally in my case all of Wednesday afternoon (ow, I’m joking, I’m joking, stop hurting me) and you are so into its bowels that you have no idea what the outside world looks like anymore, much less what your super duper novel will look like to the outside world.
Engineers eventually turn on their engine or put weight on their model bridge; fashion designers have someone put the clothes on; you send stuff to beta readers.
It’s important that the beta reader can give you a general impression “this is at least as good as your last” or “what were you thinking?” and also more specific things like “that thing he did with his tongue when they kissed? EW!” Or “why on earth did she get turned on by the smell of hydrogen peroxide? People don’t do THAT.” Or “Uh… why does your character go from crying to happy with no explanation?”
5 – Beta readers are not born, they’re trained. Of course, you have to be careful never to put them in the same aquarium because otherwise… Oh, wait. That’s fish. Beta readers, yeah (the writer is not even slightly punchy today. Not at all. Carry on.)
So how do you train a beta reader? By having them read, of course. And getting their opinions. And asking them questions.
The first time, it will take a lot of questions because if they’re like every other beta reader I’ve ever had, they will try to give you a list of typos and be convinced they did their job. It’s best to tell them up front “mark that in the manuscript.” The second level is for the beta to try to put his helpful little nose in things he’s not qualified to comment on. So you’ll get a secretary telling you that your physics are wrong or your aunt who’s never seen a gun in her life telling you “that Glock should have the safety on.” Treat them kindly in this phase. They really don’t know what else to do and ARE trying to help.
So, what kind of questions should you ask? I don’t know. Depends on what you, personally, need feedback on. Knowing that is almost an art in itself. I always start with “Is this a book or a cabbage?” Because it’s important to be told “well, it’s words and all, but it just sort of meanders. Were you going somewhere? Or is this just a way to dirty pages?” (I’ve never yet been told that, but I don’t put it past me to manage to write a cabbage or a fish one of these days. It could happen. I’ve been told that with short stories.) Then I usually take care to let the experts who helped me research read the book. You see, I have trouble holding some info in my head, and curious things happen to science when plot hits it. So it’s good to have a note that says “Sarah, dear, gravitational forces don’t work like that. Try this!” (These are the advanced betas, the ones who are also writers and can suggest plot to wrap around the science.)
And then, because I have issues putting the emotion on the page – I do, I always feel like it’s TMI – I ask things like “Does X make sense? Do you understand where Y is coming from? How do you feel about Z?”
And, for people who have betaed for me a long time, things like “Is the emotional denouement too slow?” “Do you think the book is depressing” etc.
The point is that I can’t train your betas. In fact, inheriting betas from another pro can sometimes be disconcerting. You’ll get a bunch of notes on things that you’re not even vaguely unsure about and the apologetic “well, he always asks me about this.”
Betaing is like marriage – only in this case polygamy good! – you accustom yourself to a reader, the reader accustoms him/herself to you.
There is a noted side effect though. After a couple of years, even betas who had never done fiction seem to come to you and go “I have this story…” And then it might be time for you to train as a beta reader.