They’re all the rage, no? With the advent of self-publishing (which comes with no editing), this idea has flourished. And even agents now smile when the authors they represent utilize beta readers.
Is this worthwhile? It sure can be!
Strange, coming from an editor, right? Although these readers don’t have the years and knowledge and study and experience of an editor, real editing is expensive, and many folks just don’t have the wherewithal to purchase such services. So having several or many sets of eyes on your book can absolutely find some flaws.
As this shouldn’t be for your draft, but rather a ready-to-market manuscript, we’re not talking typos or grammatical/spelling issues, but instead, whether the book itself holds up as per plot, storyline, and characters.
Before the Internet (am I dating myself or what?), this was done in writer’s groups where you actually met in person regularly, to read aloud and have the group critique you. These can be so effective, especially when you’re trying to find your sea legs. The very act of reading one’s work aloud helps a fledgling writer to hear his own prose from a different angle (that old left brain/right brain—writer/editor—thing).
And these groups were made up of writers at all levels—rank novices to multi-published authors. So hearing the critiques across the different strata, not only of your work but of others’, often proved quite enlightening.
As writers’ groups moved more and more online, the human element was lost. And so were a lot of the other benefits. It doesn’t mean beta readers don’t have their purpose, it just means that to sort through the ones that are best for you is vital.
So, if you don’t have the resources to hire an editor, and are considering beta readers, what parameters should you set?
- First off, seek those who read the genre in which you write. I know, sounds like a no-brainer, right? But sometimes it’s difficult to tell out there. In other words, if you write YA Fantasy, sending your manuscript to someone who reads/writes Traditional Westerns is not going to bear much fruit. In fact, it can actually be quite detrimental.
For example, I recently heard from a writer of mine, who has been in revisions the past year and a half, and who is already agented by a top NY agent. Once revisions were done, this writer googled beta readers, and chose 3 who seemed a good fit. Note: They seemed a good fit.
The critiques were fairly scathing. “Too much history,” one said, “which takes too long to get to the real story.” “Take out the flashbacks,” said another, “I don’t care what happened in the past.” “Too much dialogue,” said a third.
As I began asking deeper questions, my writer said she found out after that two of them wrote YA Fantasy (with the profusion of that genre, it’s not surprising that everybody is a beta reader now! 🙂 )
What does my writer write? Historical Literary Fiction.
Not the best of fits, as the first two comments above showed. They didn’t want to know the history (which was crucial to the characters and the culture). They were confused by the back and forth in time (which is weaved beautifully through the narrative). They were, of course, used to a much more straightforward, linear, action-packed storyline (and dare I say, more on the surface). Literary is quite a different beast from any other genre, and takes a more sophisticated reader than is commercially abundant.
The dialogue comment made by the third stumped pretty much everybody.
But the point being, if you get readers who aren’t used to your sort of work, it’s the old thing about trying to make pigs fly—you’ll just spin your wheels and annoy the pig in the process.
- Second, what’s the skill level of the reader? Most of these folks these days are fledgling writers themselves. And while that’s not always a bad thing, it is, to put it bluntly, not very helpful.
The thing about folks learning to write (and it takes years and years and years to hone one’s craft), is that while doing so, people are learning the rules. And there are a lot of them! Rules for prose, for sentence structure, for characterization, for plotting, pacing, organization, plot structure, etc., etc., etc. No wonder it takes so long to master all of this!
And while doing so, new writers become Rule Nazis. “You can’t do X because it breaks Y rule!” Which it very well might.
But if you’re a half-way skilled writer, have spent the time learning your craft, more than likely, well, you already know the rule. Have mastered it. And have effectively broken it because it adds more than it takes away.
New writers, however, get stuck in the sticky bog of all that. They’re still trying to learn the rules!
As another of my writer’s critique readers said, “You have run-on sentences.”
Did I mention this work is Literary?
My writer also found that the readers had self-published first books. Period. Um . . .
So look for authors who have lots of published books to their credit. Who know the difference in Category Romance and Women’s Fiction. Who understand why although the rule says don’t switch viewpoints, places exist where it’s not only acceptable but quite marvelous to do so.
- Know—just know—that a fairly large percentage of critique is quite self-serving.
In a physical writer’s group, this becomes evident fairly quickly, as you actually get to know the folks as humans, rather than just people who critique. And is that ever an eye-opener! So many have been involved for years and years, and live to show off their knowledge . . .
No matter if their knowledge is all surface or not.
As the old saying goes, “Those who can, create. Those who can’t, review.”
Sorting through this is much more difficult with faceless, online readers.
So, just realize this can and does occur.
- And finally, take what you can and leave the rest. Just like in AA.
Decades ago, I was in a quite lovely writer’s group (this was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s). I met the most wonderful people, some of whom are still my friends today.
I came away eventually with many impressions, but the chief among them was that it was very much like a 12-step group. Same sort of dynamics. Same sort of teaching/learning going on.
One of the big signs at 12-step groups says exactly that: Take what you can and leave the rest.
Because even with the best of intentions, you’re going to get bad advice.
And, advice that really doesn’t pertain to you (or in our case, to your writing).
You’ll get so many opinions. Ask 100 people their opinions on Star Wars, and you’ll get 100 different answers.
The best thing to do with these is what I ask my writers about agent rejections: Were there any consistencies? Did more than one agent say the same thing? If so, really take a look at that (provided you sent to the right agents in the first place, which of course my writers do 🙂 ).
If everyone’s hitting on one theme, then really take a hard look at that.
If the critiques are all over the map, let them go.
So yes, beta readers can provide information to help you write a better book. Just look for those who write/read what you write. Find ones with a higher skill level than you have. Understand that a percentage of it will be about them fluffing their own feathers. And then take what applies and cast off the rest.
And then, only then, dive back into revisions.