Beta readers are people who agree to read a draft manuscript and offer feedback to the author. Typically, beta readers will read a well-polished first or second draft, one that the author has already painstakingly edited and spell-checked.
Many times, beta readers are people whom the author knows. Close family, friends, and co-workers can be good sources of advice for a writing project. Freelance professional editors, as well as fly-by-night random people on the internet, can also be contracted to beta read a novel. Beta reading costs much less than developmental editing, but paying a pro editor for a beta read is still expensive. As with many things, you get what you pay for.
In my case, I turned to friends, family, and co-workers because:
- I’m cheap, and can’t afford the pro freelance editors,
- My peeps read a lot and know what makes a good story.
- I have a lot of beta readers. With enough people (say, 5-10), I can start to see trends.
The pitfall in using people you know is that they are biased. They might not give you the harsh criticism you need. Before asking someone to beta read a manuscript, the author should consider the type of feedback they are likely to get. In my case, my brother is not afraid to tell me just how bad of a writer I am. He also reads a book a week in the sci-fi / fantasy genres and was an obvious choice for a beta reader..
The Job of the Beta Reader:
The beta reader’s job is to try to have an enjoyable read, and to note where and why that doesn’t happen. Authors should ask beta readers to note which sections of the manuscript are boring, confusing, or otherwise cause them to lose interest.
That’s basically it. Beta readers (the friends and family variety) usually aren’t experienced editors. But, that’s ok! Readers are the ultimate customer, and keeping the customer happy is key.
Getting the Most Out of the Read:
If an author gets lucky, they’ll find a few people who are willing to really sit down and have at that manuscript. If this is the case, then the author can give them some guidance as to what to look for. The following is just a list of key things that make a good story. These are things that editors would pay attention to.
The opening chapter of a book is critical to capture a reader’s attention. One of the best things an author can ask a beta reader is if he or she was interested in continuing reading the book after reading the first chapter.
There will be parts of a story that make perfect sense to the author, since he or she wrote it and have all the backstory in his or her head. It is quite a different thing for a cold body reader to absorb, process, and understand the story. As discussed above, finding the points that confuse readers should be an author’s #1 priority. If the book is confusing, people will lose interest.
Pacing is an easy thing to lose track of. Authors can ask beta readers to note sections of the book that seem to drag on and on, or sections where a week’s worth of plot progression has happened over night. For example, if the main character woke up on Tuesday, flew halfway across the galaxy, fought off the evil alien horde, escaped by the skin of his teeth, and married the princess back on Earth on the next Wednesday night, there is a problem.
This is a tough one for some authors, including me. I have had characters whose eye color changes from one chapter to the next. Or worse, characters who change the way they speak (hey, wasn’t that guy a scientist? Now he sounds like a high-school bully!)
Other continuity errors are harder to find and can be related to pacing problems. Maintaining continuity across multiple viewpoint characters is even harder. Authors should ask beta readers to note when the fabric of space-time seems off. For example, in the original draft of Sagitta, a year went by between scenes for one viewpoint character, but only a few months for the other, yet their story arcs were supposed to be synced in time.
Characters: Believable or Cardboard Constructs
Beta readers can help an author evaluate their characters and determine if they are believable. A believable character is like a real person. They have ambitions, quirks, opinions, and a unique way of viewing and processing the world around them (unless they are an intentional robot). Characters can (and should) evolve, but stay true to themselves.
Authors should ask beta readers to note any places in the manuscript where a character says or does something that is, well, out-of-character. They should also note cookie-cutter two-dimensional characters. 2D characters are fine for minor parts, but your point of view character and any characters that are “on set” for more than 20% of the book should have at least a little bit of depth to them.
Dialogue: Natural or Forced?
Dialogue between characters is one of the best ways to move the story along and reveal information. However, characters shouldn’t have pointless conversations solely for the purpose of revealing information to the reader. Beta readers can help point out if dialogue sounds natural (i.e. something the character would say), or injected (i.e. the author is making the character’s mouth move in order to make a point about something). Pro editors will go into a lot more depth here, but most readers should be able to point out natural-sounding or forced/injected dialogue.
Exposition (Show, Don’t Tell)
This one might be a bit harder for someone not trained as an editor to point out. However, seasoned readers will notice when the author, in his or her narrative voice, is simply telling the story as opposed to letting the story form in the reader’s mind from the actions, thoughts, and dialogue of the characters. Some exposition is necessary, but beta readers should keep an eye out for chunks of heavy-handed telling.
Readers will be put of by too many grammatical and syntax errors. To fight this, authors should ask someone with a particular eye for such details to go through line-by-line and find all the little typos and fix them. This is the ideal task for someone who knows the arcane rules behind who vs. whom, its vs. it’s, and other such peculiarities. This also includes catching tense errors and overuse errors (such as, way, way too many exclamation points!)
The “Final” Draft / The “Final” Book
Most authors would count themselves lucky if their beta reading team commented on even a few of the items above. A full manuscript revision usually happens after a successful beta read, and the story that comes out of this process is much better. Self-publishing authors usually use this version as their final book. Those seeking traditional publication will submit this version as their final draft to publishers.
Beyond the Beta Read
Taking the story to the next level will require a developmental edit from a professional editor. This is where things get expensive if the author is self-publishing. The pro editor will take a story apart, inspect the elements, and figure out how it works or doesn’t work. The pro editor will look at the author’s narrative style and pay attention to things that most readers don’t even know exist (e.g. filter words). Of course, if the book is traditionally published, all this will be done by the publishing house’s staff.
Beta reading is an essential step for authors in both the self-publishing and traditional mindsets. By selecting a small group of skilled readers, an author can gain valuable insight into their manuscript and discover flaws that they were simply blind to before.