Tell it like it is: a beta reader wish list

As featured in Carnival of the Indies, Issue #34 July 13

As featured in Carnival of the Indies, Issue #34 July 13

Oh, beta readers, where would we be without you?

I’ve previously highlighted the virtues of beta readers here and why it’s so important to have them, but recently it was brought home to me just how essential it is to find the ‘right’ beta readers.

So what do I mean by ‘right’ beta readers, you ask? Am I talking about a job description? Well, yes, kind of. I’m referring the qualities a good beta reader must have if you’re going to get the most out of the process.

And it is a process. You’re inviting someone to constructively critique your work, so you need to feel confident it’s the right fit.

Below are some of the key qualities I’ve found make a successful beta reader:

A beta reader job description

  • Honesty. This can be a scary word for both sides. Honesty can sometimes hurt a writer and beta readers can be scared their honesty will offend. Tough. No, I mean it. If, as a writer, you aren’t prepared to open yourself to some (constructive) criticism for the sake of improving your work and ultimately your craft, then give up now. If, as a beta reader, you’re worried you’ll throw your writer into the depths of despair – don’t. They trusted you enough to invite you into their world of writing and if you’ve read the entire manuscript and then don’t give honest feedback, you’ve wasted your time.
  • They read. A lot. Alright, this one might seem obvious, but stay with me. If a close friend or relative offers to read your manuscript but they hardly ever read you might want to rethink. It’s true, beta readers are not professional editors (nor is that their role) but they should be readers. This is because it’s going to be difficult to provide feedback on story direction, characters, pacing and all the other elements of your writing if they don’t have a basic (inherent) knowledge of what goes into creating a good book. They may not even realise they have that knowledge, but by virtue of the fact they read a lot, they will be able to give you valuable feedback.
  • They have an eagle eye. So this is the only time I’m willing to make an exception to the rule above. If you know someone that may not consume a lot of fiction in your genre, but they have an eagle eye, consider bringing them onto your beta reading team. I have one close friend who is pleasantly pedantic. She’s a slow reader (she admits that herself) and doesn’t read much fiction. However, she’s completed three different degrees and is an exceptionally smart lady. In my first manuscript, she picked up more errors than anyone else and seemingly enjoyed it! She’s now an essential member of my beta reading team, but she’s not the only member of my beta reading team – this is important!
  • They have time. Chances are it took you a long time to write your manuscript. There might have been elation, frustration and possibly even tears. So do not hand your manuscript on to a beta reader who has a life so full that he or she cannot give your manuscript the time it deserves! They might fit the criteria above, but none of that matters if they don’t have the time to dedicate to the task. And that time extends to not only reading the manuscript, but having several good sessions over a cup of tea or your preferred alcoholic beverage to discuss your manuscript. Then many more discussions as you progress and probably a reread or two of sections you might have reworked or refined. Explain this to your potential beta reader; labour the point! For me, some of the best suggestions, changes and decisions have come out of these beta reader discussion sessions.

Beta reading is a team effort

Now that you’ve got an idea of some of the key aspects of a good beta reader, consider setting up a ‘team’ for the job. In my case, I have a team of three to four people on board and they are all there for different reasons. One is an avid reader; another devours books in my genre and has an enthusiasm for my dream that keeps me inspired; the other as I’ve already mentioned is pedantic and great at picking up proofing errors; while my last beta reader is suitably removed from my day-to-day and my dream that she offers a true test of what an ‘average’ reader may experience when she picks up my books.

Be wary of feedback paralysis

In another life, early in my career as a marketer I spent a lot of time looking at customer demographics. How on earth is that relevant here? Analysis paralysis. We used that term often when we looked at data, graphs and results until our eyes bled and our heads ached. At that point, we would cry, “Analysis paralysis” and realise it was time to ease back a bit.

As a writer, you need to know when to stop. Feedback can be valuable but you can also listen to others thoughts and opinions until your head hurts and you feel like you’ve been through an emotional spin cycle. If that’s where you’re at, ease back a bit and remind yourself that it’s your book, your writing and ultimately your choices about what feedback to take on board.

Are there any other qualities you’d add to your beta reader job description?

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13 thoughts on “Tell it like it is: a beta reader wish list

  1. Katie says:

    I have beta-read for a couple writers I’ve met online through my blog and through absolutewrite . com, and I must say the most difficult part about it is the time constraint! I agree that it is important to have a nice range of people beta reading. Some avid readers, some super intellectuals, someone who might not like your genre and can provide a viewpoint you’d never thought of. =)

    • belindawilliamsbooks says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Kate. I think you’re right – the time factor can be one of the biggest considerations when looking for or choosing to be a beta reader. One of my beta readers regularly gets into trouble from her partner for ignoring him when she’s beta reading for me!

  2. francisguenette says:

    This is an awesome ‘job description’ for a beta reader! I’m going to share this post with my beta readers. For my 2nd time around at this process, I’m feeling confident in the team of 4 readers I have with an additional couple of people who will come in to check out a few technical issues, but not read the entire manuscript. So true – you have to feel like you can work with these people like a team.

    • belindawilliamsbooks says:

      Thanks Francis! Glad you found it helpful and thanks for reading. I agree you have to be open to keeping your beta-reading team fluid too. Depending on the book, you might draw more from one beta-reader than another, but it’s definitely a team effort isn’t it?

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