What struck me recently is that most of my clients, especially the latest ones, don’t really show their work to others. Some do occasionally, and some haven’t let others look at their words in years, if at all.
‘What’s the big deal?’ you might think, but if you’re writing for an audience and not just yourself, it is a big deal.
- Because most writers, this one included, suffer from imposter syndrome. We’re convinced our writing is absolutely terrible. No writer will ever be able to judge their own work entirely, and it’s in sharing our work with others that we learn whether or not we’re any good at it.
- Because most writers, this one included, need encouragement. I only started to take my writing seriously once I let others read it, and it was their cheering me on that eventually led me to a finished first draft of a manuscript, after years (over a decade, in my case) of rewriting and polishing the first seven chapters. It wasn’t until multiple people read what I was working on that I found the drive to write that eight chapter. Within a year, I added over 130,000 words and finished that first draft.
- Because most writers, this one included, are blind to their own mistakes. Whether it’s our plots, our grammar, our characters’ names (I have a tendency to go for names that end in the same sound and it makes for a terrible read!), the stereotypes we perpetuate, our spelling, others will pick up on the things—big and little—that we don’t.
Ignorance does not equal bliss
Wouldn’t you rather know whether you can write or not? Wouldn’t you rather spend all those hours in solitude pounding away at your keyboard or scribbling manically in your notebook, knowing someone out there is waiting for you to finish your next chapter? And, even if your work isn’t the best thing they’ve ever read, wouldn’t you rather hear the feedback so you can improve your craft?
If you’re writing for an audience—i.e. if you write with the aim to one day publish—you have to jump at some point. This is where the beta reader comes in. There are as many ways of doing beta reading as there are beta readers, but what beta reading boils down to is that someone reads (‘tests’) your work before it goes to a professional editor, and provides feedback as if they were an average reader. That doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?
Are you ready to take the leap?
Beta reading – some tips and tricks
The great thing about the beta reading process is that you can make it up as you go, and do it the way that feels right to you. To help you along, though, I have a few tips and tricks.
How many beta readers do I need?
I’ve always taken Stephen King’s advice (pick between four and eight people, from his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft) and it has worked for me thus far, so I’m going to stick with him. I tend to aim for five or six, so ask at least that many. No matter how enthusiastic they are at first, life happens to people and there’s a chance not everyone will finish reading it by the time you want it back (yes, you give them deadlines, and yes, you may hold them accountable).
Don’t take that last bit too seriously by asking too many people ‘just in case’; you don’t want to invite overwhelm. If the response rate you receive is truly appalling (say, one or two out of six people), ask two more people.
Where do I find beta readers?
Family members (unless they write themselves or are known to be extraordinarily critical readers, and tread carefully even then) do not count. Friends who write work perfectly, as do friends who are critical readers in the genre you’re writing in. Friends of friends or acquaintances who love reading work as well.
If you’re bereft of writing and reading friends (it happens), check offline or online writing groups. Ask around on Facebook, in your forums, or you could check out Scribophile, which will make you beta read other people’s work as well (this, too, will improve your craft).
You might not click with all your beta readers, and that’s OK. Do check with yourself whether it’s because they hit a nerve or two with their comments, or whether it’s truly because their notes aren’t helpful in any way. If the latter, don’t feel you need to ask them again. Be grateful for what they did, and move on to someone else.
What do I ask my beta readers?
It’s your story, so you ask your beta readers whatever you need to ask them. You can ask them general questions only—What do you like about the story? What didn’t you like about the story? Why?—or you can ask a bunch of specific questions that you want them to pay attention to as they read—How do you feel about this and this character? Does the plot twist work as is? Is the POV convincing?
If you want to see examples of emails to beta readers, including the questions I asked for different projects, please click here and here. Don’t feel you need to copy my cheerful tone; it’s how I show my gratitude 😉
What will the beta feedback look like?
If you checked my two examples above, you’ll have noticed that I politely ask my beta readers to take into account the list of questions that I have. This is no guarantee that they all will. Prepare to receive emails containing something along the lines of ‘Great job, can’t wait to read the next!’ or ‘Fun story, not really my thing’.
Be also prepared to receive emails of epic proportion, including tons of inline comments. While these tend to be the most useful, they’re also the most overwhelming and, dare I say it, unnerving. These people have truly read our story, and that can make it more difficult to read their more critical comments with the necessary distance. Which brings me to my next point.
What if my beta readers don’t agree with each other?
Then the world will keep on turning, because this is part and parcel of the beta reading process. But, what to do when your one beta reader has a strong dislike towards an aspect that another beta reader adores?
We listen to Stephen King again:
When you give out six or eight copies of a book, you get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what’s good and what’s bad in it. If all your readers think you did a pretty good job, you probably did. This sort of unanimity does happen, but it’s rare, even with friends. More likely, they’ll think that some parts are good and some parts are … well, not so good. Some will feel Character A works but Character B is far-fetched. If others feel that Character B is believable but Character A is overdrawn, it’s a wash. You can safely relax and leave things the way they are (in baseball, tie goes to the runner; for novelists, it goes to the writer). If some people love your ending and others hate it, same deal—it’s a wash, and tie goes to the writer. (From On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 216–217)
Of course, if one beta reader notices something the others don’t, and you entirely agree with it, do change that bit! If five out six beta readers tell you not to do something, but you reflected on it and reached the conclusion that you can’t tell the story otherwise, go for it as well. In the end, it’s your story. That doesn’t mean you can easily dismiss comments you rather not deal with; you sit with each and every one of them. And then you decide what’s best for your story.
Will it hurt?
Always. But you will live. And you’ll be a better writer for it. And if you’re doing something right, beta readers will be the first to tell you, and that’s a thrill that will never get old. That’s a promise.
Ready? Set. Go!
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