In case you’re not familiar with the term, Beta Readers are people you trust to read and give feedback on your project prior to submission on a one to one basis. Beta Readers are WONDERFUL people. They are your first line of defense against mistakes both large and small. Because they ARE your defense, you don’t want to use someone who thinks every word that drips out of your pen is a masterpiece, nor do you want someone as critical of every word as that doubting voice in your head (it can do THAT JOB just fine on its own). You want someone who gets your style of writing and can tell you when you’ve failed to do what you set out to do, or give a high five when you totally nail it.
For a long time my main Beta Reader was Wrong For Me and I didn’t realize it. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t make good comments as their comments were happening at the wrong time in the creative process. That isn’t the Beta Reader’s fault, that’s mine. I was seeking (and getting) high level editing on my roughest drafts. The best analogy I can use is it’d be if you were trying to sand a piece of lumber using a super fine grit sandpaper. You’ll get there eventually but you’d have gotten there A LOT sooner and easier starting at a low grit working up to the high.
What changed for me, was my much younger brother Chris got old enough to be interested in what I was writing. He would read over my shoulder or pester me with questions. He became, and still is, the first person to read anything I’ve written. He isn’t an editor or a fellow fiction writer (at least not yet). He’s just interested in my writing and my characters and asks good questions. He’s a set of eyes outside of my head that still knows more about the story and things than the average reader is going to. I draft longhand and do one rough edit pass as I type it up and then Chris reads it and gives me comments before I do the “first” edit.
It’s that “first” edit which then goes out to Beta Readers. I have a pool of people I draw from based on availability and expertise. If I know someone has first-hand experience relevant to the story, I try really hard to make sure there’s time for them to at least give it a once-over read. If I know I’m going to have a lengthy project come up for a read, I try to feel people out to see if they’ll have time in their schedule. I have Beta Readers who annotate pdf files, those who do track changes in Word, those that send me email with thoughts, and some that just chat their thoughts and reaction over IM or Skype. I’ve found that I prefer getting a mix of readers who write and those that don’t. I don’t take everyone’s comments to heart, but I do listen very carefully to their questions about the story. If everyone is asking a question I want them to be thinking about, that’s a feature, not a bug. If everyone or even most, have a question about something I thought was perfectly clear– I’ve got to fix that.
I can’t tell you how many times a Beta Reader has put their finger on something in the story that was bothering me but I couldn’t see from my perspective on the story. Once you know what isn’t working it’s usually a lot easier to fix it and that’s why Beta Readers are awesome.
Do you use Beta Readers?