Last time we talked about what is a beta reader and why you need one. A beta reader gives you feedback on your finished manuscript, so you can adjust it before you self-publish or start querying literary agents. They help you identify any problems with the readability, usefulness or saleability of your manuscript.
A good beta reader can help you make your manuscript 10 times better than it was before. Even experienced writers need second opinions on their books. But how do you find one of these magical creatures?
Where do I find a good beta reader?
But seriously… I won’t lie to you, it’s not easy to find a good beta reader. But it is possible.
Today I’m going to list some of the characteristics of the “ideal” beta reader. Don’t forget that I said ideal. You will have to pick and choose among these characteristics, to decide which ones are most important to you and your book. Think about them, and don’t rush yourself. You’ll begin to get a feel for the people you know who could fit the bill. You’ll begin to understand which aspects are more important to you and your book, and which are less relevant.
- The ideal beta reader is in the target audience for your book, in terms of age, gender, interests etc. That way they will respond to your book in a similar way to the intended reader, without having to think about it.
- If they are not the target demographic for your book, they have the publishing savvy to be able to put themselves in a hypothetical reader’s shoes. They can see the strengths of something that may not actually appeal to them personally.
- They are opinionated, but they know how to express their opinions without killing your dreams. Ideally, you want someone who knows what they think about things and isn’t afraid to say it, but also has the ability to say it kindly. They can criticise in a way that makes you feel hopeful about what you can do to fix it, rather than sinking you into despair. Yes, this is a tricky one to find! If you have to choose between “too brutal” and “too kind”, you’re probably better to go for the “too brutal” person, painful as that may be, because you really do need to hear the truth. But consider wearing body armour and a foil hat when you read their beta report. Also keep chocolate (or mood booster of choice) on hand.
- They are not so close to you that they will find it hard to say things you don’t want to hear. Some best buddies will have the ability to speak honestly from the heart, but others will hold back because they don’t want to hurt you, and they value the relationship more than they value your book. Keep this in mind if you’re thinking of asking a best buddy to do your beta read. Can they be frank with you? Does the connection you have with them allow honesty without sustaining damage to the relationship? Weigh this up, as you decide whether or not to ask them.
- Most likely they are not your mother or life partner. Yes, this is a bother, because that was someone you maybe could have asked! But in general, they know you too well and it colours what they read. They don’t read with fresh eyes because they are putting it through the filter of all the things they’ve ever heard you say, and the events they know have happened to you. There are always exceptions to this; some close relatives can stand back and give you an objective perspective. But many can’t. Weigh it up.
Reading and writing characteristics
- They are regular readers. If you’ve been to their house, it probably has plenty of bookshelves in places where you can see them. Maybe they often mention a book they’ve read. Ideally, they read broadly, not restricting themselves to just one type of book. Ideally, they are neither a book snob who only reads impenetrable “literature” and sneers at the unwashed masses, nor someone who never reads anything other than short, trashy novels. A good mix of popular and literary reading, as well as an interest in non-fiction books, will give them a broad perspective which they can then bring to your beta report.
- If the target audience for your book is people who don’t read much, you might deliberately seek one or two beta readers with that characteristic, just to check if the book is working for them. If a non-reader says, “I couldn’t put it down,” you know you’re on a winner!
- They read the genre you are writing. It may not be their favourite, but they need to have some experience of it. Someone who only ever reads sports biographies won’t be the best judge of a paranormal romance thriller, because they don’t know how to recognise the techniques and preconceptions of such a book. Someone who reads your genre — often and by choice — will be familiar with the way such books tend to be structured, without even having to think about it. They will have an instinct for what works and doesn’t work in terms of plot or structure. They will recognise where you have broken the established rules, and be more likely to evaluate wisely whether or not you’ve gotten away with it!
- They are very often writers themselves, because fellow writers understand the challenges of creating a book-length manuscript in a way that no one else can. They are also less likely to think less of you for using a dangling participle on p214, because they know that’s only a tiny part of what makes a writer. Fellow writers are also motivated to help you with your book, because they know how much they appreciate help with their own work. They comprehend the value of a good beta read.
- Ideally they have never read your manuscript before. Fresh eyes will give you the best value from your beta read, giving you the kind of untainted response that you’d get from a person picking up your book in a store. Some critique group members can have the skill to step back and give you an objective view of your manuscript, even though they’ve been hearing about it for some time. But many can’t. Weigh this up. To get around this, you might ask a couple of your critique group to be beta readers, but also try to have at least one beta reader who knows nothing about the book.
- They understand what makes a good book, in terms of things like plot development and characterisation, structure and purpose. They understand what creates suspense, and what draws a reader on to keep reading and reading till the end. They recognise what creates a good resolution, and what falls flat. In a non-fiction book, they comprehend the value of theme and a cohesive structure.
- They recognise the difference between what your school teachers told you was Proper Writing, and what represents a writer’s “voice”. They are not afraid to deviate from “technically correct” if there is something that actually works better, and communicates more effectively. They can weigh up your eccentricities as a writer, and give you an opinion on which ones are making your book come alive versus the ones that you probably should ditch because they’re just clunky or obstructive.
- They understand what is relatively unimportant in a first beta read. I’ve seen manuscripts dissed by beta readers because there were a few typos, because the reviewer was someone who’d never seen a book-in-progress before. A few typos doesn’t make a bad book. (A lot of typos might, but that’s a topic for another day. )A copy editor or proofreader can fix a couple of typos. I’m not suggesting we don’t try to be accurate as writers, just saying that a good beta reader understands that a few typos will happen, no matter how good a writer is, and there are bigger issues to look at in deciding whether or not a book “works”.
- If your book is in a specialist field, they have knowledge and experience in that field, or at least a strong interest in it. For example, if your book is about nuclear medicine, you probably want a beta reader who knows something about nuclear medicine. If on the other hand, your book is Nuclear Medicine For Newbies, you’ll want a beta reader who knows nuclear medicine (to make sure you’ve got the science right) and another beta reader who doesn’t know nuclear medicine (to make sure you have adequately explained it for a non-expert).
- If your book is set in a particular exotic location, it can be handy to have a beta reader who knows that location well. They can tell you what doesn’t ring true. But then it can also be handy to have a reader who knows nothing about the place. They can tell you if they got a strong sense of place and weather and topography — if the location came alive in their minds. Weigh up which would be best for your book. For example, in non-fiction, it might matter that you have been accurate, whereas in a novel, it might be more important simply to have built a believable world, whether or not it matches absolutely with the real place.
- Ideally, they are savvy about the publishing world and have good instincts about what it takes to get a book noticed by a literary agent or a book buyer. They are familiar enough with the state of publishing to know that self-publishing is no longer the poor cousin, and traditional publishing is in a state of flux. They understand at some level what makes a person buy a book in a store versus on the internet. They often know the latest books that have been successful, but they don’t think aping those books is the only way for you to succeed, or even the best way for you to succeed.
So I guess as you read that list, 14 or 15 names sprang immediately to mind, wonderful people who can tick every box and can also be available at short notice to read your magnum opus, and all you’ve got to do is try to decide among so many options which people to honour with your beta reader request. No?
Oh, and did I mention that you need to get not just one, but 2 or 3 or 4 people with these characteristics?
But still, don’t panic.
Remember that it is an ideal list. You are the creator of your book, and the best judge of what kind of input it needs, depending on what its purpose is and what you plan to do with it next. Sift through these ideas, think it over, and in time, ideas will come for who you could approach.
Other articles in this series:
What do you think? Are these the characteristics you are looking for in a beta reader for your book? How did you choose your beta readers? Or how will you choose them? Share your experiences, both good and bad, so that others can learn too.
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