by TWC Founder/Director Judith Lindbergh
For anyone who doesn’t know what a “beta-reader” is, just think about software launches. How often do you get a warning that you’re using the beta version of an app and are invited to share your experiences using the software? Beta-readers do essentially the same – give you a “dry run” opinion of your book. But authors are looking for more than just praise. We want to know whether or not our story works, and more specifically, why, why not, and where exactly something’s gone wrong.
I always advise choosing beta-readers wisely. They can’t be your mother or your spouse (unless either or both are experienced writers, but even then… Not your mother or your spouse…!) They need to be knowledgeable readers who understand the writing process so well that they can pull apart a sentence or an entire narrative arc. Someone who can sense where tension goes limp and see inconsistencies even hundreds of pages apart….
Honestly, they need to be fellow writers.
They also need to have really big hearts and understand how sensitive a beta-read is. We writers are delicate creatures, even if our writing seems powerful and tough. We work very long (often for years) and very hard (losing sleep, writing during off hours before or after work), so we really don’t want to hear that our story is ALL WRONG, even if… maybe… it is…? Beta-readers need to be able to phrase their comments constructively so that their opinions can be heard, absorbed, appreciated. They have to be gentle but firm in their honestly. And of course, we writers need to keep our egos in check. We need to be ready to listen.
Beta-readers must ALWAYS be plural.
Why? Because writing is subjective. Taste is, too. One reader’s perfection is another reader’s dross. One reader’s confusion is another’s subtle clarity. You have to choose beta-readers for their experience with writing, as well as their reading habits and tastes. You want a contrast of opinions and, if possible, genders, ages, cultural backgrounds, plus a lot of other valuable differences that will help you shape your work.
You really need to have three.
I have often shared with my students my practice of reviewing beta-readers’ comments. I will stack the three manuscripts on my dining table or floor (usually the floor–those who know me) and read them together, flipping the pages side by side. I peruse the comments, as well as the corrections. Grammar? Spelling? That’s easy to fix. But whether a character’s actions make sense based on the childhood memory back on page 49? Or if the power of a paragraph-long image is really just boring? I flip the pages and peruse the thoughtfully worded comments, pondering. Are my beta-readers right?
Sometimes a comment is only an outlier’s quibble, and if that’s the case, I decide whether or not I agree and move on. But if two or three readers all comment on the same section, I pause. I consider. Usually each reader suggests improvements in utterly disparate ways, but I review and rethink, trying to understand what they’re all saying. Often I disagree with each of their approaches, but I know for a fact that something’s wrong in that spot. All of them see it, even if I can’t. I need to understand what it is and then find my own solution.
With my latest novel, The Oracle of Avenue D (now in my agent’s hands—PRAY!), the issue of agency came up with two of my readers. Agency is when a character takes control of their own lives, stops being passive, and transforms as a result. My character was a victim for far too long and didn’t really transform until the very end of the book. I needed to find hints of her strength rising out of her sorrow. So I went back through the draft and wove in a few rising sparks of courage, boldness, and a little more self-awareness. I’m still not quite sure if what I’ve added is enough, but at this point, that’s for my agent to say.
Why not more than three?
Too many cooks really can spoil the broth. I say three is the magic number. You don’t want too many opinions screaming in your head. And if you start spreading an early-ish draft around, you’ll use up your second round of beta-readers. If you choose wisely, the right three will be enough to move you through the draft and get you ready for the next. Fewer, and you will lose the inevitable tie-breaker opinion that will help push your ego out of the way. It’s far too easy for each of us to tell ourselves that our readers are wrong. But if two or all three readers are more or less on the same page, it’s time to try thinking differently.
How to choose?
Know who’s good at nitty gritty details. Find someone who really understands character development. Try a reader who senses when the story structure goes awry. Some readers will specialize in your subject matter. Others won’t have a clue or maybe even be turned off by it. In fact, these readers can be more valuable than experts in your topic, because they will give you a completely fresh perspective. If your story can enchant someone who would never consider picking up a book like yours, you’ve probably done a pretty good job creating and revising.
All of this takes time and thought: to pick the right readers, give them time to read your entire book, then time for you to review their comments, absorb them, and finally accept what makes sense. At that point, decisions must be made, and by then I’m usually fighting ego and pride, as well as serious exhaustion. I simply don’t want to fix the damned book anymore! And yet, as I look at those pages lovingly covered with my writer-friends’ thoughtful comments, I tamp down my denial, frustration, and fear, sit down at the computer and tear my scenes apart yet again.
A heartfelt thanks to my own beta-readers, Michelle Cameron (of course!), Karen David-Chilowicz, and Donna Piken. I also have a “sensitivity reader” doing their bit. More on that in another post to come!