Revision: Beta Readers
by Nicole Galloway-Miller
Beta readers are an essential part of the revision process. They are readers who volunteer to read a piece of writing and offer criticism on it. Sometimes there is an exchange. They agree to read a piece of work if the writer of that work agrees to read a piece of their work.
The term beta comes from the software industry, which uses “beta” to describe an imperfect release. The release is used by beta testers who try to identify problems before it is released to the general public. These testers deliberately attempt to break the software looking for points of weakness which could pose problems. Beta readers for a piece of writing provide a similar service to the writer searching for weaknesses in a piece.
Ideal beta readers are opinionated and willing to express those opinions without killing an author’s hopes and dreams. They are passionate about quality writing and storytelling and willing to collaborate and share their knowledge with others. Beware, though, friends and family often do not make good beta readers. If a beta reader is too close to the writer, he or she may not feel that they can say difficult things or negative opinions about the piece of writing and feel comfortable offering criticism about weaknesses of a piece, which is essential to this process.
Most beta readers read regularly. They prefer to read broadly and do not restrict themselves to one genre or type of novel. Ideally, they read a variety of popular fiction and literary works and are not “book snobs” who prefer impenetrable literature. Very often they are writers themselves, because fellow writers understand the challenges of creating a book-length manuscript and what makes a good book. Great beta readers are knowledgeable about the publishing world and have good instincts about what it takes to get a book noticed by a literary agent or book buyer.
A good beta reader will be able to identify weaknesses in characterization and plot which the writer has missed. In addition, the beta reader will proofread the work for typos and grammatical errors. Many authors use several beta readers to solicit a wider opinion of the work as a whole.
When choosing beta readers for your manuscript, make sure that at least one of them has an editorial or proofreading background and that one or two of the others is in the target audience in terms of age, gender and interests. If your book is about a character with special knowledge such as a golfer or detective, try to include a reader who is golfer or detective or knows a lot about the subject. This way, you can double-check your facts. The same holds true for locations. If your book takes place in Seattle, try to find a beta reader who lives there.
When selecting a beta reader, it is important to send a small portion of the larger work first and see what criticism the beta reader suggests. It takes time to find good beta readers, but they are out there. Another thing to do is ask for writing samples or if they are a blogger, go online and evaluate the quality of their posts. If the posts are full of comma splices, misspellings, and other grammatical errors, they may not be a good choice.
There are a lot of great places to find beta readers. There are beta reader groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Plus, numerous sites like fanfiction.net, absolutewrite.com, and Scribophile, which is a website linking other writers. One earns the right to have their work critiqued by critiquing other work. A writer can learn a lot about good writing by reading and evaluating the work of their peers. Scribophile membership is free, and the critiques are well-done, constructive, professional and helpful. In addition, there are numerous groups and forums for beta readers of different genres and target audiences that can be found online during a search.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a learning process and a writer must be willing to take constructive criticism. A “thick skin” is essential. Rejection plays a huge role in every writer’s career. It’s going to happen, so absorb it, learn from it and apply it in the future. The fewer errors in a manuscript, the greater the chances of it being published.