A term I never heard of before I threw myself into creative writing was Beta Reader. I wondered what this meant. Is it like one of those fighting Beta fishes? How is a Beta Reader different from a critique group? Why do I need one? When do I need one? How does one become one?
Simply put a Beta Reader is a person who reads the complete manuscript of a writer’s novel, novella, screenplay, or play. It is helpful to get feedback early on so that as a writer you can polish the manuscript before sending it out to be published. If you are at this stage with your story then you probably have read and re-read it so much yourself you probably are sick of seeing it.
How is beta reading different from just submitting work to a critique group? For one thing the idea of enlisting a group of Beta Readers is to give them the entire finished product. More often than not critique groups have restrictions on word count and frequency of submissions. While you can give your critique group each chapter at a time, it’s like giving pieces of a puzzle to someone and expecting them to put it together without having all the pieces. It’s also more difficult for members of a critique group to remember what previously happen in the story and see if there has been any character development.
Beta Readers get all the pieces to the puzzle. They get to see that whole picture, from the beginning to the middle to the end, experiencing the journey the reader would take in real time. Thus their feedback is probably a bit more solid than just having piecemeal feedback on a chapter here and there. That’s not to say to never let your critique group see the chapters. There are certainly areas where you know the writing is weaker or you’re struggling with how to write a scene or when you’re first starting the project. This is when your critique group can come in handy with feedback.
So how does one go about choosing Beta Readers? In order for the process to be beneficial, it’s a good idea to pull your Beta Readers from different walks of life. In addition to having a fellow writer or two read your complete work, invite non-writers as well. Fellow writers are looking for certain things but may suffer from tunnel vision. Invite friends and family who frequently read in your story’s genre. This type of reader is looking for certain things that a non-genre Beta Reader wouldn’t necessarily pick up on. After all, the majority of book readers are not writers. Good idea to get a feel for how the book reads for the average public. Finally, make sure you pick Beta Readers who is capable of giving constructive criticism.
When you’ve got your readers picked, make sure you give them plenty of time to adequately read your manuscript. This is especially important if the writer is facing a deadline. Even if you aren’t, still give your readers a deadline. After all the revision process is far lengthier than the initial rough draft stage. If you have any specific questions or concerns you’d liked addressed then let your readers know that. Tell your readers who you’d like to receive feedback. Are you okay with a hand written mark-up of the manuscript? Would you prefer an electronic version?
What are the responsibilities of a Beta Reader? People have lives so in addition to providing the most honest and constructive feedback possible, try to get your comments back to the author as soon as possible. When I beta read, the process is slower than my regular critiquing for my writers group and it is much, much slower than when I’m reading for fun. Keep that in the back of your mind when you accept or decline the offer to read. If you notice grammar and spelling mistakes and you feel confident enough, go ahead and note the errors. Naturally there are readers who focus more on this than others so don’t get bogged down too much in checking every single sentence. Remember, you are reading for content mostly. That being said, it can be quite frustrating to be spending more time correcting grammar and spelling, then actually absorbing the story.
Asking people to beta read your baby is scary. I get nervous whenever my work is critiqued and at this point I can only imagine how nerve-wracking it’s going to be when my novel is ready enough to be review by others. Be nice to your readers by thanking those who accept the offer as well as those who decline the invitation. Beta Readers, be respectful and honest to the writer. We’re can be fragile creatures and the author has placed a lot of trust in you. Hopefully the experience can be fun and beneficial for both sides.