Today I want to talk to you about getting a beta reader. In this article about your prepublication checklist, I defined it as someone who reads your work objectively to point out its strengths and weaknesses. The ultimate purpose of a beta reader is to make your story better. Note that I said to “make your story better”, not you. What does this mean? If you will receive the services of a beta reader, you must be willing to accept criticism.
So how do you get a beta reader?
1. Ask a Writer-friend
Obviously to be able to do this, you need to make friends with writers. A good place to connect with writers is at workshops. So if you attend one, don’t just take pictures, have meaningful conversations that can foster long-term relationships!
Unfortunately, there can be a lot of envy among writers so be sure to choose someone who really cares about strengthening your work. You might be thinking, “How do I know if I’m dealing with an envious colleague?” Good criticism is not attacking.
Good criticism: “Perhaps you should try strengthening the character of so and so by doing this and that.”
Bad criticism: “You obviously did no research before writing this story, you’re being lazy.”
I recommend having writer friends do your beta reading, because not only do they understand the writing process, they are often in a good position to tell you just what you need to do to make your work better.
2. Ask an Editor
One of my beta readers is an editor. I have known her for seven years, and she has critiqued my work from the very beginning. When she gives advice about my work, I accept it as a useful tip from someone who has read a lot of work and has a good eye for weak sentences and plot holes. She suggests edits and when the work is ready, I pay her to edit it. If you have an editor friend, I suggest that you ask them nicely if they wouldn’t mind reading your work. Editors read a lot of work, the good, the bad and the ugly. I think they are in a good position to tell you what needs fixing in your work.
If you don’t have an editor friend like me (who I can bully 😀 into reading my work in the middle of the night), you might want to consider paying an editor to critique and edit your work. Especially if you are on a deadline and the work needs to go out as soon as possible.
3. Ask An Average Reader.
Sometimes all you need is input from an average reader, someone within your circle who can give candid advice about your work. The good thing about this type of beta readers is that they are reading from the standpoint of an average reader, your target audience. So, if they don’t understand or enjoy what you’ve written, chances are that your readers won’t as well. So, take their advice seriously.
A warning, you must know the taste of your reader. This means that if you write fantasy fiction, you shouldn’t give your work to someone who only reads literary fiction. Always remember that the average reader will critique based on what they enjoy reading.
This is one of the reasons why I don’t usually give my work to an average reader to critique. Every literary genre is unique and average readers might not know and appreciate the characteristics of a different genre.
The more widely read your average reader is, the better for you.
4. Join A Community Of Writers
There are several online and offline groups for writers that you can join, which give you the opportunity to critique others and receive criticism for your own work. These communities usually have rules against personal attack and plagiarism. The greatest benefit of these kinds of groups, is that they can serve as a kind of support group. So if you need help finding useful materials to study, for instance, they can point you in the right direction.
Because there are several people in the group, you are likely to get a variety of opinions on your work. This may pose a problem, as you struggle to determine which ones you should adopt and which ones you should ignore. What is most important to remember, is that any opinion/advice should aid your story. So, say for instance that someone has said that a minor character is not saying enough. You have to determine if giving this character more dialogue is beneficial to the story. In most cases it isn’t, and the advice has only come out of the critique’s peculiar interest in that character. So be careful about adopting all the opinions you get.
Another thing you’ll have to look out for is plagiarists, thieves who might take your work and pass it off as theirs. Although many of these groups warn against plagiarism, if you decide to join an online community of writers, know that you are taking a risk. So, if you do not feel comfortable with it, I advise to reconsider this idea.
The ultimate purpose of beta readers is to give you criticism or advice that will strengthen your work. While this is good, important even, you must recognise your choice to accept or decline the criticism. Sometimes the suggestions a reader gives is just what you need to smoothen the rough edges of your work, but other times, they will not fit in with your idea. You have to learn to decipher between helpful advice and unhelpful advice. “How will I know this?” you might ask. I’ll say, go with your gut.
I’ll give you an example. I wrote a story about a woman and her mother and submitted it for criticism. One of the beta readers suggested that I make the story about the woman and her boyfriend. I rejected this advice because the idea was to explore a relationship gone wrong between a daughter and her mother, and how this affected her life, not the other way around. You must be confident as a writer, know what you want to write about and receive criticism that aids your vision, not that which alters it.
I’ll talk more about how you should respond to criticism in another post. Until then, keep writing!