Beta readers. It’s a term I never heard once during my first 20 years of writing.
Part of that, no doubt, is because I was a pretty little kid when I first started out to become a "world-famous author." And after that, I guess I was just pretty naïve when it came to the sophisticated circles of writerly terms and topics.
Mary Jane… Story arc… Beta reader…
Those exact terms were all foreign to me for the longest time. But that’s not to say I didn’t understand their value, specifically when it came to beta readers. These people are pretty invaluable when it comes to your writing process.
Not utterly necessary, admittedly, yet still a great resource if you can hook ‘em.
If you, like me 10 years ago, have no idea what beta readers are, no sweat. These are almost always unpaid people who read over your completed manuscript with the express purpose of giving you overarching pointers. Stuff like:
“Your intro doesn’t grab me right away.”
“Oh my word, I love your protagonist!”
“Is chapter 4 really necessary?”
“I’m not buying the fight scene between Lilly and Robert.”
“That ending was superb!”
Now, Beta readers aren’t editors. That’s very important to understand. They’re not reading your story to catch nitpicky errors. Actually, they’re not even reading your story to catch bigger issues, though they probably will catch some along the way. Possibly even a lot.
Yet what they’re really reading your manuscript for is to see whether your story has the capability to capture their interest.
Beta readers ask, “Did it engage me?” Which then helps writers weed out aspects that didn’t come across as engaging, thereby strengthening their stories and moving them that much closer to the publishable point.
Sounds great, right? Just keep in mind a few not-so-little things…
First off, there’s a reason why giving your manuscript to a beta reader or two (or five if you can find them) is Step #6 in the Getting to the Publishable Point process. There’s nothing random about how it comes after Step #3 – revising your first draft – Step #4 – revising your second draft – and step #5, revising your third draft.
Beta readers are giving you their time, so you want to give them your effort, honing what you can see needs honing on your own, revising what you can see needs revising, and smoothing out what you can see needs smoothing.
You’re never going to be able to fix everything, of course. But you don’t want to give them something full of issues that you could have reasonably addressed on your own.
After you do get back their notes or summary or commentary, carefully consider their critiques and add in appropriate revisions. You don’t have to accept all of what they say. This is, after all, your manuscript. Your story. Not theirs.
But you really should carefully consider their feedback and act accordingly.
Once you’ve changed what you and your beta readers can agree needs to be changed, you’re still not quite done yet with Step #6. To move on in the Getting to the Publishable Point process, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of your manuscript and read it over again, making any further edits you think should be made along the way.
If you’ve got good beta readers who are smart, savvy and trustworthy sources – which is exactly what they’re supposed to be – then you’ll find your work is going to be a whole lot more engaging as a result.