We know writers like to hide away in their cave with copious amounts of chocolate and coffee, but what happens after they type ‘the end’?
This is where the Beta reader comes in. What is a Beta reader? Wikipedia defines them as:
An alpha reader or beta reader (also spelled alphareader/betareader … is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material with the intent to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.
Elements highlighted by beta readers encompass things such as plot holes, problems with continuity, characterisation or believability; in fiction and non-fiction, the beta might also assist the author with fact-checking.Your mother is not your Beta reader. She is your mother. I don’t care if she meets all criteria below (and mine almost does—she is a published fiction writer and has taught English), your mother cannot be your sole reader. Same goes for your best friend. They have rose-coloured lenses on for a reason—they love you and cheer you on. Let them continue to hold that position.
So, how do we choose the right person to view our work? Here is a list of some of the kinds of people I try to find as my Beta readers:
1 Audience with accuracy:
- They read plenty of fiction
- They are a fiction writer themselves, published or unpublished.
- They read/write good quality books in the same genre of that manuscript.
- They read books from around the world not just near to home so they have an ‘international’ viewpoint.
- They have read books published recently; in the last five years, preferably some published traditionally through an established company.
An avid non-fiction reader or writer may love a good novel, but fiction differs greatly from non-fiction, it is a moving target as far as guidelines and style of writing. You want your reader to know whether your manuscript is hitting the mark. Advice that is inaccurate or out of date may harm, rather than improve the manuscript.
2 Expert or Spy:
Technical material must be correct—is your character a nuclear physicist? Try and find one. You would be surprised who God can bring across your path if you pray. If you the writer are the expert, great, then find a colleague in your field to vet your research. They can spy out your fictional territory from a real-life perspective and find those mistakes that weasel their way into those early drafts.
3 Age/socio-economic status/race/creed/religion/culture/background
Often as writers we research from the comfort of our swivel chair and keyboard, and we miss intricate details, intrude upon the story with our own world view. I’m not saying we have to experience all the gamut of things we put our characters through, but consider your character’s age and social status alone—have you used their style of speech? Particular way of interacting? Accurate endearments or slang?
One wrong word and your readers are pulled out of the story. Find a Beta reader who closely resembles your character in real life.
Authenticity is believability.
4 Target Market
We should know who is going to buy our books. Find a potential fan with none of the specific traits listed above—a Joe or Jane Bloggs, if you will. These readers will tell you whether your work will sell. Did they enjoy it? What didn’t they enjoy? Were there any areas of confusion?
These readers are the ones who will compliment you and spur you on—the bread and butter clients we want to entertain, and whose lives we want to touch.
5 Mechanics and detail
Some readers have an eye for that misspelled, misused word or inaccurate date/distance/time frame. If you find one of these they are worth their weight in gold, as they pick up many problems that would otherwise go before the editor at your publishing house.
At least one reader who will in no uncertain terms, say what they DID NOT like in a manuscript. Without fail this beta reader often gives the best advice. This person must love you and have a generous supply of chocolate to soothe your wounds as they take a red pen—or in my case, scissors to your work.
Final advice: DO DO DO use an editor. Whether or not your publisher supplies one, this is an expense that should not be spared. We often have one chance to impress either reader, agent or publisher. Put a polished, pedicured, pampered foot forward—you get the picture.
What criteria do my writerly friends here at ACW have for their Beta readers? Who thinks they would make a Beta reader than another?
Catherine Hudson writes Historical and Contemporary romance for the CBA market. She was a finalist in the 2013 MARA Fiction from the Heartland contest.