Most writers know by now the importance of having another pair of eyes on your writing, but just in case there are some out there that still don’t know, here’s an argument for having a beta reader.
I have learned a great deal over the last few years about writing and all that it entails. One of the most important things I have learned is that you NEED to have at least one other pair of eyes on your work. You need someone besides yourself to read over your work, not only for spelling and grammar, but to also give good feedback on whether or not it works: Does it flow? Does it convey the message you’re trying to convey? Is the sentence structure well done? Do the characters seem realistic? Is there continuity throughout the story? Etc. No matter what you’re writing, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, articles, poems, essays, or novels, you need someone on your team to be with you every step of the process, reading through your work and giving you constructive criticism. Some may argue that it is the editor’s job to do this all, but it isn’t and you’ll be heaping a ton of unnecessary work onto your editor if you do this.
The ideal beta reader should know what is expected of them and should not be afraid to critique your work. It is preferred that they have a background somewhere in English, though it’s not a requirement as long as they have a good grasp on the English language and general grammar rules. Though I will note that most authors do not expect their beta readers to correct spelling and grammar, though if you come across errors, then by all means point them out. There's a difference between an editor or proof reader and a Beta reader. Beta's are mainly there to critique and help with the over all content, and aren't usually paid except with a free copy of the book or a small compensation.
I believe it is also important that they are a well-rounded reader. Someone who is an avid reader and who reads a wide variety of books is also preferred, simply because it gives that person a strong understanding of how a book should be written, what works and what doesn’t, and other taste-making details.
The second most important factor in an ideal beta reader is a two parter: knowing/being familiar with the genre/field that you’re writing in AND enjoying your writing style. In order to properly help you create the best work you can, they need to know what is expected within that genre or field. If you’re writing a historical fiction novel, they need to be very familiar with that genre, if you’re writing poetry, they need to be familiar with poetry (preferably from past and present), if you’re writing an essay, they need to be familiar with that field. Like any other person in a job/field, they need to know what they’re doing.
The second part to this factor is that the beta reader needs to like/enjoy the author’s writing style, otherwise it will not work out. We all have different tastes, and if you’re working for an author whose writing style isn’t really your cup of tea, you won’t be much help to them. For example, if a beta reader doesn’t know or like your writing style, then they are more likely to suggest things that do not fit your style of writing. A good example would be if they prefer a writing style that used pages and pages of emotive thoughts and therefore suggest you add them to your work, when that isn’t what you do. It just wouldn’t work. They NEED to like your writing style as well as the genre in which you write. This is why picking a beta reader is a very important and meticulous process.
Another important factor in finding the best beta reader for you is to make sure that they are not afraid of critiquing your work. They need to be able to give you constructive criticism without fear of hurting your feelings. Writers, this particular issue depends on the both of you. You need to have a great relationship with your beta reader so that they can feel that they can give you the criticism you need in order to better your work, and so that you can take that criticism for what it is, constructive, helpful suggestions, without it hurting your feelings. Remember, their criticism and suggestions are aimed at your work, not you personally. This is VERY important. Their main goal is to help you create the best possible art you can.
Beta Readers: Constructive Criticisms include pointing out grammar/spelling mistakes, a continuity issue within the story, maybe one part doesn’t flow as well as it could, a character needs more development, and suggestions of what you like and don’t like personally about the piece of work. Remember, you’re not only critiquing their work, you should also let them know what IS working, what you really like about the piece. Did you really like one scene? Do you relate to a particular character? Encouragement and compliments keep the writer going and helps them just as much as the constructive criticism. Also, if you’re working with the author from the beginning, chapter by chapter, it is super helpful to let them know where you see the story going, if you have a strong feeling about a certain character and where you see them by the end of the story, tell the author! It could help them see an even better plot progression than they had originally thought up.
I cannot tell you how much having someone to read through my work and give me feedback before publishing has improved my work. I have a good friend, who is a superb writer herself that has 7 books under her belt currently, who acts as my beta reader and I act as hers. While I currently write poetry and essays, she works within the historical fiction genre. We work well together and know each other well enough that we’re comfortable giving each other feedback on our work. There have been multiple times when I’ve sent her something only to have her see a flow issue or another issue that affects the quality of the poem, and after working it out with her, bouncing solutions and ideas off her, I’m able to come out with a far superior piece of work. I only hope that I’m half as helpful to her as she is to me.
I’d love to hear your stories and insights on beta reading, whatever side you land on. Did I miss an important quality needed in a beta reader? Let me know your thoughts!
** This article was written with the help and input of Linda Ellen, a talented author/writer in her own right, with 7 published books and one more due out in November. For more information on her, check out her website!
Liz Austin. Bibliophile. Writer. Book hoarder. I would rather be reading....