There comes a point in writing when you, as the writer, can no longer effectively proofread. It might be your third draft when you’ve gone over it so many times that you’ve picked out all you can. It might be sooner on, when you’re so excited by the story that you cam’t bear to cut anything out of it. Whatever the case, it’s difficult for writers to properly assess certain aspects of their own story. If you have a completed or nearly-completed story and you’re not sure where to go from there, it’s probably time to recruit some beta readers.
What’s a beta reader?
A beta reader is someone who reads your book and is willing to answer questions about it or discuss it. I add in the latter point because someone reading your book and handing it back to you with no input is not helpful. Beta readers are the test audience who will have the chance to see your story as a whole, reading with fresh eyes. This enables them to pick things out that you weren’t able to. It could be as simple as misspellings and typos, or larger issues, such as plot holes, inconsistent characterization, or lagging tension.
See, the thing about writing is, when you’re writing the story, you know what you’re trying to get at. It’s harder to assess if the reader can understand what you’re trying to get at when you already know what it is. Is there a theme or message you’d like the reader to unpack? Is there foreshadowing or parallels you were particularly proud of? Is there backstory that would explain the aspects of a certain character? It’s harder for you, the writer, to assess these types of things because you already know what you’re getting at.
On a less technical level, beta readers can tell you if they liked your characters, if they felt oriented within the story, and if the plot was good. They might be able to tell you what was lagging or what might need to be edited out of your next draft.
Who should beta read?
Readers. If you have someone who doesn’t really enjoy reading in the first place read your story, they might give faulty feedback simply because reading isn’t their thing. Preferably, it’s best to find readers who enjoy reading the genre you’re writing in. People who love reading romance books might not find your sci-fi adventure very good, not because your sci-fi adventure is actually bad, but because it’s just not what they like to read. So, like the non-readers, they might give you inaccurate feedback.
One problem with beta readers is they tend to be a little too positive. It’s nice to hear only good things about our writing, but you have to communicate to your readers that you really need constructive criticism. That’s the only way beta readers can really help you grow. Now, you shouldn’t expect them to call you every week while you brainstorm ways to improve your book for hours—I mean, if they’re willing to do that, that’d be great! But they should be at least willing to answer a questionnaire or talk about it for a little while.
Sometimes, beta readers are hard to find, but don’t stop looking! It took me two years to find a few solid betas, and another year after that to find a few others. And that was after I had already given my book to people who had just never read it. It can be discouraging when you give your book to a beta reader and they return it unread. That’s happened to me an a few occasions. But the excitement you feel when a beta reads and gushes over your story makes up for all those icky, discouraging feelings.
Be brave in your writing! Don’t be afraid to share it with others!