One of the biggest differences I see between work that is tightly paced and well-plotted and work that is not, is nothing in the story—it’s a tool that is entirely outside of the story that often makes or breaks it: beta readers.
When someone else’s book isn’t working for me, the most frequent thought I have is, “Man, they needed better beta readers.” That’s because I read like a writer. If I read like a NORMAL person, I would think, “Ugh, that had some really boring parts,” or “Eighteen million things just happened in that scene and I have no idea what’s going on,” or “I call BS. That never would have happened.”
But I’m a writer, not a normal person, and so I know the problem with the story I’m holding is that it got to me without going through the right beta readers first. You need them. And you need good ones. So let’s tackle 1) what they are 2) why you need them, and 3) how to find them.
A beta reader is someone who is looking at a second draft—or later—of your work. They should not be first drafts. No one should be looking at your first drafts except for you. If you MUST show a first draft to someone, it should be a critique partner/group and no one else. Beta readers are different than critique partners. They’re not really looking at things at the line level. You need them to respond to the story as a whole, so they should be looking at the entire story at once, not chunks as you finish them.
Ideally, they should be looking at your work when it’s as good as you know how to make it. Then they’ll find what’s not working, and you’ll fix it, and now you’ve got something.
Beta readers don’t have to be writers to be effective. They just need to have a good sense of story and know when something is falling apart. Honestly, they don’t have to explain why it doesn’t work, just that it doesn’t. They need to be able to react to your work the way your non-author readers, who are your real audience, will. For example, one of the first beta readers I lucked into had graduated in English and loved the fluffy genre I was aspiring to write in. She read my first manuscript and would mark things with “Pulled me out of the story.” She couldn’t explain WHY it did, only that it stopped her short. It was my job to figure out the problem each time I saw that note. Was it that I had a character speaking or acting in a way that seemed contrary to their nature? Had I included a distracting detail?
One of the best things you can do is find a beta reader who is willing to flag something as “Boring.” YES! I can work with boring! I know I must have gotten too bogged down in something, or I need to break up exposition with some dialogue to speed it up.
Basically, a beta reader should be a litmus test to tell you at one point a future actual reader might check out of your book, and you then go to work figuring out how to fix it so no one checks out.
The hardest part is finding beta readers. You’ll be able to find plenty of people who will pat you on the head. That’s validating, maybe, but . . . well, it’s not actually helpful. “It’s good!” or “I liked it!” won’t make your story better. So here are a couple of Do and Don’t suggestions.
1. Don’t ask published authors to look at your work.
I know this sounds mean, but you are asking them to make a major investment of their time, experience, and skill and they’ll get nothing in return. This is a lot like asking a surgeon to perform an eight hour surgery, pro bono. Published authors spend years honing their craft, and asking them to invest 10-20 hours in YOUR work instead of theirs isn’t fair.
2. Don’t ask family to read it.
If they’re objective enough to give you helpful feedback . . . you know what? They won’t be. And if they are, you probably won’t listen because relative so-and-so is always critical of you, etc. Mostly they’ll tell you you’re a genius. You’re not. Yet!
3. Do ask other writers in your genre.
They write in it because they love it, so chances are they’ve read widely in it too. They’ll know the conventions and be able to tell you when you’re falling short.
4. This is trickier, but if you have a Goodreads friend who you’ve seen offer consistently thoughtful reviews, ask them if they’ll look at your work.
It’s best if it’s someone you know in real life too, even if it’s not someone you know well, because then you don’t have to worry about piracy/plagiarism.
5. Find an English major.
Bonus points if it’s not a close friend. It’s not that English majors are superior Word Beings so much as it is that they’re used to reading critically. Downside: they can get bogged down in nitpicking at the line level because they think it’s fun (weirdos) and that’s not what you need. Remember, beta reading is about the Big Picture.
6. Writing conferences.
Go to as many as you can, and if they offer critique group sessions or boot camps where you can trade feedback with other aspiring writers, DO IT. Then pay attention to who is giving good feedback and ask if they’re willing to trade manuscripts. Make sure your feedback to the group is good to so that people will want to trade with you.
Which brings me to the final point: IF YOU GET ANOTHER WRITER TO BETA READ FOR YOU, YOU ARE PRETTY MUCH OBLIGATED AT A BLOOD OATH LEVEL AND BY ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY TO RETURN THE FAVOR.
Over the years, I’ve figured out which beta readers are going to be good at identifying problems with plot versus character, etc. And I also know where I want to use them in my process.
I started with my first manuscript by sending it to as many readers as would agree to look at it, and then assessed who really gave me helpful feedback. Over the next several manuscripts, I fine-tuned what round to use readers in, always trying a new reader or two with every manuscript to figure out who to make a regular part of my process.
In the first round: those who are going to tell me if the story is going to work for the casual fan.
Round two is someone who is going to flag spots with notes like, “Too much talking,” or “She’s being too bratty here.” The final round is going to the people who, no matter how good I think a manuscript is, will still find ways it needs to be improved. They are my FAVORITE. When you find them, treat them like GOLD.
And the funny thing is, the more you act as that kind of beta readers for others, the more of those Golden Betas you’ll find. Magic, huh? And inversely, if you’re pouring your heart out in a beta read for someone and don’t get much back when they read for you, drop them (just ghost them, don’t be mean) and move on. That’s not an equitable relationship.
All right, go forth and get betas, my pretties. Fly! Fly!
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.
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