The Importance of the Right Beta-Reader

little boy holding book with surprised expression
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Getting the feedback you need

I knew what beta testing was, but I never knew there was such a thing as “beta readers” until I really dove into the writing world online. Editors I got, proof-readers made sense. But I didn’t know there was this whole other animal that would read your book and provide that esoteric feedback that included the intangibles you really needed.

And I didn’t realize that it mattered so much who those animals were.

My experience

My first round of beta-readers seemed diverse. I assumed that was a good thing. One was my friend who was also a no-nonsense English teacher. Who better to beta read than a literature-lover? I also gave my manuscript to an avid reader whose book favorites included my genre. She isn’t a writer, but she is detail-oriented and honest. I asked a poet friend to read. I love her poetry, and I knew she’d be willing to read my writing. Finally, I asked a friend who spent lots of time editing other’s writing, helping students with college essays. And, since the psychology of the characters is a big part of the story, I thought her psychological and therapy experience would be beneficial.

Now let me say that each of these people is wonderful, and I greatly appreciated their willingness to spend time reading my stuff. And while I knew them all, I also trusted their honesty.

They all read, and they all made comments. Many of the comments had to do with typos or wording issues, things I expected to see due to my own inability to see my own errors at times. You know, when you write it, you know what it is supposed to say, so that is how you read it. At least I do.

One of them peppered the manuscript with encouraging remarks and occasional questions, mostly questions like “is this what you meant when you said x?” Another dissected the meanings behind the words, and we had phone conversations about what a character might be thinking, how a past that wasn’t on the page might impact them, etc.

I got some good feedback, to be sure. I felt pretty confident about things when I decided to submit my pages for beta readers on a fairly intense Facebook writer’s page.

Wowza.

Two of the beta readers left a copious amount of comments. I mean, I was both amazed and chagrined by the feedback. There were highlights everywhere and feedback that sometimes ran to two paragraphs with suggested edits. And as one of them made the same couple of comments over and over, I realized something…

Finding the right beta readers is crucial if you want to get the feedback your novel needs. The feedback that fits your story.

Two of the people who were beta readers in the second round were published fiction authors, and one of them wrote crime/suspense like I do. And their feedback was gold.

I learned an important lesson, several actually. And I’ll share those below.

What I learned

I first used:

  • A friend who loves to read
  • An English teacher
  • A psychologist who also used to edit and proof papers, college essays, etc.
  • A friend who writes primarily poetry

I think it is fine to use people like the above for that first glance. The glance where you need to know, “Is there anything even here? Does it have potential?”

However, without appearing ungrateful or judgmental, here are some problems that came to light when I had the second round of betas.

  • Lots of people love to read. I love to read, and I read a variety of genres. It’s like my music. I listen to and sing a variety of genres as well. Part of the reason I do that is to avoid sounding like another singer. As a writer, while it’s okay to emulate some things, I need my own voice as well. If all I read is Nora Roberts, I’m going to sound like Nora Roberts. She sounds great, but there is already one of her. The best feedback I can get from an avid reader friend is whether or not he/she would read my story. It’s valuable, but it isn’t beta reading.
  • I am reading Janice Hardy’s Understanding Show, Don’t Tell. I’m reading it because I have a told prose problem. And Janice Hardy helped me to understand a bit of why with this paragraph:

Writing styles evolve and change, and reader taste changes with them. One of the more obvious ways is how we handle show, don’t tell. A hundred years ago, books were filled with told prose and heavy passages of description. Books written as recently as a few decades ago can feel dated and stale to today’s readers. The more visual we’ve become as a society, the more shown we expect our books to be.

My English teacher friend is brilliant, but she spends her days teaching Austen, Shakespeare, Lee, and other classics. She is steeped in told prose and poetry, and that is how she thinks. It is also how I think, as a lover of the classics and English minor myself. So again, she can tell me whether the story has good bones and is interesting, but my nemesis — show don’t tell — will slip by her as well.

  • My psychologist friend thinks deeply about every thought, word, and interaction. I love our friendship. However, I often need to choose my own words carefully because she is hyper-aware of the exact meaning of one word over another. She is highly introspective and analytical about behavior and motives. Since I tend to have my characters navel-gaze too much, this is a rabbit hole that can bury me. No, I do not think writing should clobber the reader with a hammer. However, it also can’t be so subtle that no one gets it.
  • I am a poet at heart. Poetry has always been how I express and sometimes camouflaged those really deep feelings. I love imagery and beautifully crafted words and phrases. Symbolism gets my motor running. Sadly, in commercial and modern fiction, this violates everything from “show, don’t tell,” to Stephen King’s assertion that adverbs are evil. Writing fiction like a poet is not going to impress a reader who watches Criminal Minds reruns.

The summary: I chose beta readers who loved words but were immune to my biggest writing weaknesses.

Here’s what I needed:

  • Someone in or near my genre
  • Both genders
  • Strangers
  • A writing “opposite” — i.e. I’m a navel-gazing introspective world-lover. I need an action-oriented, visual, starker beta.

I unashamedly admit I write this novel to see it published. not self-published, picked up by an agent and published by a publisher. I’ve done the self-publishing thing. I’m ready for the traditionally “real” thing. True, I have had 3 books published by a publisher. But those were during a naughty phase under a pen name, so they really don’t count anymore (smile).

So here’s what I learned from the second round of beta-readers…

  • Show, don’t tell. You may have deduced by now that I have a problem with this. Part of it is my job. I “tell” for a living, even though I write training. It’s the interactivity I create that “shows.” The text and/or narration “tells.” When you spend 40 hours a week telling, you must learn to compartmentalize your writing styles. The other part is my overly romantic love of pretty words. I’m not Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and this isn’t 1890. Gotta change with the times.
  • Action, action, action. We all know actions speak louder than words. I have to learn that actions speak louder than feelings in writing. One of the reasons marriage counselors don’t advise resolving conflict over text messaging is because the text doesn’t account for inflection, body language, tone, and expression. neither does prose. If I want someone to hang up the phone angrily, I need to have them “slam down the phone” or “swipe the call off and throw the phone across the room.”
  • Stop with the long paragraphs. I do this sometimes here too. I love William Faulkner, and I inherited a bit of his disease. I love long, complex sentences, and my paragraphs are giant blocks. Boo. Short paragraphs, each focusing on a single character, are the rule of the day, especially in my genre.
  • Dialog tags. I admit I read conflicting advice on this. However, I’m really good at establishing who is saying what at the beginning of a conversation. I don’t have to do it with every phrase. And yes, I hear you, Mr. King. No adverbs unless I might die without them. And even then…
  • Toss out the stuff everyone already knows. One great comment I received was about the flight attendant instructions we all hear before the plane begins it’s journey. “Ladies and gentlemen, blah blah blah.” We all know what they say, at least the gist. Just say “Celia dozed as the attendant droned on about safety…”
  • You don’t have to list every step of a process. For example, picking up a briefcase, pulling out an envelope, closing the briefcase, putting it under the seat. Yeesh. Just say “Celia pulled out a brown envelope before sliding her briefcase under the seat.” We all know what the steps are. No, I didn’t actually list all those steps, but I listed more than were necessary.
  • The best feedback I got was from a man who writes crime novels. Whether we want to believe it or not, the typical man writes differently from the typical woman. I’m not going to cite multiple studies. All one has to do is read a few mainstream novels by each gender. If I could afford it, I’d hire him to stand behind me and yell, “Show, don’t tell!” and “New paragraph!”

I learned so much from the second round of feedback, I felt as if I had taken a writing class. Right now I have the feedback from two beta readers open on one monitor and my manuscript open on the other. I’m going comment by comment and re-writing. I can already see how much better the story is.

A bit of advice

If you are writing or have written a novel, you’re probably going to need beta-readers. You may already understand the process better than I did, but if not, I’ll close with a little advice.

  1. Join a group of quality writers. This second round of beta readers all came from a group I am a part of that is part of a class I am taking. It costs money, but so far it has been worth every penny, and I’m a cheapskate. The members of this group regularly assist each other.
  2. Give to get. This round of beta reading involved volunteering to read. For every person who volunteered to read your stuff, you had to volunteer to read someone else’s. If you only had time to read three, then you only get three readers. Beta-reading is a skill, so it gave me a chance to build mine.
  3. Strangers are better. I know I know, you’re college roommate is a teacher. Or maybe your college roommate has written three books. If she was a bridesmaid at your wedding, that means you were friends (or still are), and she won’t be completely objective. You need complete objectivity.
  4. Try to identify your weaknesses. I got lucky. My two best beta readers excel where I am weak. That has been so valuable. If you struggle with dialog, find a reader who does it well. If you are addicted to adverbs, find someone who hates them. My best voice teacher in college was the one who told me to stop singing the way I sang in church. I auditioned with a song everyone else loved. She sighed and said, “We have a lot of work to do.” She was right.
  5. If you’re a he, find a she. And vice-versa. The crime writing male who beta read my pages uses short paragraphs and action-packed, fast-paced sentences. It was almost jarring for this pretty poet to read at first. But it works. And I need that to rub off on me a bit. Let’s face it, if our novel appeals to both genders, we have basically doubled our potential market.
  6. Save every comment. I saved a PDF of each document with comments. I plan to consolidate them at some point as a list of checkpoints to use with all my stories until the lessons have sunk into my brain sufficiently. Just like I did exercises to raise my soft palate in order to hit the high notes with more resonance. Just like I practiced conducting with a podium so my “ichthus” would be at the same level with every beat. Practice makes perfect.

I hope my experience and the comments and ramblings help you as you write. We’re all in this storytelling together.

Published by wordsfromtheriver

Writer, musician, instructional designer...wife, mom, dog slave...recovering southern belle

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