In the world of writing you need to do a host of stuff if you want to publish, so many important steps; writing, revising, drafting, plotting, editing, polishing and this is before anyone else even looks at it! So who is the first person who should look at it? A beta reader. A beta reader is someone who reads what you think is the complete story, often before but sometimes after you have it edited by a professional.It’s worth noting here that a professionally edited manuscript will have one a “developmental” editing phase, which is absolutely critical to the believability of your story, how immersive it is, tightening the plot, tone the characters, and otherwise make the writer sweat. A good beta reader will read the script for you pick up on a few mistakes, tell you their overall impression, and they will be honest where you fall down. A great beta reader will do something closer to a developmental edit.

A bad beta reader will say: “This is great; you are doing fine!”

Which means one of two things:

  • they don’t know what they’re doing
  • or they can’t tell you that you don’t know what you’re doing. 

Hearing that your story needs work is hard.

But if you are writing for fun then all you need is someone to give you confidence.

If you are writing with the hopes of publishing, through any method, it is imperative that you have a good, if not great beta reader.

Which is terrifying! What if they pull your story to pieces? What if they hate it? What if they rip it up, set it on fire, and tell you not to quit your day job?

Beta readers aren’t there to hurt you; they are there to be honest, but kind too.

It is worth noting at this point though, at some point, someone is going to flat out not like your story. And don’t take it personally, I don’t like Stephen King’s pessimism. Some people hate Harry Potter. I loathe Pride and Prejudice with the kind of passion that shouldn’t be seen in the parlour room, but would certainly raise Mr. Darcy’s brow.

Everyone has an opinion, and the best thing you can do is give your story to a few people you trust not to plagiarize it.

It’s terrible, I know, but it does happen, with so many tropes, so many fairy tales, so many different stories, there is essentially a sameness. So when you come up with a gem you love you guard it closely, especially if you plan to publish it.

How do you find good betas?

My suggestion for finding beta readers is to get several writers group, offer to do exchange of beta readers, or trust long-time writing friends who will know the importance of giving good advice. Ultimately, trust your gut, if something makes you wary of sharing it with a stranger, then don’t. You can have someone sign all the disclaimers in the world, it wont stop someone from stealing an idea.

So once you find a group and you not only respect their opinion but you want to know what they think of your story, you’re well on your way to finding good beta readers.

But what to ask them?

There are a few critical questions I give to beta readers working for me, and they are these:

  • Does the plot work for you?
  • Do the characters immerse you in the story?
  • Do you forget you are beta reading?
  • Are there any odd points, character reactions that are wrong, or plot holes?
  • Was there anything you didn’t understand?

Mostly what you want to know of any beta reader is this—where did they forget to be a beta reader, instead of just a reader?

The goal as a writer is to make the reader forget.

Forget time. Forget work. Forget stress.

Forget everything but reading your story, learning from it, laughing at it, loving it, or even crying over it. The idea of a story you want to sell is to let people escape from their own daily humdrum lives and be taken somewhere else. Whether it’s far elven lands, the deck of a pirate ship, or even in their neighbor’s back yard, they just want to disappear for a little while.

The beta reader’s job is to catch where that doesn’t happen.

So, what do you do with all this feedback?

Nothing is more difficult than having four beta readers and having them all disagree.

Take a deep breath, take a step back, and look at it from a logical point of view.

If they are all divided look at each comment on its own merit.

If they all agree, even if you don’t like it… you should probably listen to whatever they’ve said to you.

Ultimately every beta reader is giving you material to work with that is purely subjective. Some betas have just raved at my story. I’ve had another beta reader nearly convince me to stop writing altogether.

The important part to remember throughout any part of the editing process is two things:

  1. What are you seeking to do beyond writing for yourself?
  2. Do you want to improve as a writer?

With no feedback, it’s difficult to improve.

No, its not impossible, as a good reader you can always grow as a writer, but with no feedback, or worse still, not taking any on board at all, you risk becoming stuck in patterns that put others off reading your work.

What you want to do with your craft is up to you, but beta readers hold within themselves wonderful treasures, as while there is the potential to hear something that might hurt, beta readers will be the first to tell you where you shine as a writer.

And that, writer friends, is golden.

~EJ Dawson

What the Heck is a Beta Reader?

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