I’ve recently discovered how invaluable good beta-readers are to good writing. It is so easy to get stuck inside your own head sometimes and miss so much in your own manuscript. I know that when I re-read my own work, my mind barely skims what Iactually wrote and fills in what I think I wrote, making it difficult to spot errors.
Beta-readers are the key to solving this problem.
By beta-reader I do not, however, mean your Mom. I love my Mom, she is great. But, she is not a writer, and not a critical reader. A good beta-reader is someone who will take the time to read your story and tell you what is wrong with it, point out the flaws, and discuss the ‘market appeal’ of your work.
In my limited experience I’ve found three basic types of beta-reader, each of which is useful at a different stage of writing. I call them: Generalists, Shredders, and SpaGsters.
Before going into each of these I want to note that we are all at a different level of writing skill and proficiency, and that it is good to have beta-readers from levels both above and below your own (perceived) level. While experienced writers may be better able to communicate the flaws in your story, it is easy for them to get caught up in the technical details and writing rules, that actual readers care less about. Less experienced writers may not be as technical but can provide a valuable view from outside the writing bubble, where most of your audience lies. Don’t turn down any beta-reader. Each set of eyes brings a fresh and valuable perspective, your job as the author is not to avoid poor critiques, but to identify them, evaluate them, and glean something useful from them regardless.
‘Generalists’ are most valuable at the beginning of your story. Akin to the content editor you will meet once you get your manuscript accepted, these are the people you send your first draft too, because they will likely overlook, the rotten grammar and passive tense, and give you feedback on their general impression of the story. They typically respond in a few paragraphs about what they liked or didn’t like about the plot, themes, or concepts of the story. This kind of advice gives you direction in the beginning to make your story marketable and interesting to a broader audience. Later in the writing process Generalists tend to be less help because their suggestions, if followed, require re-writes and additions to sections you have already spent hours honing to perfection. Better to make use of them early.
‘Shredders’ are the most valuable and most difficult to find. A good Shredder will go through your story piece by piece and let you know how it worked in the big picture and what it communicated to them. Shredders are valuable at most any stage, but are most helpful once you’ve got the plot nailed down and need to make sure every sentence works to strengthen and progress it. Shredders tend to be aspiring authors working to get their own writing published, and they tend to look for other’s to shred their work in return. Shred and shred alike.
SpaGsters are the Spelling and Grammar kings/queens that you need to fine tune your work once you get the raw content down. You can identify these beta-readers right away because they will skip over the plot holes and focus on your crappy punctuation and sentence structure. Be careful with them though, the fastest way to lose a Spagster is to send them an early draft that you haven’t gone over for spelling and grammar yourself. No one wants to fix all your grammar for you, but it is a fun challenge to find the more subtle flaws in an already well written work.
Most of all, it is important to be clear with your beta-readers what stage in the process your story is at, and what types of critique are most valuable to you at the moment. Remember that your beta-readers are volunteers, and that the best way to repay them is with quality beta-reading in return. To that end, know what kind of beta-reader you are and let your writing friends know how you can best help them.
I enjoy beta-reading almost as much as I enjoy writing, and it has been an invaluable support to me as an aspiring author. I would consider myself a 'Generalist'/'Shredder' according to our discussion here. Do some networking and find your own beta-readers, you’ll be surprised how willing other authors are to read and support your work!