In April, I attended a three-hour glassblowing class in Asheville, North Carolina with my husband. Outside the studio, the temperature was a balmy sixty-eight. Inside the fire room, it was close to one hundred. To make our glass art, we first dipped long metal rods into a vat of molten glass (think honey on a spoon) then worked to keep the glass on center using a series of rocking motions. To apply color, we pressed the hot glass into discreet piles of colored glass shards then returned it to the furnace. Glassblowing is fast-paced, high-intensity work. Sweat drizzled down my back as I watched the colors fuse with the glass. Eventually, I couldn’t tell them apart.
Our instructor told us glass behaves with a certain logic. Her trained eye was able to see that logic and find the colors even when we couldn’t. Stories also behave according to a certain logic. But like students learning to blow glass, sometimes writers lose sight of their stories’ purpose.
There are many ways to gain insight into your works-in-progress. Put them away and pick them up later. Join a writing group. Take a class. Hire an editor. Today, I want to talk about the angels of the writing world: beta readers.
Frequently mentioned but often misunderstood, beta readers donate their keen eyes to works-in-progress so writers can improve their drafts. Their invaluable feedback can green light a submission process, help writers revise, or signal the need for professional help.
But what about my critique partners?
Workshop partners and writing buddies are invaluable members of your writing community. They read multiple drafts of your work, talk you through plot points, and cheer you on during writing slumps. But their support comes with limitations. It’s likely you’ve had long conversations with them about your project or given them so many iterations of your work they unconsciously fill in gaps readers won’t.
To advance your project, you need fresh eyes. Enter the beta reader. Ideally, beta readers should have minimal information about your story (more on that next month). Some of the best ones will be strangers. Unlike critique partners, they should only read your work once. This makes them precious and their judicious use crucial.
There are two times to consider beta reader engagement: post draft and pre-agent submission. After you’ve created a strong working draft, engaging beta readers can help you course-correct or decide whether to seek professional help. At this stage, choose writerly beta readers who can give you honest feedback about plot holes, points of confusion, pacing, and your narrative arc. Keep in mind, a beta reader’s job is to highlight areas of concern, not fix them. While some beta readers might give you detailed feedback, don’t expect a comprehensive editorial review. If hiring an editor is suggested, revise as much as you can based on beta reader feedback before contacting someone. This will ensure your money is well spent.
Once your manuscript is submission worthy, enlist a second round of beta readers before soliciting agents or publishers. These beta readers don’t necessarily need a writer’s eye, but they should love and understand your genre. The main feedback they need to offer is yes, I would read this book, or no, I wouldn’t, along with a few notes to support their answer.
How many beta readers do I need?
Each book requires a different number of beta readers. Early in the drafting process, I suggest no more than three. If it’s a very early draft, one highly competent reader might be enough. Personally, three is my magic number. Three readers can help you see trends and build consensus around areas of concern without information overload, or worse, creating a split decision over an important point in your work.
Before contacting beta readers, identify your manuscript’s needs. All books require general fans of every age. Some books, especially science fiction novels and nonfiction books dealing with highly specialized fields, may require subject matter-experts. Books about minority populations may benefit from sensitivity readers. These considerations could bump up your beta reader numbers, but don’t engage more than five at a time, lest you experience information overload
How do I find them?
There are several excellent ways to find beta readers for your book: attend writing conferences, make connections through local writing centers, or join online writing communities. When selecting beta readers, pay attention to writers and readers who understand your genre, communicate effectively, and treat others with respect.
While many beta readers don’t charge for their services, find a way to compensate them. It’s good karma and good literary citizenship. At the very least, offer an in-kind review of their work. If your book is already under contract or very close to receiving one, offer them a free, autographed copy of your book that includes your heartfelt gratitude. If neither of these options is feasible, ask your beta reader to name a meaningful contribution you can make to them or their writing community. Perhaps you could amplify their voice during a social media campaign by sharing their posts or serve as a fact checker. While this may seem like extra work, it’s really a win-win. Offering some form of compensation can ensure beta readers actually read your book and adhere to deadlines.
When working with beta readers who charge for their services, remember you are entering a business agreement. As the writer, it’s your job to clearly state what kind of feedback you need, to ensure the beta reader understands your genre, and to develop a thick skin. All beta readers, but especially paid beta readers, have zero emotional investment in your work or your success. While this may seem harsh, their honest feedback can be invaluable. There’s nothing worse than believing your manuscript is perfect then sending it out to agents who never respond or send generic rejections.
As you mull over your beta reader needs, consider becoming one. Serving as a beta reader is a lot like learning glassblowing. Each time you provide a critical eye toward a writer’s work, you’ll sharpen your understanding of story logic. With trained eyes, you’ll have a better sense of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses and learn the skills needed to revise like a pro.
Next month, I’ll write about the conversation you should have with beta readers before you get started and the skills needed to become one.