Nowadays, you can go from “I’ve got a great idea” to “PUBLISHED” without involving anyone besides yourself. You can do your own editing and proofreading, formatting, cover design, and blurb writing (I’m not saying you should, but it can be done).
Today, I want to talk about beta readers.
Beta readers can be anyone who reads your story when it has taken shape but isn’t finished, when it’s a skeleton of a story, like a tree that hasn’t leafed out and is perfect for pruning. They come on-board to point out areas that need help and to indicate what’s already great, helping an author get a clear idea of what work remains before the book gets published.
They can be other writers, editors, or friends who are committed to your artistic vision and aren’t afraid of telling you “you’re wrong”—this isn’t the place for those who love you and support you too much, to where they don’t want to hurt your feelings or won’t tell you their honest opinion (or, worse, only said they’d read your manuscript because they didn’t want to say no but truly don’t read that genre in the first place).
Now, let’s say you already worked with an editor, to where you got initial feedback about everything, from the plot, characters, world-building, and overall nature of your story. Let’s say you read a lot in your genre, to where you’ve done your market research and know where your story stands among others, both the classics and more recent publications. Why do you still need a beta reader?
Repetition breeds…well, not contempt, but thinking inside the box.
Depending on how you write and what your editing regime is, you and your editor can have looked at the manuscript too many times to still be able to bring fresh eyes to the project. You can either wait until you both have forgotten what to expect from the book, or you can find beta readers to double-check your work and see if any glaring flaws or serious problems remain.
The plot might not complain, but a serious fan of side characters will.
Chances are, you love your main characters and wouldn’t let them do something out of character, but you might not have that same attitude towards your minor characters. You might like them, and you might have provided backstory for all of them, but if they aren’t your favorite, you might still bend their free will just a little to make things work for your plot.
You also might have some favorite scenes, darlings you don’t want to dispatch no matter how many other things have changed in your plot, and it can take many people saying the same thing for you to be ready to take that hard step and remove those scenes. (This isn’t to say beta readers are always right—authors have to know when to listen and when to stick to their own artistic vision, as, in the end, it’s your story to tell.)
This is where beta readers can be so useful. If you get a wide variety of readers on-board, you can usually find a fan for every character in your book—so long as they’re real and relatable—at which point, the character’s fans will complain about the inconsistencies and make it obvious for you before you publish (rather than in a grumpy 1 star review afterwards). Then, you can make the hard decision about changing things or not while it can still be easily changed
The more viewpoints, the better.
Not every reader sees things the same way. Some of us prefer romance, while others want adventure. Some want clever dialogue while others are looking for strong descriptions.
By having a group of people of various ages, backgrounds, and life experiences look at your story before you sell it to the world, you increase your chances of going into the publication stage knowing exactly what you have to offer readers. You want to know who to market to, who is most likely to read your book, and what elements in your book are most likely to draw readers in…what better way to find the answers than from people who have read your story and can offer you feedback?
Now, this isn’t to say beta readers are the answer to every writer’s problems. Depending on who you get, you can have readers who have strong opinions but aren’t great at elaboration. You can find those who don’t offer much in the way of positive feedback—but tell you all about the things you’re doing wrong.
Hopefully, you can find readers who complement your own viewpoint and help fill in the blanks of your own experience, knowledge, and personal take on life to where they can give you the opinions you can’t give yourself.
After all, that’s just why you need them.
Photo courtesy of Gratisography