April 14, 2013

Beta Readers

I don’t think there is a writer alive that doesn’t feel uncomfortable letting someone else read his or her words. Perhaps not the final published edition, maybe you’re so convinced of its glorious quality that you can’t see how a reader wouldn’t worship you until the end of days after reading it, but every draft, every rewrite before that, they are just so raw.

Some writers write their story, their mammoth article or whatever it is they are writing, and then they send it to the editor and/or publisher. I think that is a bad idea. I think you need beta readers before that.

Beta readers should be utilized when you start to feel done with your work. You might have done a ton of rewrites, or just a quick and dirty editing pass, either way you’ll know when you need some outside input. The sooner you feel confident to send something to your beta readers, the better.

It’s not a matter of how confident you are in your craft, the outside input is important. If you’re publishing with a traditional publisher, or writing for some sort of serious publication, you probably have at least an editor who will read your work. That’s something of course, but it’s not enough. These people are professionals, which makes them different from the actual audience. Your audience is the people who buy your novel, your article, your whatever for their hard-earned money. They are the regular folks, also known as readers.

Your beta readers should mimic the readers. That means that they can be just about anyone who would be even remotely interested in reading your words.

It also means that family and friends are crappy beta readers. They are too invested in you and your work and life – just like your editor, your agent, and your rabid dog.

Beta readers should be further away from you. They need to be the ones who can tell you what they think, without risking to hurt a friendship or make Sunday dinner super-duper-mega-awkward.

Did you get criticism? Did they rip your darling to pieces? Did that hurt like hell and make you want to delete the whole thing and start over again? Did you cry?

In that case, good. These people aren’t your mommy who find everything you do shiny and cute. This is supposed to be the real deal, and besides, the point of having beta readers is to iron out the kinks and improve on your work. You’re not done yet, this is part of the process, just like editing.

Finally, two things:

  1. You don’t have to agree with every bit of criticism. Remember, it’s your words, you decide what you keep, change, and throw out with the trash.
  2. If you’re too scared to have beta readers rip into your raw words, then you should consider a different profession. Reality is so much more cruel than this select group will ever manage to be.

Get your beta readers, and take from them what you can to make your writing better. It might hurt, but in the end it is for the best.

Thoughts? Let @tdh know on Twitter, or find me elsewhere. There is also a newsletter.