I’ve recently started sending out polished chapters of my manuscript to beta readers, eight of them actually. Though I know my book still has a leg of work left on it, I wanted to make sure it was as far along as I thought it was, and that the last edits that I have to do on it would be minimal. So far, I’ve received a lot of positive reviews, and I’m really excited about that. It seems like this round of edits really got the draft close to where it needs to be.
There are a ton of reasons to have a beta reader group, and I highly recommend them. But how do you pick one? How do you know if someone has the qualifications to be one of your readers? Before I decided to do this, I did what every writer should do (regardless of what you’re doing), and I googled it. I wanted to know why I should have a beta group, what makes a good one, who to pick, etc. And I read several well written articles about them. But, as I was reading, I came across advice that I didn’t necessarily agree with, so I thought I would post my own thoughts on the matter.
First things first, you have to have a certain mindset when you’re going into this. You are sending your book out for one reason and one reason only: To find out if it sucks. The point of a beta group is to find out what’s bad about your book, what’s good about your book, and what’s working/not working. If you want to send out your manuscript to a group of people to get praise and have your ego stroked, you probably shouldn’t do it. Let your mom read it, or your husband, or whatever. They’ll make you feel great about your work, after all, they’re your biggest fans. But that’s not what you should want! You should want the TRUTH. You want honest people, usually fellow writers, to tell you what’s wrong with your work. You’re a professional, right? And you want your work to be as professional as possible, right? Of you course you do. Well if that’s the case, you need to have the honest truth about your work shoved in your face, whether good or bad. Now that that’s settled- how do you go about picking a group of people to be beta readers?
One of the first articles I read made a point to say, You don’t want to have your friends or your family or the people closest to you be a beta reader. Now, I understand why they said this. I do. Those people are going to be the ones who are most likely to embellish what they thought about your work. They’re a lot more likely to say, “I liked it a LOT! but…,” and that’s not what you need. You want professional opinions from qualified people. But, here’s the thing. I don’t really agree with this advice. Let’s say you’re writing a YA dystopian book, and your brother is the biggest of YA dystopian fans. Let’s say he’s also brutally honest about everything, and you KNOW for a fact that he won’t BS you. I think it’s fine for him to be a beta! Why not? He loves the genre, he’s read a ton of books that are going to be similar to yours, and he knows what he’s looking for. If he promises to be honest about your work, let him read it! It doesn’t matter that he’s your brother. What matters is that he’s educated, honest, and takes the work seriously.
Now that we have that out of the way, and you know what you’re looking for in a beta, there are a few other things that I think are crucial to keep in mind. When your book is put on the shelves (or the interwebs) it is going to be sold to a WIDE variety of people, right? You’re going to have people of different ages, educations, backgrounds, etc. So, since we know that the point of a beta group is to see how your work will be received, why would you set up a beta group full of twenty year old creative writing majors? There will be no diversity, they will all be looking for the same thing, and you’ll likely get very similar criticism from all of them. You have to mix it up! Take me for example. In my beta group I have three people who are creative writing majors, all about the same age, but they all have widely different interests. I have a literary professor, someone who has a lot of education in this department. I have an older reader, someone who loves the genre that I’m writing. I have an average reader, someone who doesn’t typically read books, so I’ll know if my work is strong enough to be interesting to the non-reader. I have a fellow writer, someone who reads constantly, who’s somewhat snobby about what he reads, and who will be brutally honest (this was tossed in there to see how the hardball reader will take it). And I have another literature major, tossed in for good measure. See, that’s a beta group. I have everything from fellow writers, to readers, to professionals, AND they’re of varying ages and experiences. By setting my group up like this, I’ve guaranteed myself to get a wide variety of criticism and praise.
This is the kind of group you want. It doesn’t matter if they are friends or family (in my opinion), as long as they are guaranteed to not pull punches (like my group). The important thing here is honesty. You’re beta readers have to be honest. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Now. There’s another topic that I would like to cover, briefly that is. I mentioned before that you have to have a certain mindset when you’re going into this. There is a reason for that. If you receive a lot of negative criticism, it can be devastating. It can make you feel worthless, like your work is terrible, like you should have never sat behind a keyboard in the first place. You CAN’T let this happen. Remember, you wanted this. You wanted to know what was wrong with your work- SO YOU CAN FIX IT. If you receive negative criticism, look at this way: It doesn’t mean your work sucks. It means your work isn’t finished yet.
When I first wrote my manuscript, I got a pretty good amount of negative criticism. They told me that the pace was good, that it was interesting, but that it simply wasn’t written correctly. I was telling the reader a play by play of what happened, not showing them what happened. For more information on showing vs. telling, google it- or ask me to write another article going into that. And it was devastating. I wanted, more than anything, for people to like what I wrote. And I got discouraged, to be honest. But now that I’ve sat back down and edited it heavily, kept at it, made significant changes, I’m receiving all of the praise that I wanted originally- and it’s a great feeling. You can’t give up when you’re told that something isn’t working. You just have to make a change so that it is.
So. Now that you’re mentally prepared for the criticism ahead, know the kind of readers you need for this beta group, and have assured yourself that you won’t get depressed if you find out your work isn’t finished- get out there and do it! Beta readers are a wonderful way to find out if your work is up to par, or what people are looking for. And have fun with it! Whether you receive positive feedback or negative, take comfort in the fact that you have people willing to be honest with you!
AND REMEMBER: Negative criticism doesn’t mean your work sucks- it means your work isn’t finished yet.