By Gina Salamon
Finding the right beta reader can often be as difficult as finding that minuscule sliver of glass embedded under your skin and just as painful to dig out. But a good beta reader, one who truly helps a writer improve their story, rather than destroy it, can be an invaluable commodity.
So how do you find the good ones? Well, you start by steering clear of these:
The Overly Kind. These are typically your grandmother, your aunt, mother, sister (yes, I am naming females because we are the biggest culprits here) your friends, etc. who would never ever tell you (to your face) anything that might make even the slightest dimple in your self-confidence. When you ask if they will beta read for you and be honest, they assure you they will, but all you get back from them are words like “Oh, it was wonderful” or “Yes, I liked it very much,” and that’s it. They either have no idea how to relay to you what they might not have liked, or they wouldn’t dare. The Overly Kind is very good for our psyche, but they don’t do a darn bit of good for our writing careers. By going to them, you’ve wasted both their time and yours.
The I-Know-Betters. The I-Know-Betters can usually be found, but not always, in your fellow writer. They can’t help themselves. No matter how much time they’ve spent beta reading or critiquing for others, they simply have no idea how to give advice without trying to change everything to the way they would do it! They suggest changes that correct your style or voice (that didn’t need fixing in the first place) prefaced with the words “I would say it this way.” Now, I have no doubt they mean well; after all, don’t most of us believe our way is the right way? But convincing you to be just like them is the last thing you need. If you want to be a successful writer, and break out in the market, your voice should be unique.
The Faker. For the most part, the fakers mean well; they really do. They either don’t have the time or don’t care to take the time to do you this favor, yet they will raise their hand without hesitation when you go looking for a beta reader. They will nod as you explain your story and what you need them to do, but in their heads the words “Why oh why did I say I would do this” bounce around from one side of their skull to the other. They take your manuscript home and never look at it, yet when you ask if they are done, you will either get “Not yet, but soon” or “I want to reread it before I comment.” If you are lucky, after three months of waiting you’ll hear “I’m sorry, I never should have offered in the first place, I just don’t have the time.” Meanwhile, your story has been on hold waiting on them and their invaluable words of wisdom.
And the Haters. They are hidden in the walls of every profession, lurking around every corner waiting to pounce. They get their thrills by pointing out every mistake they can find or conjure up. Any self-esteem you possessed five minutes ago has been flushed down the toilet along with their pile of crap once you read their remarks. Telling you that you suck pumps them up to Schwarzenegger size. It makes them feel better about what they see as their own failings. And don’t kid yourself: with the Haters, about 10% of what they say might have some merit, but the rest is pure do-do. They can sink your self-esteem into the bowels of eternal damnation faster than it took you to type out the title to your book.
A good beta reader is one who is none of those described above. What they are is an avid reader and one who reads your specific genre! This is important everybody, so hear me well. If you are writing an erotic horror story, for instance, and the most risque genre this person reads is a nonfiction self-help book about raising hamsters, please don’t ask them to read your book. They probably won’t like it and won’t be able to help you where you need it.
Make sure your beta reader is confident your genre is one they will enjoy!
My last bit of advice in this area is to give your beta readers some guidance. Be sure to provide them with a deadline and don’t give them too long; thirty days maximum, I say. If they haven’t read your book by then, they aren’t going to.
Also provide a questionnaire, no more than ten questions at most, and if possible, keep it to six or less. They’ve done you a tremendous favor, given up hours of their time by reading your three hundred plus pages, so don’t give them what can feel like homework on top of it.
And ask the right questions. Some examples would be: Was there any spot where you felt the pace slowed or you wanted to skim or skip? Was the plot believable, did it leave you with any unanswered questions? Did you feel you knew or understood the main character enough, or did I leave you wanting to know more?
I wish you the best of luck finding those golden geese and may the writer gods be with you.