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 their dreams, can be an invaluable commodity.
So how do you find the good ones? Well, you start by steering clear of these:
First, the Overly Kind. The overly kind are typically our grandmothers, aunts, mothers, sisters (yes, I am naming females because we are the biggest culprits here), friends, etc., who would never ever tell you (to your face) anything that might put even the slightest dimple in your self-confidence.
When you ask if they will beta read for you and be honest when giving feedback, they assure you they will. However, 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 simply wouldn’t dare say anything to hurt your feelings.
The Overly Kind is very good for our psyche but useless when it comes to advancing our writing careers. By going to them, you’ve wasted both their time and yours.
So, if you allow friends or family to read your unpublished work, let those positive words motivate you, keep you going and boost your self-confidence. But I caution you not to rely on them.
Then there are the I-Know-Betters. The I-Know-Betters are often (but not always) found 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.
And always keep in mind that the one who truly knows better is YOU. Whatever advice you get back from beta readers, it should all be taken into consideration and discarded at your discretion. YOU know best what's right for you and your story, so always keep that in mind when considering any changes.
Next, the Faker. For the most part, the Fakers mean well, too; they really do. So why do I label them as fakers? 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 what kind of feedback you're looking for and what you need them to do. Meanwhile, 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 something along the lines of “Not yet, but soon” or “I want to reread it before I comment.”
If you're 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.” Or, they might even go so far as to fib and say they read it when they didn't (this is when the faking really comes into play), giving no valuable feedback whatsoever, just like the Overly Kind mentioned above. Meanwhile, your story has been on hold, waiting on them and their anticipated invaluable words of wisdom.
My advice is not to take this lack on their part personally. They certainly didn't plan ahead of time to hinder your progress or disrespect you. And more than likely, they feel bad about it. Hopefully, they feel bad enough that they won't make the same mistake of offering again, and you won't make the mistake of asking them.
And last, but definitely not least are 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 typo or possible plot hole they can find or conjure up.
Any self-esteem you possessed five minutes earlier 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 Dwayne Johnson-size. It makes them feel better about what they see as their own failings.
And don’t let yourself be fooled. With the Haters, about 10% of what they say might have some merit, but the rest is likely 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 of your book.
A good beta reader is one who is none of those described above. What they are is avid readers and ones who read your specific genre! This is important, everybody, so hear me well. If you are writing an erotic horror story, for instance, and the most risqué genre this person reads is a nonfiction how-to about breeding 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 may need it.
Make sure your beta reader is confident your genre is one they will enjoy! Being a beta reader should not be viewed as a chore, a responsibility or a job. It should be seen as a privilege and honor. Having them read your story at this stage is a favor to you, yes, but your beta readers should feel you are doing them a favor as well by giving them the privilege of reading what is basically an advance copy of your story.
Be sure to edit, polish, and edit some more before passing your story to a single beta reader. No one should be asked to make sense of anyone's first draft. A disconnected plot, incoherent sentence structure, and too many typos will be distracting and make it impossible for any good beta reader to enjoy your story.
Also, be sure you're ready to hear any possible criticism, advice or suggestions. And I say this with all due compassion, sincerity and experience because very few of us are ready for that right out of the gate. It takes confidence in yourself and in your work. Self-assuredness in knowing you've taken the time to hone your skills (both writing skills and storytelling skills) and written the best story you can at that point in time.
There are two bits of advice I often give, and I will repeat them here. (1) No matter your experience, the fact is, a writer, or any kind of artist for that matter, exposes themselves every day to criticism. Once you put your work out there, you're open to critique, whether it be good, bad or spiteful. And believe me, there will be all three, no matter how talented and wonderful a writer you are or what value your book provides. So before you put your work out there, be sure you're ready for it. (2) We all improve our writing with every page, every chapter and every book we write, but only if we allow ourselves to soak in the knowledge. So write, write, write, and read, read, read, and you will continue to get better and better.
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 story by then, they aren’t going to.
Also, you might consider providing a questionnaire with no more than ten questions at most, and if possible, keep it to six or fewer. In truth, they’ve done you a tremendous favor, given up hours of their time by reading your hard work, so don’t give them what can feel like homework on top of it.
And ask the right questions. Don't bring up any issue you feel might be present, as your beta readers will pick up on that and perhaps see something that isn't there. Don't mention any comments made by other beta readers or any concerns you have prior to them reading the entire story. Again, you don't want to risk coloring what they themselves will see.
Some examples of helpful questions would be: Was there any spot where you felt the pace slowed or you were at any time tempted to skim or skip? Was the plot believable, and 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 hope this small bit of advice helps, and I wish you the best of luck finding those golden geese among the vultures.
May the writer gods be with you.