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Beta Readers - the Writers' Friends

Once your first edit is done, you are likely to find it helpful, but daunting, to seek the opinions of others. It is a brave step. You may be reluctant to let anyone read what you have written until you have completed a draft that you are happy with. Alternatively, you may prefer to allow trusted readers to read sections of your book as you write. Do whatever is most comfortable to you.

Nevertheless, this is important, and it is definitely worthwhile seeking the opinions of others. Many established writers have built up networks of these trusted critics or beta readers as they are known. Building a reliable panel of beta readers takes time, therefore it is sensible to try to identify potential beta readers amongst your own contacts. They are prileged because they get first sight of a draft book and are asked to give feedback. These beta readers are invaluable in identifying both strengths and weaknesses in the draft that are often the author cannot see.

Think about the kind of beta readers you need because the only purpose there is for submitting your work to others to critique is to obtain honest feedback on your book. To this end, there is no point selecting beta readers who will be reluctant to offend you or say anything critical. For that reason it is better to avoid approaching very close friends or family members. Other authors, writing group members or book bloggers, although busy, make excellent beta readers. However, some may not want to put themselves in a position where they have to criticise or offer a negative opinion on aspects of your draft.

Bear in mind that when you ask for an honest opinion, you have to be willing to accept that not everyone will like all that you have written and may criticise some of your favourite scenes or question your use of particular characters. This hurts. It is like being told you have an ugly baby and you must be thick skinned about it.

Indeed, if you ask someone to read your book as a beta reader, do tell them that you want their views and make it clear that you will not be offended by what they have to say. You have to stick by this and not show disappointment if you receive critical feedback. It is certainly not worth losing the fellowship of another author or the support of a keen blogger because you have taken offence to what might be perfectly legitimate criticism.

Also, be courteous and never send out your draft unsolicited. When you ask someone to read and critique a draft manuscript, you are asking them to undertake is a huge commitment. Some people whose views you would appreciate may not have time to take on that job but if someone does accept a request to beta read for you, explain that the feedback does not have to be long or detailed, but should reflect their own honest views on your book. Having said that, if you can find one or two beta readers who are prepared to give you thorough comments on a chapter by chapter basis, this work is really valuable. One of my beta readers goes through my drafts line by line and offers opinions on everything from grammar and wordchoice to characters and settings. I always dread hearing back from her, but her input is invaluable, although not all of her observations result in changes!

It may be helpful to the beta readers, especially if they are inexperienced, if you provide prompt questions. If beta readers are asked to respond to specific questions, it is easier for them to give you the balanced feedback you want. It also means they will feel less awkward about offering a negative point of view if they feel this is offset with a positive comment relating to other aspects of the novel. Examples of questions might be:

· Did you enjoy the book or were there any sections where you lost interest or struggled to continue reading?

· Which characters interested you most?

· Did you find the plot easy to follow or were there any points where you found yourself confused?

· Did you find the book's setting interesting or were there any points where you would have liked more, or less, description about the setting?

· Did my book remind you of any novels you have read?

You must being willing to accept all feedback, positive and negative, with a good grace. You may disagree with some of it, you may ignore most of it, but when it represents an honest opinion from someone who is trying to help you, be grateful for their time and courteous with any responding comments you may make because even if you disagree with the points made, you need to think about why your beta reader felt that way.

Most importantly, if the reader indicates that they perceived a plot hole, consider that part of the story again. Work out why the reader got the impression that they did. Even if you think the plot makes sense, you may have failed to describe the developments as clearly as you thought you had. If that is the case, expand the narrative a little just to make the story line more obvious.

If the beta reader mentions a part of your story where they have found the pace too slow or too fast, consider if you can improve the story at that point to avoid other readers who will buy your book feeling that way too. Of course, you can never please every reader and you should not try to do so. Everybody has different tastes, and you will receive feedback that you decide to disregard. You will also probably get contradictory feedback from different beta readers. Still, even if you decide that the feedback does not reflect your story, it will always give you food for thought.

If you are lucky enough to get to a stage where you have a regular panel of beta readers, you will become familiar with their preferences. You will learn which ones have views closest to yours, and those with which you tend to disagree. Both are important and should be valued equally, although it is always easier to accpet praise than criticism. You will also work out which of your beta readers give you detailed feedback and those who provide a brief overview. Ideally, you should build up a diverse panel who will provide you with a broad range of feedback and who are not afraid to tell you what they think.

Using beta readers to help improve that first finished draft, is invaluable. This is especially true for a debut or inexperienced author. But there is nothing to prevent you seeking the views of beta readers at a later stage too because it can be helpful to have there thoughts just at the final step before submission when your manuscript is being polished. This can help you produce the best that the final version of your novel can be. At that time, you are likely to need feedback about not only the the content but also the structure of the book, so make sure that the beta readers you approach at this point are able and willing to afford you that more detailed critique.

Val Penny

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Great blog, Val. I wouldn't be without my team of beta readers.

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