Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Beta Readers

Bob is the first book I've written that I've had betas read, and I must say, I've found the feedback invaluable. For instance, one of my beta readers caught every single one of my slips into third person omniscient (there weren't many, mind you, but enough to make me blush), and another pointed out the overall lack of tension in the first third of the manuscript. Like I said, invaluable.

So I've been thinking a lot about beta readers the past couple of weeks. Here are a few thoughts I've had on the topic.

Being a beta reader is as important as having one. It's just good karma to give more than you take. Besides, the more I revise (my own or someone else's manuscript), the more my revision skills improve, and that benefits me more than it benefits anyone.

The best beta readers are (probably) writers. A lot of people read, and quite a few people aren't bad at turning words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. But there's a lot more to writing good novels than that. Writers think about things like story construction, character development, and escalating tension every day, so they're going to notice those things--and problem with those things--in my manuscript.

You need more than one beta reader, but less than a hundred. All right, all right, so the number's kind of arbitrary. (I picked it mostly because it sounded nice in the sentence.) But the principle still stands. There are only so many things I can do to improve my manuscript, so after a while, the feedback I get will either be redundant or--let's face it--ridiculous. I don't need a million and one people's advice; I only need the suggestions of a handful of people I trust. (For me, that number is somewhere between six and ten.)

On the other hand, I do think everyone needs more than one beta reader. What are the chances a single person is going to catch every trouble spot in my manuscript? And how do I know the problems that person does catch are actual problems with the story and not just personal preferences? Also, if I only have one beta, I'm only going to get one clean read. After two or three read-throughs (or eight or nine), that beta's objectivity on matters like world building and clarity is going to be just as fuzzy as mine. I need fresh eyes for every round.

(Which isn't to say I can't ever come back to my earlier betas, of course. Betas who have already read the manuscript are great resources for brainstorming and such, but they're probably not going to be the best judges of how well I fixed the problems they raised, because they can't help but bring back a certain amount of understanding about my world, my story, and my characters.)

Having some betas read shorter chunks of the manuscript is helpful. When betas have less to read, they have more time to focus on the finer details. I've found it useful to have several betas read only my first fifty pages or my first chapter or even my first page. I can always apply the feedback they give me to the rest of my book, and the truth is, the beginning is probably the most important part of the manuscript, anyway.

How do you use beta readers? And what points about betas did I miss?

13 comments:

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Great post.
I love my beta readers. Two of them are adults, one is my teenage cousin (which is handy writing YA, and she's very critical). They all found different points in my MS that I missed, and helped me see aspects of my plot that didn't mesh.

Erinn said...

I have some great beta readers. They catch the things I miss and give me great idea to flesh out my weak areas. I do find myself getting frustrated when I read one of my beta's work because she never takes any suggestions. And I sort of feel like I've been wasting my time. Does anyone else get like that?

Justine Dell said...

I've only got one beta and I wouldn't want anymore. Don't get me wrong, I have other people read the ms for general feedback and typos, but I only need one beta. The more people telling you what they don't like, plot things, blah, blah, blah--the more confusion it causes. I'll stick with my one. ;-)

~JD

Jemi Fraser said...

Beta readers are invaluable. I love mine :)

Michelle Leeds said...

I have never used a beta. I'm just a pup here. I have always thought it was an awesome idea, I just have never finished a single story. But this one seems to want to be finished and read. :) I have been toying with the idea of starting out by letting my teen daughter read it and I have to say... even that makes me nervous. lol

Holly said...

Great post, Krista. Readers are so, so important.

I've had several kinds:
(1) people who aren't polished writers, but who can spot character reactions that don't make sense and other "oh, wow" flubs;
(2) writers who can point out subtle craft problems, like the POV issues Krista mentioned in her post;
(3) a paid editor who didn't "get" the voice in my story and tried to polish it out (I knew she would do that, too), but she pointed out a structural problem that I'm working on now.
(4) I posted the first three chapters on this website and received really helpful critiques:

http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/

I'm squeamish about posting much of my novel online because it has -- I think -- an original storyline, but that website is terrific. The first month is free and then it costs $49 a year. Plus several agents recommend it.

Mostly, I exchange chapters by email with one or two trusted writers.

Krista V. said...

Lindsay, I was very fortunate to find a teenage beta reader who is also a writer (and attending conferences, no less). I'm really looking forward to getting her feedback.

Erinn, that's a great point about betas - if you're not going to listen to their ideas, you probably shouldn't have them read it. You're not going to agree with every suggestion they make, of course, but I find it hard to believe you wouldn't agree with any of them.

Justine, thanks for that. Beta readers do come in all shapes and sizes.

Jemi, that's awesome.

Michelle, I totally know how you feel! As I said, this is the first book that I've had anyone but my husband read. But if you're looking for betas, the online writing community is a great place to connect with like-minded writers.

Holly, thanks for your list. Interestingly, whenever I read the papers my husband writes for his graduate degree, I'm always trying to polish the staid academic voice out of them:)

Myrna Foster said...

Krista, your last comment made me laugh. I had a professor in college who used to get on my case because my research papers weren't formal enough. The guy was incredibly boring.

I have beta readers who are writers and beta readers who are just voracious readers (most of whom are teenagers), and I get valuable feedback from both groups. One of my nephews has been sending his writing for critiques and bouncing ideas off of me for the last year, and he knows he's getting my fourth draft when I've finished.

Great post!

Krista V. said...

Hey, Myrna, if you ever want to share some of those beta-reading nieces and nephews with me, feel free;)

suzanne said...

Hi Krista,

Very interesting post. I have had one beta reader read the major versions of my ms and each time come back with something very valuable from a structural point of view. She was crucial. I just had someone read my very finished ms and come back with their reactions. It was tremendously helpful to smooth over two places that I had not seen as still needing something. We cannot be objective on our own work. Beta readers are a must, but you did get me to thinking about how their objectivity is compromised after a few reads also. Thanks for the brain food.

Suzanne

Krista V. said...

Suzanne, you're welcome. And thank you for the comment.

Liesl said...

And having fast beta-readers is probably helpful too. Sorry! I'm working on it!

My husband is my best beta-reader. He's ruthless but usually right. I guess ours is the only relationship I feel can withstand that kind of brutality.

Krista V. said...

Liesl, yay! Glad to know you're working on it. (Don't worry about the time, by the way. You've had Bob for, what, two weeks? Also, I've been out of town most of that time, so I've been a bit distracted...)

And yeah, husbands can be vicious readers - but in a good way, of course:)