It’s not easy to find good beta readers. You probably won’t encounter them in your group of friends, let alone your family. Those people are far too fond of you. Afraid to hurt your feelings, they won’t tell you about the gaping plot hole in the heart of your novel. Instead, they’ll let you publish with your unresolved narrative threads hanging out in the breeze for all the world to see. Needless to say, this is not the ideal outcome. So how do you find beta readers? The answer is by getting involved in writing communities and offering to critique the work of others. By learning to become a good beta reader yourself, you’ll also naturally attract the right company.
What makes a good beta reader?
Before you begin your search to find beta readers you need to think a little about what makes a good beta reader. The first and arguably the most important element is honesty. My husband, for instance, is an excellent beta reader, which is both a blessing and a curse. Honest to a fault, he will tell me exactly what’s wrong with my plot without sugar coating the bad news. While this is excellent for my writing, it’s appalling for marital relations. Though I can maintain a dignified and humble façade while listening to critique, this act won’t last for long. Forced to spend the days to come in the company of the very person who has wounded my pride, I will inevitably crack and begin to act out. Amazing really that in spite of this, he’s still prepared to hit me with hard-to-swallow facts!
We’ve established that honesty is probably the most important quality. However, if a beta reader is harsh to the point of insulting, you do need to kick them to the curb. Your beta readers need to believe in your work. If they don’t recognize your talent, then why are they doing this in the first place? So what you’re looking for is someone honest who is also prepared to temper their criticism with praise. While you need to know what’s not working in your prose, it’s also important to identify what works. Sad to say that there are jealous souls out there who will try to take you down to make themselves feel good about themselves. Avoid these people like the plague.
The shit sandwich?
Some people compare a good critique to a shit sandwich. That is, the awful truth has to be delivered in a digestible form. However, I take issue with this analogy. It’s wrong to compare your praise of another writer’s work to empty calories. The kind words of other writers have sustained me through many years of perfecting my craft and saved me from reworking prose that’s already perfectly serviceable. I’d also balk at the word ‘shit,’ not because I’m prudish, but because it implies that the problematic areas are completely unsalvageable. Having said that, while they’re free to suggest solutions, it’s not the beta reader’s job to supply you with the answers.
You also need to be aware that the opinion of one person is subjective. Ideally, you’ll receive feedback from at least three different beta readers before revising your work. Anything that all three agree on absolutely has to be fixed, whereas other points should be considered more carefully. It’s perfectly okay to reject someone else’s opinion if they are a lone voice, just make sure you have a reasoned argument worked out before you dismiss their comments.
So how do I find beta readers?
The answer is to develop connections with other writers. Personally, I’ve found it easier to do this out in the real world, but many get by just fine using the Internet. Friendships with other writers on Twitter can be fostered by using hashtags such as #writerscommunity, #amwriting, and #writing. On Facebook there are a wide range of writers’ groups, with one even dedicated to finding beta readers. Reddit also has a number of lively writing groups. If you have the stomach for it, Destructive Readers is a good place to exchange critiques on shorter pieces with a view to developing connections.
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer meeting people in person before exchanging critiques. The way I get to meet new writers is by attending a weekly writers’ club. The more you get involved, the more connections you’ll make. Now, after six years of being an active member and sometime organizer of that club, I have a wide network of beta readers and even better, a lovely group of friends. However, I never rest on my laurels and continue to attend and meet new writers. Every person I meet has a slightly different perspective that has the potential to enrich my own writing.
If you are having trouble finding someone to give you an objective opinion along with some constructive criticism, I do offer a manuscript critique for writers. Particularly useful for those who have an early draft of a novel, the assessment will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the whole manuscript along with actionable advice on how to improve the novel. The package includes a detailed assessment of 5 to 10 pages. Once you’ve received and read my report you can then discuss it in detail with me for an hour via Skype.