What is a Beta Reader?
A Beta reader or pre-reader is a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.
Elements highlighted by beta readers encompass things such as plot holes, problems with continuity, characterisation or believability; the beta reader might also assist the author with fact-checking.
Why do I need a beta reader?
The fact is, we spend so much time on our own manuscripts that we can’t see them objectively — no matter how diligently we self-edit. These can be some of the outcomes (there are plenty more):
- We create anticipation or an expectation early in the book, but forget to deliver on it.
- We describe events in a way that is clear to us but not clear to a reader who can’t see the pictures in our head.
- We leave out vital steps in an explanation and don’t realise it, because we know what we mean.
- The characters in our books (whether fictional, or real as in a memoir or non-fiction anecdote) are not convincing, because we know them so well we don’t realise we haven’t developed them thoroughly on paper.
Is it the same as a critique group?
Some people are in critique groups of writers who give each other feedback in a group setting. Some people love critique groups and others hate them, which probably depends a lot on which group you ended up in!
If you’re in a good one and finding it useful, that’s fantastic. People like Tolkien and CS Lewis were in what were effectively ‘critique groups’, so you’re following in some quality footsteps.
But it’s not quite the same thing as a beta reader, largely because of the group vs. individual dynamic.
You may have experienced a group setting where a kind of groupthink happens, and everyone thinks it’s fabulous or alternatively everyone is tearing it down, and individual voices get lost. The big swirl of group discussion can also make it harder to identify which are the really useful comments, and which are less discerning about the purpose of your particular book.
How is it different?
The beta reader’s report cuts through this “noise”. A beta reader will read your entire manuscript, on their own, and develop a personal response to it, uninfluenced by the opinions of others. The thing I particularly like about this is that reading is generally a solitary pursuit, and books ‘happen’ in the mind of the reader. So it’s an authentic way to encounter your book.
The best beta readers will give you a written report on their responses (which could be several pages long), and they often also will make notes in the text, to show their reaction to specific sections of the book.
And no, the best beta reports are not always the ones you pay for. In fact, most people get beta reads by an exchange of favours with other writers.
Ideally you’ll get at least two or three or four beta reads, so you can then weigh them up carefully. The responses will be very different, so don’t be alarmed by that! (I’ll write more soon about how to respond to a beta read.)
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