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B is for beta reader

July 10, 2012

Beta testing occurs when a product is pretty much debugged and the manufacturer wants to get an idea if it works for the eventual buying public. If you’re a beta tester, you get to use an almost complete version of the newest, coolest technology before everyone else, but you have to deal with whatever leftover bugs are still floating around. In return, you have to honestly report back what works and what doesn’t work, and where things break down.

The same concept can exist for readers of your work. Many authors have what they call beta readers, someone who pre-reads your work and tells you the real, honest truth before anyone else gets hold of it.

Here are some characteristics of a good beta reader:

  • You have to trust them implicitly. They have to have some level of knowledge and experience with the genre you’re writing. They also have to understand what makes a good book. Another writer of about your level or better is a good candidate for a beta reader.
  • They have to be honest with you. For most people, their mom isn’t a good beta reader. (I love it. I love everything you write.) You’re looking for honest feedback, for someone who’s going to tell you with all truthfulness when something just doesn’t work.
  • They have to want you to succeed. This is a hybrid of the first two points. In one of my workout DVD’s the evil, sadistic bastard leading the workout says “I’m not trying to hurt you; I’m trying to make you better.” That’s what a beta reader does. Your feelings are secondary, which is why you have to trust them and why they have to be honest with you. They aren’t trying to hurt you; they’re trying to make you better.

In return, you have responsibilities to your beta reader:

  • Don’t give them a first draft. Your beta reader is probably honored on some level that you trust them enough to see your work before everyone else. There’s a certain level of writerly intimacy between a beta reader and a writer. It’s cool to have that relationship. But that means your imposition of time is worthwhile. Don’t give them stuff you’re still working through–unless you’re honest with them and say you’re struggling with something and what their advice, and they agree to give it.
  • You don’t get your panties in a wad when they don’t like something. The job of a beta reader is not to hurt you, but to try to make you better. The beta reader is probably a friend, but make sure you expect that friend to be honest. And before you get angry at the beta reader, check yourself. Are you mad because they’re being unfair or because they’re right?
  • You don’t get to argue. If you ask someone for their opinion and they give it, you aren’t bound to act on that opinion, but you shouldn’t turn around and try to change it. If you don’t want their honest opinion, don’t ask for it.
  • You have to consider and at least sometimes, when it’s appropriate, use what they give you. Pretend you’re the beta reader. Pretend you spend hours going over a piece. Pretend you give lots of advice. Pretend your author does none of it. How would you feel?

Which leads to the last point–it’s potentially hard to find a good beta reader. If you try it and it doesn’t work, then be honest. It doesn’t mean you’re an evil person or that you can’t be friends. It just means that this particular relationship didn’t work out. And that’s okay.

This is business–you are a small business–and your beta reader is a business partner. You should consider some sort of payment. A prominent position in the acknowledgements should be minimum wage–and how cool is that? But you should also consider dinner, a six-pack, a nice seat at the Rays game, or some other payment. (If it’s your wife, you might have to watch Glee! with them, talk about your feelings, and cuddle after sex. Hey, no one said this would be easy.)

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