February is a month dedicated to editing! How fitting that the topic should come up as a controversial conversation this week on twitter (fellow author/editor C.D. Tavenor and I composed and shared a blog post about this on Friday).
In light of the overwhelming attention and wonderful success of the new Beta Program, the natural followup appears to be a post about beta readers, what they do, and why they matter.
You’re a writer, and you’re here, so you likely know what a beta reader is. Humor me anyway, for a moment:
A beta reader is usually an unpaid test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), who gives feedback from the point of view of an average reader to the author. A beta reader is not a professional and can therefore provide advice and comments in the opinions of an average reader. (source)
I’ve stated this repeatedly, but you should never pay for a beta reader. There are vast communities of people, including OMN's very own team of talented betas, who will beta read and give relevant feedback for no cost at all!
No matter what genre or age group you are writing for, it’s important to have that extra set of eyes upon your work. A beta reader should not be your very first step, of course; you could have a critique partner or “alpha reader,” should definitely do a rudimentary edit, and may even reread/revise your work before enlisting help from a beta reader. (See my guide to the editing process here).
Why is a beta reader so important?
A common trope authors fall victim to, especially inexperienced authors writing longer works of fiction, is “What happened to the mouse?” It’s named so in reference to a scene in the film The Last Emperor, in which the title character chucks his pet mouse offscreen. There is no later reference, callback, or resolution, leaving the fate of the creature ambiguous. What happened to the mouse? is used in reference to any minor character or arcing/secondary plot that is introduced and dropped without explanation or resolution. Authors can forget to follow up on things they meant to cover later, scenes or characters that were supposed to be important, or any number of unresolved/hanging elements. The reason behind this is, most frequently, that writing a book takes vast amounts of time, and humans do not have eidetic memory. A beta reader, however, can consume 80k words much more quickly than a writer can compose them, and thus are more likely to catch these errors.
Let’s also say, for example, that you have written the perfect action sequence. It flows, it kicks, it punches, and you’ve read it a dozen times and eliminated every error you can find. You’re finally done! Only, somehow, even with all of your attention to detail and carefully-crafted narrative, you’ve somehow failed to adequately describe the setting, the characters, or the actual events. Perhaps you’ve described actions perfectly, but the scene is entirely robotic, lacking any emotion, even though you feel and see every intense moment of it. You’re projecting your idea of what it should be onto the paper when you read it back! You’ve forgotten a vital step in communicating these ideas from your mind to your book. A beta reader, looking at the scene with fresh eyes, can help you pinpoint areas that are lacking description or depth. This can also hold true in scenes that are meant to carry strong emotions and fail, or scenes that transition too quickly from one emotion to another (such as reluctance to resignation, annoyance to acceptance, and so on). Having that second set of eyes is important!
We can all agree that characters are the most important part of our stories. You must have a well-developed, interesting, motivated character to carry even the best of plots. With dull characters, your story will not be compelling. On a personal note, I’ve always known this intellectually, but I recently discovered it in practice on two separate occasions: once was reading a book by Steven Brust (who I realize I talk about a lot on this blog) titled The Phoenix Guards. There are a few books following, sporting the same cast of characters, and I realize there is nothing not to love about the main character. The second, most recent experience I had of falling in love with the lead, was in a fantasy book I recently edited. In both of these stories, the main character begins with about as much information as we have, and we are able to learn and grow with the character (this needs its own, whole separate blog post, so I’ll move along). Perhaps you feel that you’ve accomplished this in your manuscript! Unfortunately, no matter how well-developed and detailed your character sheets, no matter how much time you’ve spent with this character in your mind and at the drawing board, it’s still very easy to fail in your conveyance of traits, personality, and growth throughout the actual story. Perhaps your character arc feels flat, or your lead seems unmotivated, boring, even. The more time you’ve spent agonizing over this character, the more likely it is you are blind to lack of characterization in your narrative. A beta reader, again, can help you pinpoint dull or lacking areas, as well as highlight the areas where your characters shine!
It’s broadly agreed upon within the writing community that beta readers are essential. As the article above references, you wouldn’t release a piece of software, or a video game, or anything else that has the potential to fail, without first testing it out on a small scale. So now we have seen some of what a beta reader can do, it’s time to get to the important part!
What should I ask for/expect from my beta reader?
Everyone has different ways of giving feedback. More experienced beta readers will have a system they fall back on, in case the author doesn’t quite know what to ask for. Even still, most of them are quite flexible and will try to give feedback in any way that is comfortable or easy for you. Whatever the format, there are some in depth questions you could ask your beta, and you can download the OMN Beta Questionnaire for reference! (Betas, you are free to use and reference this, as well).
The basic points, though, should come down to this:
· Does the story have a compelling beginning/opening?
· Is there a clear main character?
· Could you easily picture the settings?
· Are the characters motivated, and do they grow and progress (arc) over the course of the story?
· Did your mind ever wander, or were there any boring points?
· What made you laugh or cry?
· Did you have difficulty picturing any scenes or events?
· Were there any obvious, repeating technical errors?
· What were your favorite and least favorite scenes, and why?
· Were you satisfied with the ending?
Of course, you can ask for much more detail/elaboration than this, and these questions are primarily geared toward works of fiction, but these questions should cover the basics.
Sounds great! Where do I get one?
I have found a majority of the OMN Betas through twitter, under the #writingcommunity or #betareaders hashtag. I also managed to recruit a couple of people I know in-person! A beta doesn't have to be someone who is super into writing; they just need to be someone who loves to read and can give critical feedback. This can be a friend, partner, sibling, parent...really anyone, as long as they are able to articulate their thoughts and reactions in a way that will help you to improve upon your story.
On the topic of beta readers, I’d like to throw out a quick call to anyone who is wanting to become one, but isn’t sure where to start! OMN is hosting a free beta program, and we’ll be signing up new members March 4-March 8. The program has been far busier than I ever imagined it could be, so we are looking for people who love to read and can do so with some haste!
If you’re having trouble finding a beta reader, we will do our best to help! As I said previously, the readers we do have are practically buried in manuscripts, so it may take some time to connect you to a suitable beta reader, depending on your genre, wordcount, etc.
Special thanks to the first round of beta readers!
They are a wonderfully talented and generous group, and I could not be happier with them.
Thank you for reading today, and come back next week for more February Editing tips!