Regardless of who you are, how long you’ve been writing or how many times you’ve been published or any of the other dozens of variables that go into a writing career it never hurts to have a second pair of eyes go over your work. You are naturally biased towards your own work, which is both a good and a bad thing. You want it to be good, so you’ll work harder to fix things that aren’t right on it. On the other hand, you want it to be good, so you can’t necessarily see what’s wrong with it.
Having someone who hasn’t agonized for hours over those same words read through them is absolutely invaluable. Sometimes referred to as beta readers (and sometimes as alpha readers), these are the people who read your manuscript before anyone else to help you find problem areas.
This is not to be confused with a sensitivity reader, who checks your work for harmful tropes, messages or ideas towards minorities groups.
Beta readers however, can do a huge amount for your work, be that spotting a wonky paragraph that needs reworking, to helping you find a scene that’s dragging. In some cases they may also pick up minor mistakes you missed such as the wrong homophone or a missed punctuation mark. (Note here that this is not something you should rely on a beta for, but should probably find a willing critique partner to help with).
Most importantly however, beta readers can give you insight into what a reader is thinking when they’re reading your stories. One of the most valuable things I’ve found from my own betas is how they react to the characters I craft. In these cases they’ve shown me where I’ve missed the mark when motivations aren’t clear, and also when they’ve unexpectedly fallen in love with a side character.
Finding a beta reader doesn’t have to be hard. Try asking anyone you know who falls into your target audience if they’re willing to read and give you feedback on your manuscript.
Keep in mind however, that there are a couple of things that go with being a beta reader.
- Honesty is key. While it might feel nice to have someone say they like your work and that they don’t think there’s anything to change, that won’t help you improve your writing in the long run. On the flip side of that, it also helps if they can point out things they enjoyed.
- Articulation is another useful trait. Rather than a vague ‘this bit was nice’ it helps if your beta can explain ‘I enjoyed this because it was tense’ or ‘this scene felt a little slow’. They don’t need to have a full, detailed report on every little thing, but telling you why this or that isn’t working for them does help.
As the writer however, you have a couple of things to uphold as well. Remember that betas are often doing this in their free time on a voluntary basis, so have some patience. If you’re uncertain about what they mean by some of their comments, try asking questions, and especially ask for suggestions! You’re not honor-bound to follow any suggestions they do give, but they might just have the solutions you need.