Every writer needs beta readers. But sometimes, finding the right beta readers can be a challenge.
The best critiquers and beta readers catch the vision of the story you want to tell and help you tell it better, rather than fundamentally changing the idea.
There are a few critical steps to identifying the right beta readers for your work and using them well.
1 – Know what you need from the beta readers.
When you show a piece of writing to someone, it’s best to know what kind of response you’re looking for.
If you need encouragement, show it to your mom or your best friend! It’s ok. Lots of writers say you always need a critical eye if you’re going to improve, and maybe that’s true. But sometimes what you really need is encouragement to keep writing and get the rest of the story down. When you need encouragement and a kick in the rear to keep going, it’s ok to show the piece to a less-than-critical reader. As long as you understand you’re not getting unbiased feedback, it can be exactly what you need at that time.
If you need an overall reaction, a general check for “did this work for you?,” I’ve found that most of my best reactions came from readers who were not writers. Writers often, in an attempt to be helpful, try to identify what didn’t work for them in your story. Sometimes they’re right. But often, especially if they have a very different writing style or a very different type of story they prefer, they can be tragically/comically wrong. A reader might say, “Yes, it worked / No, it didn’t work, I didn’t identify with your character at all / I was confused about X / whatever.” Whereas a writer might say, “I think your pacing is off / I think you told rather than showing / your character is too flat.”
What’s the difference? I’ll use my novel The King’s Sword as an example. The first draft was very bare bones – I’m a very spare writer, and I left a lot to the imagination. Too much, in fact. The whole novel was about 55k words. In final form it’s about 75k, for reference, which is fairly short for fantasy but close to average for mainstream adult fiction. Some readers (who were not writers) loved it. Some said, “I’m not sure I’m getting much from the first quarter of the book, but the characters are growing on me.” Most of my critiques from writers said “the pacing is off, nothing happens in the first half of the book.” I was baffled, because I felt that a lot happened – it was character development, rather than an actiony plot, but it was still not empty space on the page with nothing happening. Because I’m such a spare writer, there’s nothing that goes on the page that doesn’t serve a purpose… I, like everyone else, have flaws in my writing, but fluff isn’t one of mine! I’ll explain what those critiques yielded in the next section.
If you need detailed writing help, fellow writers are probably your best resource. Sometimes you need help refining your plot (the actions of the story). Sometimes you need help refining your story (the internal and external changes in the characters and the plot). Sometimes you need help with world-building (and no one loves world-building like fellow writers!). Sometimes you just need someone to commiserate with when things aren’t going well. Writers understand these things.
2 – Know the story you want to tell.
One of my beta readers, who is immensely talented and skilled at critiquing, noted that in The King’s Sword, I was telling a character story but I’d accidentally set people’s expectations for an actiony plot adventure story. Some of readers who just read what was on the page started to get it. Some didn’t. The writer-critiquers paid attention to their initial expectations (largely shaped by the genre label “fantasy”) and then were disappointed because I didn’t fulfill them. When I edited, my job was to set expectations better and make it more clear what kind of story I was telling – a character story rather than an action thriller type. It’s not that one type of story is wrong, but if you pick up a book thinking it’s one thing, and you get something completely different, it’s very likely you’ll be disappointed. Many of the writer-critiquers wanted me to fundamentally change the story to make it more “exciting,” which really meant “to better fit their expectations of a fantasy novel.” But the story I wanted to tell was plenty exciting… it was just different.
Were those writer-critiquers wrong? Well, they correctly put their finger on a problem that needed to be fixed. That draft DID have flaws, since what I was trying to do wasn’t clear enough for them to get it. It’s a much stronger book now partly because their critiques. But misidentifying that problem as a pacing problem, rather than a what-story-am-I-actually-telling problem, wasn’t as helpful as any of us would have wished. Incorrect diagnoses of writing problems can send writers down rabbit trails, trying to fix things that aren’t really a problem in the first place. It can mess with, even ruin a book, and it can be extremely detrimental to a writer’s ability to tell their own stories.
It’s WONDERFUL to have fellow writers willing to critique your work and help make it better. My point isn’t to bash that at all! It takes a lot of time and effort to critique someone else’s work, and whenever anyone does that for you with the intent of being helpful, the correct response is gratitude. Fellow writers can be incredibly generous with their time and energy, and I’m grateful for every critique I received. But, as the writer, you need to know what story you’re trying to tell before you put your work out there to be read and critiqued. You can then evaluate the feedback you receive in light of “does this feedback help me tell that story better?” A lot of critique problems result from a combination of critiques that misidentify problems, and writers who A) don’t know what story they’re trying to tell, and B) don’t evaluate the feedback they receive critically.
I was fortunate in that several of my beta readers helped me parse through all the feedback I received to find the root of the problem. The story I had envisioned, the story in my head, was sketched out in such spare detail on the page that the internal story arcs weren’t clear to readers, even though they were as clear as day to me. The problem was HARD to identify, and I’m not surprised that very few of the beta readers even touched on the real problem. That’s more a result of my story than any slam on them – if I’d been my own beta reader, I wouldn’t have identified it either! But it highlights the responsibility you, as the writer, have to understand your own story and your goals and then to look at the feedback in light of your goals. Negative feedback tells you SOMETHING… but it might not be what the reader or critiquer thinks it tells you. You, as the writer, need to figure out what to do with that knowledge.
3 – Know your beta readers.
One of my beta readers in particular loves characters like Kemen. One doesn’t. She’s an excellent beta reader, but it’s helpful for me to know that this general type of character isn’t really her cup of tea. That doesn’t mean she won’t like the book, or that her feedback isn’t useful… in fact, it might be more useful, in a critiquing sense, than the feedback I receive from Kemen’s fan club (yes, he has one). They love him, which of course makes me happy as a writer, but they don’t view him as critically or question his actions the same way. Some readers just aren’t into stories with the type of internal story arcs that I write. That’s fine. Their feedback can still be valuable, if they’re willing to read and comment on my books. It can be useful to get feedback from people who don’t normally read fantasy, or aren’t into certain kinds of characters, because they’ll bring a different perspective. This might be more useful for me, since my books don’t fall as neatly into the fantasy genre as some others, but it’s something to be aware of. Some beta readers can enunciate their preferences and biases clearly, and many can’t. Know your beta readers and their preferences, and view their feedback in light of that.