Writing is not solitary. We craft the ideas in our mind and with a certain amount of solitude the story is committed to paper. But without the addition of other people, the story will remain solitary. After all, part of the transition between a writer and an author is the addition of a reader.
Early this summer, my co-author Sam and I passed our revised draft into the hands of our beta readers. We had two rounds–the first was a very small group of close friends who read in the genre of our book and who have varying degrees of skill in writing or editing. The second round was slightly larger, about a dozen readers of varied reading preferences and professional backgrounds. Each round of beta readers was followed by a round of revisions for me and Sam.
Different writers have different methods. For some, writing groups are incredibly helpful. Personally, writing groups have never worked for me. Readers, though… I call them beta readers simply because that’s a phrase I picked up somewhere and it stuck. We like to call Sam’s wife our “alpha reader” because she’s the first one to read everything we write. So the others are all beta readers. They are invaluable to me.
Selecting beta readers is a careful business. You have to pick people who aren’t out to prove themselves. You have to select people who will actually give you helpful feedback. Plenty of people will be eager to read your book–many friends and family members will volunteer, guaranteed. But you have to be upfront with them that if they read it, you expect feedback. Otherwise, frankly, it’s a waste of your time. At this stage in your revisions process, you need insightful, well thought out suggestions to strengthen your book.
You also have to be open to those suggestions. When you start getting thoughts and comments back from your readers, take your writer’s pride and put it somewhere else. This is your baby, your heart and soul put to paper. But you need to look at it as a work in progress. Take the helpful suggestions from your readers and be honest with yourself. Will this make the book stronger? Even if they suggest cutting your favorite line, even if they suggest rewriting whole sections, even if they suggest a complete change to the plot, you need to candidly address those suggestions and figure out what’s going to be best for your novel.
For first-time novelists, it can be scary to hand your story off to someone else. What if they don’t like it? What if they criticize it? What if they just don’t understand? But if you’ll put that fear aside, you will find that your beta readers can fundamentally affect and improve your work. That was certainly the case for me and Sam and “Traitor’s Gate.” It would not be the same as it is today without the suggestions of our beta readers. Sometimes those suggestions were harsh; sometimes they were difficult to swallow. But were they best for the book? In many cases, absolutely.
What has been your experience with beta readers?