Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Beta readers are a writer's best buds

Is it really September? Wasn't I just sweltering under 95+ summer heat? Not that I'm complaining - I don't want the heat back. The arrival of September just means I'm that much closer to my targeted release of Sultana's Legacy in November. Time to start panicking? Maybe, but not about the latest round of edits. Most of my beta readers have provided their feedback and it's been an incredible help.

I've never been a writer who can work and put out a book in complete isolation. I applaud those who can rely on their own innate writing talent and ruthless self-editing skill, but I'm too close to my work to see the faults in it. 

So, what have I learned about beta reads?

-Choose honest and thorough people who can give you the feedback you need.  Hopefully, your betas will point out every flaw before your READERS do. You know, the ones who plunk down their hard-earned money for your finished product and then skewer you over every typo or misspelled word.

-If your content might be disturbing, please warn your beta readers in advance. Don't waste your time or theirs by having someone come back to you with, "I couldn't finish this because you included THIS SCENE." Know your audience.

-Set a deadline and always be prepared for people who can't meet it. Hey, life happens and people's commitments change. It might suck if someone drops out, but it doesn't have to. Have one or two backups who'll step in to help in a pinch.

- Your beta readers should be two subsets: people who are familiar with your writing style and those who are not. Those who are will recognize your voice, as well as your pitfalls and writing crutches. Those who are unfamiliar can bring a refreshing, unique perspective to your outlook.

-Don't hesitate to ask for specific feedback. My betas must have been shocked by what I referred to as the "pop quiz" but there are brutal scenes in Sultana's Legacy. I needed to know if they worked or seemed gratuitous. Come up with 5-10 questions maximum that help your betas focus on key points of the novel. Don't use Yes or No questions.

-Good betas provide constructive criticism and can pinpoint the problems. A bad beta reader will tell you the novel is fine just as it is. That's code for one of two things: "I didn't read one word of your manuscript" OR "I read and didn't understand it but because I didn't want to hurt your feelings, I said to hell with it and will let you put out an awful book." If you're my beta and a friend, you'll tell me the full truth, including where I'm screwing up. 

-Don't rely on beta readers to be the last word on your book. Whether you're editing before or after the beta read, your eyes should be the last set to review the manuscript. Even the most thorough beta may miss something as easily as you do. Also, the opinions will vary and applying all the edits may create contradictions in your story line. Read it in full AGAIN before you hit Publish.  

Last, but not least:

-Learn to take criticism, not just in this process but as a writer in general. Remember, you asked these folks to volunteer their efforts on YOUR behalf. Have some respect for their valuable time AND opinions. 

Have you worked with beta readers or in isolation? Any particular reason for your choice?  


Johanna Garth said...

Great post Lisa. My beta readers are all non-writers. Because of this I ask them to make a mark wherever they get bored or start to skip over stuff. To me, that's shorthand for what doesn't work and if I know where it is, I can usually fix it.

Lisa Yarde said...

You're lucky to have beta readers you can trust, Johanna. By now I know who I can trust and rely on to be thorough and honest, but it's a learning process. Lots of trust involved.

jbchicoine said...

I've had several different readers for different projects. Currently, I have one that I rely on a great deal, mostly because I respect her work and I know she will be honest with me. (and shes' super prompt!)I love hearing 'this is great,' but even more so, I want to know where I fall short. She's also helped me to be a better, braver beta reader, myself.

Your list of criteria is great, by the way! All good points!

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