Working with a beta reader
A beta reader is somewhat different from an editor.
For one thing, beta reading is done for free.
Beta readers are people who read over your work and evaluate it before it goes to a publisher. They might read for typos, spelling errors, grammatical issues, and punctuation problems, but that is not a very good way to work with them. Work with an editor for that.
Instead, you want them to help you with flow and continuity. If your main character is female and 5’2″ and has a chihuahua on page 4, then she should still be female, 5’2″, and the owner of a chihuahua on page 204, unless there is some on-page reason why she isn’t. E. g.:
- She is transgender, and successfully transitioned (with or without surgery) to male. Or the character no longer identifies as female or male.
- The character had a growth spurt and is taller, or has osteoporosis, and shrunk, or maybe her legs were amputated (sorry, character!).
- She gave away the chihuahua, or it ran away, etc.
The last thing you want is for your beta reader to wonder where the chihuahua went, particularly if the little dog isn’t a big part of the story.
How can you start this relationship?
The best way to get a beta reader is to be one. So offer a trade with another indie. Be kind when you’re done, and either recommend your beta reader friend or at least donate a little something to one of their three favorite charities. If the work is absolutely abhorrent, at least you can say you did that.
What should you expect?
You’re working with a volunteer. Things might be slow. You cannot be overly pushy. However, setting an expectation as to the overall deadline (be generous with the time frame!) is helpful. E. g. if you want the beta reading to be done in ten months for a 100,000 word document (very possible, even for a busy beta reader), say you need it done in nine months and try not to be overly anxious about it.
What are some practical tips?
Use Google docs in order to avoid version control nightmares. Create a schedule and a set of expectations. Hence for our hypothetical 100,000 word work, a nine month time period gives the beta reader about 39 weeks to get it all done. If each chapter averages about 1,100 words long, then you want a beta reading turnaround of about 2 – 3 chapters per week to make it in nine months. See why I’m talking about giving yourself a one-month cushion? You’ve also got to account for vacations, illness, the other person being busy with other stuff, and even a lack of motivation on their part.
How many beta readers do you need?
For our 100,000 word work, you’re probably going to want more than one beta reader. In fact, I would recommend that for any work longer than what most people would call a short story. You need some give and take and a consensus. If three beta readers tell you a chapter is dull, then it’s dull. If two say you need to use the word ‘whom’, and one says to use the word ‘who’, look it up on a trusted authority, such as Grammar Girl. Majority does not rule here.
Good beta readers are in the demographics of the people you’re trying to reach with your novel. They like your genre or at least are willing to read in it and offer feedback. They don’t tear you a new one when they don’t like something, but they are also unafraid to tell you if something isn’t working for them.
Some Standard Questions
- Are the characters believable? Are they distinguishable?
- Do you think the situations are plausible?
- Are the settings well described? Can you picture yourself where the characters are?
- Do the transitions work?
- Are the conflicts plausible?
- Is the conclusion a satisfying one?
Also ask about genre-specific issues, such as whether your mystery was too easy or difficult to solve, if your horror story was scary enough, if the technobabble in your science fiction novel was credible, etc.
Google docs is particularly useful for multiple beta readers, as they can see each others’ suggestions. Just set everyone to ‘suggesting‘ and not ‘editing‘. Google docs will also inform them when changes have been made, so they are reminded that you’re still out there, and you still need their help. Be sure to make corrections on the page so the beta readers can comment on them if they want to.
Don’t like Google docs? Then use Word and turn on its editing features. Use Dropbox or the like if your documents are too big to practically email back and forth.
Be gracious about the corrections; these people are trying to help you! But if it’s important for your character to be Lithuanian or eating pretzels or whatever, then stick to your guns and explain why. Do so without rancor, of course. Be kind and your beta readers will be so in return to you.
Establish a really good relationship, and you could be reading for each other for years.