In recent years, you’ve probably heard a lot of people talking about their beta readers, that is, people they send their manuscripts to for feedback before they send them to their agents, editors, or publishers. The term is new, but the idea is not. We all benefit from a little feedback—just so you don’t get trapped into believing everything you hear (or rejecting everything you hear). I always wondered why the term is “beta reader”—who’s the alpha reader? The writer is not a reader, and about the furthest thing from an objective reader there could be. I think of my readers as alpha dogs, the people who more than once have prevented me from making embarrassing errors. But to avoid confusion, I’ll use the “beta” term everyone knows.
When should you bring in beta writers?After you’ve finished an outline? First draft? Third draft? Polished product? Some people like to send out amazingly early drafts, so they can get input on character and plot before everything is chiseled into stone. I can see the logic there, if you know someone who will read something that rough, but I have to admit I don’t send anything out until I think it’s 98% finished. This probably has more to do with ego that strategy—I can’t stand to have others point out problems I should have spotted myself.
Who should you choose for beta readers?Some writers prefer frequent readers, someone who might actually buy a book like yours. Some writers prefer other writers, because they might notice problems a lay reader wouldn’t. Speaking for myself, I like a mix of both. It’s not so much that writers notice things others don’t as that they know what to call it. The reader might say, “The story didn’t grab me” and you don’t know what’s wrong. But the pro writer will say, “You’ve got a viewpoint problem,’ and then you know exactly what’s wrong. Still, I also like getting the opinion of someone who reads solely for pleasure because ultimately, a book should be an entertaining read, and those readers are best equipped to tell you if you’ve attained that.
How many beta readers should you have?I don’t know--how many people do you know who would be willing to read your manuscript? At least five, I think, so you get a variety of opinions. At our conference one year, Phillip Margolin said that he sent each manuscript out to ten beta readers. If only one or two of them had a problem, he assumed they were outliers. If he heard the same comment from several—he knew he had a problem he needed to fix.
Here are the reasons you should start assembling your beta team:
1) Everyone Makes Mistakes
I know, it’s hard to accept. I like to think of myself as perfect…but I’m not. I also do a great deal of research for every book…but still some details slip through the cracks. In an early draft of The Last Chance Lawyer, I made a humiliating error, attributing an ABBA song to Queen. Inexcusable. My Baby Boomer card should be revoked. Fortunately, my sharp-eyed writer pal Rick Ludwig caught my error.
The content-based mistakes are the most embarrassing, but we are all plagued by typos, the pernicious weeds of the writing world. Rarely has any book—including those from major publishers—gone out without some error somewhere. (This is how collectors often authenticate that a book is a first edition—by spotting the typo.) Even after a score of proofreaders have been through the manuscript, an error or two often remain, and sadly, the independent publishing phenomenon has increased this problem. Some books are being published with inadequate proofing, and that only results in the author looking unprofessional (even if it’s not really the author’s fault). There was a typo on the very first page of my very first book, Primary Justice, a typo I marked in the galleys but had not been corrected. I was mortified. (But then again, the book sold half a million copies and I’ve never once heard anyone mention the typo.)
I strongly advocate that authors, particularly those who plan to self-publish, pay for a final draft line-edit. In fact, that’s the top item when I give people a “publishing budget” at my retreats. It’s simply a matter of maintaining professional credibility, and maximizing the reading experience. If a few hundred bucks can prevent me from being embarrassed—here’s my check.
2) Not Everyone Sees Characters the Same Way
I try to create characters who are complex, interesting, and three-dimensional, especially the primary and secondary characters. And of course, as you know from reading Creating Character, your protagonist needs to be likeable (which does not mean perfect). But sometimes, likeability is not universal. In Last Chance Lawyer, the lead is Daniel Pike, a crusading but complex lawyer, and he is soon joined by the other members of his new firm, Maria, Jimmy, Garrett, and Mr. K, all of whom have their quirks but who I hope you will find somewhat likeable.
I wanted to give Dan an edge, to make him a bit of a show-boater, but imagine my surprise when one of my beta readers said she found him sexist! I would never have deliberately done that to any protagonist, but this reader was put off by some of his comments, particularly by the badinage between Dan and Maria about her close-fitting jeans. I thought both characters were joking and he wasn’t offensive, but the wildly different take of this beta reader did inspire me to tone down his comments. Best of all, I used that to develop a character arc for Dan in the second book in the series (Court of Killers, out in July 2019). In that book, Dan looks into the mirror and asks himself if he hasn’t been somewhat sexist in some of his dealings with women. Many thanks to Cassy Pickard for input that proved useful even beyond the book in question.
3) Credibility is Not an Objective Standard
Poe talked about the importance of “verisimilitude,” which of course is not the same as “lifelike,” but at least suggests that something like this could happen. This is always challenging in thrillers, which increasingly seem to demand larger-than-life plots to hold reader attention, plots that far exceed anything that could really happen—or anything you would want to ever happen. Although I try to keep my books real on courtroom procedure, the truth is that if I ever presented trials as trials actually transpire, readers would be bored to tears. I don’t care what the charges are—most trials are mostly boring most of the time. Judicious editing is the first step, but sometimes the boundaries of reality have to be stretched a bit, too.
Good writers develop tactics for presenting the less-than-realistic events in a manner that allows them to be more readily digested by readers, like early planting, foreshadowing, and nuanced character reaction. But I like to run scenes by beta readers to see if they object. If the feedback indicates that an event shattered the suspension of disbelief—it may be time for rewrites. Different people have different standards. Personally, I found many of the scenes in Avengers: Endgame ludicrous, even by the loose standards of a superhero drama. But given that the movie is now the highest grossing movie of all time, others may have felt differently.
But by all means pay attention to your beta readers if a consensus arises.
And the One Reason You Don’t Need a Beta Reader—Validation.
You do not need beta readers who simply tell you how great you are and how brilliant your prose is. While this sort of feedback might make you feel better about yourself, it will not improve your work in the slightest. Your validation should come from the fact that you finished a book, a good book. That’s your source of pride, not feedback, reviews, or publishers. We are writers. We write. And then we put it out there, because we believe it has value. That’s the only validation that matters.