• Martin Svolgart

What you need to know about beta readers

The who’s the how’s and the what’s on everything about beta readers.

So, who are these unicorns?

Any computer geek knows that the first software out is called a beta version, and it has beta testers to help flush the bugs before launch. It’s much the same here.

A beta reader’s job is, shortly put, to be the fresh eyes that can catch everything you know or meant but didn’t get into the story or didn’t manage to paint just right or clearly enough.

Before a manuscript is ready for beta, the author has already been through it so many times that we’ve stared ourselves blind. We know our story so in-depth that…in essence, we don’t need the words there. Also, we know exactly what we meant by a sentence or description. It doesn’t always work, though, if not knowing everything we know, and we usually know way more than goes into the story. This is what a beta has to catch. Ideally.

It can be anything from a missing piece of information to the MC being a leftie in chapter two and a righty in chapter eight. That or hair color or eye color or whatever. Sometimes, authors change stuff to put in some interesting little detail, and then another pesky little one slips our attention on the final read through. This is where we love our vigilant beta readers.

What to think about when finding a beta reader

Two of my first beta readers became my mentors—both known names in each their genre in Denmark. My editor, Laura McNellis, became the mentor who kicked my perky features to master a second language. (Patient woman, I’ll tell ya’!)

This blog is a testament to their thorough work. And sarcasm. That works well for us because we share that humor, and I knew that going in. Therefore, getting a new beta takes a bit of courtship. You are about to trust them with your new baby, after all, and to hopefully build a long-lasting and productive friendship.

There’s a fine line between good-humored poking and the author sitting back feeling bullied, so it’s always advisable for both parties to make sure the “tone” is right. All the important things in communication are lacking, like mimic, eyes twinkling, a smirk, gestures, etc. If you misunderstand something, ask your beta. Communicate. It could be a bad phrasing on their part or an attempt at humor that got lost.

An author’s first, second, or even third book being critiqued can feel like fiddle playing a fine tune on raw nerves. Somewhere after that, most have developed leather skin, and the critique peels off more easily. We end up acknowledging that we mess up, and we no longer take it so personally. Unless they poke at a darling, then even the guy who came up with the phrase “Kill Your Darlings” can jump off a cliff. It’s not exactly clear who said it, but scholars think it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch when writing On the Art of Writing in 1916. Either way, it doesn’t always make the critique valid or invalid.

Being critiqued is never a good feeling, and it’ll always be there at one level or another, but the first few hurt more. I promise, it becomes easier. At some point, you accept it as part of the process, and then you grin at soon finding a smiley face or something, left by the beta. How to deal with criticism deserved a post of its own, which I will write soon.

This is/isn’t a beta’s job!

An author should never continue work with a bad beta. It’s counter-productive. This would be the ones trying to change your entire writing style or voice, add text (other than if you forgot (a) single little one) or suggest how to rewrite major text. As in ghost writing a paragraph or something.

The beta is to point out and ask questions for the author to contemplate how to make something clearer or how to work in necessary information.

This is, by the way, one of the reasons I like having three beta readers because if only one flag it, I’ll have the other two have a look. If two flag it, I’ll take it to heart.

Rudeness is never to be accepted from a beta. They’re supposed to help you, not tear you down. Or your characters, for that matter.

Personally, I love and appreciate when beta readers leave reader experience comments. Like “Gasp, I did not see that coming”. Even a few character bashing ones when it’s merely a comment on how they perceive the character while experiencing the scene, giving me insight into how the story moves them as readers. Like “Damn, he’s a grade-A bastard!” You either did something very right, or you did something very wrong, and the reader experience comments helps a lot when figuring out whether you did or didn’t manage a clear image.

Where to get a (honest) beta?

Good betas don’t fall out of the sky, and you can even help train your own beta as it’s about trust and building cooperation.

I remember a year or so ago, someone had taken the time to compile a list of people in a FB author group who said they’d beta for an author, and shortly after, that manuscript was uploaded on Amazon under another name, and the Search and Replace function in Word had been used to change the names and hair color and that was about the extent of the work the thief had put into it.

So, build your network with other authors to help navigate and steer clear of these.

Another way is going on Fiverr. I’ve used Fiverr to find people with skillsets my team doesn’t cover. Like a graphic designer for our logo. I looked up beta readers, and there are A LOT! Their prices range from $4.99 to $150. Does quality follow the price? I have no idea, but one of the expensive ones has a lot of good reviews (street credit on Fiveer). Some also put up an image of the worksheet they use. That looked pro!

I looked at a few of the worksheets and figured, wow, these betas know what they’re doing! Others left me unimpressed. And yeah, price seemed to follow.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the expensive ones with worksheet examples also sign Non-Disclosure Agreements per beta assignment.

I’d suggest securing one from everybody you work with who lays eyes on pre-published material. That goes for editors, proofers, and PAs, too. If they’re pro, they offer one! And you pay for that professionalism because they’re worth their salt.

Is there a free opportunity to find a beta?

Yes, there is. It takes a bit more work, but it’s work well put in. It’s the work of building your network and tribe.

Most new self-publishers (indies) are short on cash, so many pair up in small groups of authors, and they beta read each other. It’s a powerful tool to build a tribe like that! Seriously, do it! Right now! (after you’ve read this post, of course).

I’ll probably repeat this ad nauseum: build your network, build your tribe. Make a private group chat and build trust with those you jive with. It’s what I hope to facilitate in my Facebook Group DrawerTribe. (You won’t get in unless we already communicate, so reach out for a chat and let’s see if we jive because the whole tribe has to jive.)

One of the reasons I liked and keep suggesting beta reading swaps with authors in your tribe is that this craft is one where you can learn from other people’s mistakes. When you find something that doesn’t work, it’s never in your own text. When you spot it as a beta and point it out, you lock it away in the little self-editor toolbox, and you’ll remember it the next time you’re about to write that thing that doesn’t work.

But, even better is the fact that you’re in an analytical mode when beta reading, not a relaxing mode when just reading, and not in a creative mode as when writing your own. Being in that analytical mode means you’re also more prone to stumble upon and recognizing gems that you can “steal like an artist” and rework into coming as a part of your true and unique voice. Seriously, “steal like an artist” is a thing. “Good artists copy, great artists steal” ~ Pablo Picasso

Can I secure my manuscript against theft?

This is why I cry about building your tribe, but we all know that that isn’t enough. Good practice would be to sign a non-disclosure agreement for the beta group—not because you’re not building trust, but because it’s business and good practice. There are free templates that you can download and rework to fit your requirements.

I usually use Google Docs to share a beta document because I can, under advanced settings during the invite process, disable their ability to download or copy the material, leaving them only with the option to edit and/or comment.

In closing

Become a beta to find a beta, learn, evolve, and remember that communities rise together. Give more than you get in the beginning. It’ll balance out and the tribe you build around you will be one that serves itself for years! Buy a beta, sure, but build your tribe and train your own. It’s the most powerful and diverse tool you can ever create as an indie anything.

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