There is a new editorial force in publishing, and they are not just your friendly neighborhood editors, agents, or even freelancers. They are the beta readers. Also known as critique partners or, more affectionately, "writer friends."
Some of you may even have beta readers, and this is a good thing. To quote my former MFA adviser (whose wisdom I still find myself agreeing with years after the fact, even if I didn't at the time) - all writers need writer friends. They aren't necessarily your actual friends, but they are just as important to your life if you are serious about being a writer. Basically, your real, non-writer friends just don't understand.
Beta readers seem to be very, very important, and while I'm sure they've always been around (See: Algonquin Round Table), the advent of online forums and blogs and Twitter have made finding beta readers that much easier and that much more common. And most times you never even meet them in person.
Whether they're your first line of defense against sending a poorly executed query letter or offer a thorough critique of a draft before sending to your agent, these beta readers have become as much a part of the querying process as having an actual, solid project.
However, beta readers are only as helpful as you make them. You are the ones picking them, after all. So while beta readers, first round readers, critique partners - whatever you call them - can be many wonderful assets, there are some things they should definitely NOT be:
The Casual Reader:
Now, I'm not saying this in a snobby, only-Proust-scholars-need-apply, way. I just mean that your beta readers should know a thing or two about a thing or two. We all enjoy reading, but when choosing a beta reader, make sure they come away from a book appreciating how it was written just as much as what was written. They should have an eye for pacing, tension, plot, and character analysis. If your beta reader tells you they love your story and think your main character is "good," but don't offer any constructive feedback (positive or negative), then you should re-think your decision to make that person your beta.
This one should be obvious, but as we all know, writers can be fragile, delicate flowers. The temptation of keeping beta readers around who simply love, love, love your work can be too great to pass up. We all need a little self-esteem boost sometimes. But is this actually good for your writing? Of course not. There does, however, need to be a balance. You don't want someone who will only tell you what's horrible about your writing either. That just does as much damage, and isn't ever helpful. As anyone who's been through a particularly brutal workshop can tell you, all you want to do after is burst into tears and quit writing forever. Nobody wins.
If your family is anything like my family, chances are they love every single thing that you do, while simultaneously mocking that very thing to "keep you grounded." I love for family for this, but when it comes to writing, you want someone whose judgment won't be clouded by the fact they changed your diaper or remember when you had braces. Some of you may be thinking, oh, but my family is always honest with me; I can trust them. No, you can't. Whether they like it or dislike it, they likely lack the necessary critical eye or knowledge of the industry to offer anything of real value. If there are others of you who are thinking, But my aunt Sheila is a writer too, so she understands, consider the following: Is Aunt Sheila a New York Times bestselling author or studied in writing programs throughout the country for her literary accomplishments? If not, then she is still just your aunt, and even if she is a published author, she just wants to support you, so she falls under "family." Sorry, Sheila.
Friends are trickier. Like I mentioned before, beta readers are also called "writer friends," and sometimes this does mean actual friends. However, in my opinion, there's a clear difference between "writer friends" and "friends who write." We all have that friend who's working on a novel, or trying to get her poetry published, or has a great idea. (I know I certainly have those friends whenever someone from my past finds out I'm a literary agent.) These are friends who write. And writing is great, so good for them. Less often do they overlap with "writer friends," who are friends who write with the intent to get published, who know the market, know how to query, know that they need to query, and maybe even have a viable marketing plan if they decide to self-publish.
First Draft Readers:
Several writers use their beta readers to test out their first drafts of new projects. In my opinion, this is a waste of everyone's time. It's an arduous process to write a novel, so I can understand the eagerness to immediately send it to your readers the second you type out the final word. Resist this urge, writers. Think of how drastic the changes can be from Draft 1 to Draft 2. Sometimes they are so great that Draft 2 might as well be your first official draft. Once you finish your novel (yay!), be your own beta reader. Did that idea you had from novel's inception end up tying into that idea you had weeks later when you were writing a different scene? Are all of the characters where they're supposed to be? Comb over your draft before you send to your betas. Sometimes through the combing, you find that something is so completely off that the whole novel needs a vast restructuring. Even minor mistakes can effect the entire novel (i.e. But if that character is here, and the murderer is there, how can he get there in time??) It's much better for everyone involved if you're the one who finds that glitch, rather than your reader, who will have spent hours on your manuscript only to send it back to you mid-way through. Again, nobody wins.
We all have flaws. No writer is perfect. If you're the type of writer who knows you suffer from a pacing deficiency, do not pick a beta reader who suffer from the same affliction. If you're both super amazing at creating ideas, but neither of you are particularly skilled at executing those ideas, neither of you will benefit from having the other as your beta reader. Choose someone whose writing style compliments your own, but who is different enough to bring other strengths or weaknesses to the table.
Go forth, writers, and choose wisely! Have a lovely weekend.