Friday, June 10, 2011

The Beta & the Omega

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.

Your Clone:
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.


  1. Good help is hard to find. I feel like I should be saying that with a pretty accent and a mint julep in my hand, but you guys get what I mean, right?

    I didn't use betas for the longest time, not because I didn't want them, but because it's not easy to find someone who's a good fit. Kind of like finding the right roommate--if you could just put out an ad, we'd all be happy. Unfortunately, it's rarely so easy.

  2. I just hooked up with a crit partner who writes the same genre as me. I belond to a general writers group too but they just don't know the genre. Very excited for this new venture! I also have friends who give me feedback from purely a readers perspective.

  3. I could really stand to find some good beta readers. I keep my family as far as possible from my writing, and believe I can spot a yes man or woman, but who knows...Nice post Sarah.

  4. Good beta readers are indeed hard to find. I didn't use them for my first two novels as I had beginner's ignorance/confidence (and luck, fortunately) but now that I've switched genres, my betas are hugely helpful. I also now read other people's work as an intern and have become a lot more vigilant/paranoid about various issues.

    When beta reading for other people, if they start repeating a phrase or word (v common), I post in cult TV haikus. Current guy gets Stargate haikus (you'd be surprised at what Google has to offer in this arena). I'm so professional...

  5. Hey, a writer needs to be read, yes? Ultimately, it's my baby, but I'll take what I can get - yes, suck, or maybe even some real advice. And also, maybe I've just been lucky lately, but I've been sent some pretty good things to read - and when I see someone improve from one project to the next, that's neat. Ideally, it's nice to find people that are on a similar level as you, and reciprocate.

    Anyway, I ramble. Nice post, as usual, Sarah.

  6. Great post. I'm going to start with a few test readers who I know personally. I chose them for their writing background rather than my friendship though. I may move on from there to a writer's group I've been attending. I've shared one short fiction story but not the bigger novel I'm working on. A bit terrified of that just yet.

  7. My FIRST reader is my good friend who doesn't write, but reads EVERYTHING. She fixes small holes and tells me I'm awesome. Then I head to all my pubbed author friends who hash it to pieces :D
    I think it takes a while to find people you trust AND that tell you when you're sucking, and when you're awesome.

  8. Excellent post. The only thing I'd add is that, if you've got a strong group of critiquers that you trust not to go crazy on the first draft, getting it out to them for brainstorming & plot/character discussions can be a big motivator. As long as everybody knows it's not the time for nit-picking. That's true for me, at least. It helps me through the loneliness of my first draft

  9. What's truly wonderful is when your critique partner becomes your best friend in the world over the course of working together, even though you've never actually met in person & live nearly 3000 miles apart. When your writing brings you together & you have learned to trust them implicitly, both with your life AND your work, she is the one who will always be up front & tell you when you really suck and you can trust she's right & it doesn't hurt. In fact, you love her all the more for it. THAT'S a true writer-friend! Glad I have one!

  10. This is absolutey true! I've found it hard to find great betas; I prefer writers who read in the same genre as my work and vice-versa. If they read only horror(example), they don't know much about my middle-grade readers or the books on the market. I want serious betas, not people who skim and comment "amazing", with a winky face, all over my work.

  11. I'm lucky in that I have an amazing critique partner. She's both my biggest champion and my harshest critic and I love her for it. But it's always good to have other sets of eyes on your work too, so I have a group of people who I share my MSs with, all of whom have their own strengths as readers. I can't imagine ever having the confidence to send anything out into the world without feedback from at least 4 of these people.

  12. So true about family. But I know who to send a manuscript to when I'm having a bad week.

  13. Another great post!
    I especially agree with you about first draft readers.
    Thanks for sharing, Sarah :)

  14. I've just begun working with beta readers. I paid a professional Editor to critique my science fiction novel and posted a short story on Book Country for members to critique. My husband's also a really great beta reader because he reads a lot and has no problem critiquing honestly. His philosophy is that no book's a 10 on a 10-point scale because all books can be improved. (My philosophy is some books are so good, they're an 11 on a 10-point scale, LOL.)

  15. Thanks for a great post. I guess the best way to find beta readers, is for authors to find other authors and read each other books.

  16. For the longest time, I truly believed you had to go it alone. You know if you couldn't see the problems, then you shouldn't be writing! What a damn fool, but to excuse my foolishness is pretty easy, 'cause I simply had no idea the amazing community I've now stepped into actually existed. No idea whatsoever! Since my first baby steps in, I've had the great pleasure of hooking up with some amazing people, all supportive, all helpful, all wonderful - a tremendous gift of give and take.
    Has it helped me? You bet! Have I helped others? Absolutely. I love being able to do that. So to the writing community, I tip my hat... if I was actually wearing one, but you get the idea.
    Thanks to everyone, and of course, Sarah included!!

  17. I wouldn't trade my beta readers for anything. Not even a lifetime supply of paper and printer ink and lovely red pens. They are my lifeline.

  18. Good post, I'm testing out your theory of throwing it out onto the internet to find beta readers on my blog.

  19. "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."


    I was in a writing group that was all about critiquing the first drafts of things. Insanity.

  20. I use a beta reader for my first draft and have another I use for my 'almost there' revision copy. Both can spot different things really well. I have also just asked my mum to proof it. Why? Cause she runs along the lines of, 'I will NOT let you embarrass yourself.. Or us. This is going into the public forum!!'
    So I expect her thoughts are gonna smart *sigh*

  21. I chose 10 Beta Readers for the "final" draft of my novel before querying. I chose 5 men and 5 women varying in age from 16 to 67. All were avid readers of various genres, some were writers themselves. I picked readers from different educational levels; from HS dropouts to PhDs. I heard back from 60% of them. The feedback was tremendous, invaluable. I highly recommend Betas and not just your critique group and definitely not family members unless they are writers too. While that novel is not yet published, the querying process has gone well and I've received several requests for full and partial manuscripts. Most of my rejections have been personalized and positive. Beta Readers helped me get this far and when I am published, I will acknowledge their help.

  22. This post is fantastic. Thanks so much. And so right about not dashing off the first draft. Let it marinate a bit first. :)