(or who are beta readers and critique partners and how to get them talkin’)
One of the challenges of content quality today is product digitalization. You take a photo, add a filter or two and all of a sudden you’re a Helmut frickin’ Newton. Drone camera shoots a movie scene that is later put in a slow motion and you get The Matrix. Or you just enter a reality show and become a new Marlon Brando. It all looks so, so fabulous. It’s similar when it comes to writing texts. People that type on the computer often think their text is perfect. Letters are all the same and it’s all even on a shiny paper (and you typed with your own hands). But although it may seem nice on the screen, it doesn’t mean it’s actually any good.
In the last century, it was much easier to spot a mistake because written or machine typed text didn’t look so neat and it required to be altered aesthetically. And if you write something, it is really, really important that after writing – your read your text again. Then leave it for couple of hours (or better days) and re-read it again. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the illusion of perfection. And practice your writing. Because only after a couple of reading and rewriting, congratulations – you will have your first draft. And at times when it seems that speed is the most important thing, this can be a huge challenge. But if you want quality, then usually all you need is – time. Therefore, take your time. Don’t compromise quality for speed. Don’t be hasty and read what you wrote. Writing a quality text, book or script requires patience. And comfortable chair.
So if you have written a book (or scenario) and you want to have a better text quality, wait before you publish. You are not even close to the end. Because now your work needs – beta readers.
Beta readers are people who read your text/book/script before it is released to the public (or before you take it to a professional editor). Beta readers evaluate your work, judging solely on their subjective impression. After reading your book, they give you feedback and say what they think about characters, is there something that annoys or confuses them, whether your book is boring etc. Beta readers are really just plain readers who aren’t telling you what to correct but to give you their opinion on the read material. Thus, you practically ask unknown people to criticize you and look for mistakes in your work.
But, but, but… Yes. I understand. Why on earth would anyone want to have (those hideous) beta readers?!
First of all, given that a work of a (creative) writer is pretty
lonely isolated and you look at things strictly from your own perspective, you cannot see many things. Beta readers easily point out facts that you just didn’t pay attention to.
If you are not interested in other people’s perspective (because you are the smartest person on this planet), beta readers can also give you their impression of the text. And no, beta readers are not here to wildly praise your writing talent. What they are doing is actually called constructive criticism. And that will help your text to become perfect before it is presented to the world.
Of course, it’s never easy to hear constructive criticism. Or any other kind of criticism. Writing is often an intimate experience and that’s why it can be really difficult for writers and people who create to talk about their work. While writing, we get emotionally attached to the text and we can lose confidence if someone says that something is not good in our work. But if you really want to know more about your book, bite the bullet and allow people to read it. When someone finds an (obvious) mistake that you didn’t notice because you were too subjective, it will be productive to get criticism immediately – that is, before it’s published (i.e. being embarrassed on time).
Besides beta readers, there are also group of people called critique partners. Critique partners are writers with whom you can exchange your book to get a bit more professional insight into your text. As your work is read by buddies who write themselves, in addition to their opinion on the text, they can also provide insights that beta readers just don’t recognise (e.g. they can further assess grammar, spelling, intonation, tense, point of view, way of storytelling etc.). Critique partners are also valuable because they simply better understand the process of writing and can give you more ideas on how to improve your text.
If future big writers wonder why (when there are critique partners) are mere mortals asked for an opinion, the answer is simple. Because it is these mortals that will read (and buy!) your book.
Where and how to find beta readers?
- Avoid having family and friends as beta readers. No, no and no, those are not real beta readers; family and friends are people who love you, and cannot (ever) be objective. For your mom you will always be the most beautiful person in the world no matter what you do and your girlfriend might wonder why she’s not the main character in your book (eyes roll).
- Beta readers are (unknown people) that can easily be found (that’s right!) through social media. Same applies to critique partners, but you can also meet them through a creative writing course. Post an ad that you are looking for someone who would like to volunteer to read your book or that you would like to share chapters with other writers.
- If social networks are not for you, try with various writing forums, and if you are not big fan of forums, try sites such as Scribofile and Wattpad. If none of this works for you, I highly recommend that you burn your book immediately because its writer is really spoiled.
- When choosing your beta readers, make sure to really widen your choice (according to gender, age, education, profession, background, looks, etc.) and try to provide material that would be interesting for them – if you are writing a fantasy novel, don’t select beta readers who don’t like fantasy. Choosing different personality types can help you determine your target audience – people with different backgrounds will respond differently to the same story and you will get an unique perspective (eg. Harry Potter was a book primarily intended for children).
- Before you even choose your beta readers, it would be good to set some ground rules for your choice. Some of the obvious rules would be that they like to read, that they are reliable and that they shouldn’t copy your book. If you are really concerned about copyright and think that someone would want to steal your text and become a millionaire instead of you, feel free to convert your text to PDF that cannot be copied. If you are even more
paranoidcareful, feel free to ask around more and learn about copyright and the best way that you can protect your (electronic) text.
- When posting an ad for beta readers or critique partners, the main thing is to give as many details as you possibly can. Put a note that they shouldn’t apply for this if they don’t have time and warn them that you will ask a lot of (stupid) questions. You can tell them that your text has not been professionally edited and that they shouldn’t be looking for spelling and grammatical errors. Readers need to understand that they are looking for problems in the story and not the structure. However, this does not mean that you can give the first draft of the text that didn’t go through any editing. On the contrary, give them the best possible version of your manuscript. If they don’t understand what they need to do, send them this video where they can see what it means to be a good beta reader and how they can help you out.
- Determine how much time they can have to read your text and stick to your rules. Give them your work in one format (doc, pdf or hard copy), and emphasize that you can provide only this type of format. If this is not good enough for them, they don’t have to accept the (honorary) beta reader role of your masterpiece.
- If you want your statistics to make any sense, you have to recruit a minimum of 20 beta readers that you can interview online or over the phone. Chat can also be a good option because you will then have all of their answers in writing.
- It is also important to send only the FIRST chapter of your book (or if it’s short, a couple of chapters). Of course, this (first) chapter has to be the best possible version of the text – so edit your text and try not to have any spelling and grammar errors that will interrupt their reading.
- It is very important to interview your beta readers IMMEDIATELY after they read your text and for them to contact you as soon as they end so they wouldn’t lose valuable information from their heads and forgot what they read (and trust me, this happens to people without Alzheimer’s).
- Design a group of questions that interest you and ask every reader same questions. And no, don’t ask them whether they liked your manuscript or not (that’s right, that’s a very stupid question). It is better for example, to ask what is their first impression.
- You can also ask what they liked the most and what not so much and why. Among other things, you can ask questions on their opinion on characters, about what is happening in the novel or scenario, whether the story is clear, fun, predictable and whether it makes them keep on reading. You can even ask to retell you some sections to make sure that they understand what is going on in your text. At the end you can ask them how they liked the chapter on a scale of 1 to 10 and what they think it might happen next.
- Explain to beta readers that answers such as I don’t know, I don’t remember or I have any opinion about it are perfectly fine (but that shouldn’t be an answer to all of your questions). If the answers are brief, they should explain why they are short; if some readers were not connected with a situation or character, that’s totally ok, but you need as detailed answer as possible.
- Write text for an intelligent reader but ask beta readers stupid questions. Something that you think it’s obvious, readers might not understand at all. And it’s good to know weather people who don’t understand the whole context of your writing will still enjoy reading your book.
- Write down all of their answers so you can later compare them. If some opinions are repeating, it might be a good sign, but it also doesn’t have to mean anything. On the other hand, if mostly men or people of a certain age like your book, then (congratulations!) you just might have found your target audience. These opinions can be valuable in future marketing of your book or in a proofreading and editing process.
- When you finish the interview, ask them whether or not they want to continue reading the next chapter; some will simply be busy and someone just don’t want to continue reading your book (and that’s fine, you do not have to perform harakiri right away).
STRICT RULES: How to react when you get your feedback?
- DO NOT TAKE ANYTHING PERSONAL. Let me repeat, do not take an opinion of a beta reader as an opinion about you. You are actually asking people to help you find mistakes – it is normal that you will be criticized. But the good news is that it (mostly) hurst only at the beginning – the more criticism you get, the easier it will be to accept it. In the end, you will not receive only criticism and there will be some compliments too.
- BE PREPARED. Some interviews will be ok, and some won’t. You have to be relaxed and cool. If you don’t learn how to take constructive criticism and act rude, you will never get a straight answer (or even worse – beta readers will not be willing to help you out any more). So keep that facial spasm in a form of a smile as long as possible, and save tissues for tears for after the interview when you can officially start to cry.
- BE NICE. Beta readers and critique partners are people that are doing you a favor! They spend their free time from the goodness of their heart just to read your text! The nicer you are to your beta readers, the more honest they will be with you. If someone gives you only compliments or compliments are lies, this will mean nothing to you (and your script). If you learn to accept negative comment, your readers will be honest and they will feel comfortable to tell you the truth. On the other hand, when these same people give you a compliment, you will know that it’s genuine. Also, you will learn in time that it’s not possible for everyone to like you and thus how to handle bad comments in an early stage.
- IT MAY BE DIFFICULT TO HEAR A BAD REVIEW but you want them to be honest and to help you in the writing process. So when you hear something that you don’t want and that really hurts your ego, put on the biggest possible smile and say through clenched teeth: Thank you, that’s really helpful! Can you please elaborate further? No, it is not easy. And yes, it’s okay if you don’t know whether to first kill them or you. But know that a negative feedback is much more precious than positive, because you learn just what you might change.
- IF YOU DISAGREE with their comment, you should still thank them. Ask yourself how would this aforementioned criticism affect your text and if you don’t like it, simply continue on your own terms.
What to do after the interview?
- At the end of the interview, make statistics and look at all the answers; I guarantee you’ll be surprised with the results. Maybe younger people prefer to read your book over older or your book is liked more by men, or most of them agree that some scene is not good. Sometimes statistics will be fun, but sometimes they won’t because it can easily happen that you need to rewrite a scene all over again (or remove it completely).
- Do not hold on to every criticism but rather follow data and locate patterns that are being repeated. Every reader will have a different experience of your book, and you just have to realize what they (mostly) agree on. And then change something or – don’t change a thing. It’s your book, everything is allowed.
- If your beta readers have misunderstood something (eg. a location in your story), this is probably a sign that you didn’t describe something well. Be honest with yourself and don’t blame it on the (poor) beta readers. If it happens that most of the things in your text is wrong, feel free to weep and cry… And then take things into your own hands and fix your text! Beta readers and critique partners are here to give you useful feedback and help you IMPROVE your work.
- Don’t blame the readers if they say things that you don’t want to hear – sometimes they are right and sometimes they are not – it’s all part of the writing process.
- Not everybody will like your book or screenplay and you need to reconcile with that. But if a reader doesn’t give you constructive criticism, feel free to stop sending him/her your chapters – you need useful information, reliable readers and detailed answers.
- Return the favor. Since beta reading is done voluntarily, you can find some way to repay your readers. Write a post on social networks where you will thank them. Provide them with a discount when purchasing your book. Read their text and review it (but also don’t take this as an obligation). Or simply (and very effectively) thank them by their name in the preface of your book or at the end of the movie (because everyone loves to see their name in written form).
- Even if you disagree with any of their (I repeat) constructive criticism, you will eventually have better insight into your writing. This whole process boils down to improving your writing, so sit back and improve it!
If you are also wondering whether you need beta readers and critique partners at all, the answer is: it is only up to you to decide! But in any case, read and check your text very, very (very!) carefully before you decide to publish. Because behind every high-quality work, there is always a patient writer (with a very numb gluteus).