Thursday, February 19, 2015

Finding and Working with Beta Readers

Beta readers. That illustrious feedback group of superhero readers who lets you know if your story works or not. We've all heard the glory tales of great beta readers. We've also all heard the horror stories of (let's just say) bad beta readers. How does a writer find and keep an effective group and what does one look for?

What do you look for in a beta reader? How do you find readers who fit your needs?

Lee Houston Jr.: Someone friendly who understands the material, yet realizes that they are only reading the first draft, or that even the later draft(s) may not be completely ready to go when they read them, compared to the final version of the story that is eventually published.

At the very least, it would have to be somebody I know and trust to go over my writing, because I would not want to take the risk of either having details of my forthcoming works blabbed all over the place before they're published or get ripped off by someone I thought I could trust.
Both instances have happened to me before, so it was literally years between my current reader and my last one.

As far as how do I find readers, I seriously lucked out with my current one, for my friend and writing buddy go over each other's material as time permits in our respective schedules.

Ray Dean: First, be VERY clear about what you want in a beta. Some people say they want one, but their idea of what it is may be very different from what the other person thinks. You must say what you want to know about your writing and the other person needs to agree to it. Not setting the parameters ahead of time can be VERY frustrating. It doesn't help the writer and wastes the time of the Beta. I have always found my betas from my friends that are writers. We tend to value the same things in writing and are willing to take the time to help each other.

Stephanie Osborn: I need someone who knows science and has good grammar, AND will not gossip or even remark publicly on what s/he has read. There’s no point in putting out the book if someone has already told the plot to the whole world.

Generally finding beta readers is not hard. I have beta readers among my friends – some established, who get every book, and others that I call on just for specific books, when I’m looking for a certain kind of feedback. About the only time anyone turns me down is when s/he just doesn’t have time at the moment.

Have you ever had to let a beta reader go? What was it he or she did or didn't do that caused you to have to take that step?

Lee Houston Jr.: Believe it or not, writing is hard work, and every author does their best to create something unique in every story.
To have details of your story revealed before it is published, or to have your work plagiarized by another are unforgivable sins to a writer.

Ray Dean: Actually someone stopped using me. They asked me to 'beta' read and I went through and picked out the grammar errors, the jumped heads, the problems in logistics... thankfully I was doing the edit in Google Docs... after I'd made it through half of the document they sent me an 'Instant Message' and said... "Wait... wait! I didn't want you to look at THAT stuff... just tell me if you like it." So we agreed that I wasn't the 'beta' for her.

Stephanie Osborn: Not so far. I’d have to let one go if s/he violated my trust and publicly posted details from the book, I think.

What is the benefit of using beta readers for you?

Lee Houston Jr.: A fresh pair of eyes to go over your material, looking for possible mistakes that you might have missed, as well as giving you an honest opinion of how the story is, and what might be done to make it better.

Ray Dean: They catch the little things that your own mind 'glosses' over... one extra letter here, a missed word there... the stuff that your own mind 'adds' in as you read it, because 'it' knows what you meant. Those invisible add ins are easily caught by someone that hasn't read the thing over and over and over.

Stephanie Osborn: Oh! That’s easy. I get another set of eyes on the book before it goes to the publisher. It gives me a chance to polish it, to find out if there is a plot hole, or if I have gotten enamored of a particular word and overused it, or if I have some grammatical errors, or (in the case of my science beta readers) if the science needs tweaking to be realistic. I can get a LOT of VERY useful information from only one or two well-chosen beta readers.

My current principal beta reader is an old friend – we go back to grad school together. He’s a PhD particle physicist with a lot of experience in several different science fields, and he does a bit of essay writing himself, and is knowledgeable/skillful in grammar. He’s VERY trustworthy, and I get a lot of good info from him.
What are some of the drawbacks of having a group of beta readers?

Lee Houston Jr.: The obvious one is disagreement. What happens when you get different opinions on the same material? Do you go with the majority opinion? Or do you listen to the "lone voice in the wilderness" who disagrees with the others instead? That is why I only have the one.
I often refer to Nancy Hansen as my "friendly neighborhood beta/proofreader". As friends and writing buddies, we go over each other's material to help each other out whenever possible.

Ray Dean: The most I've ever had was two at one time. One caught more of the 'big picture' stuff, the other the smaller points. I had no complaints.

Stephanie Osborn: The more beta readers you have, the more apt your project is to be publicly discussed. Also not all of them may understand what you’re trying to do, or the direction you want to take. It can be quite annoying when this happens to a strongly opinionated beta reader, who then won’t let go telling you how you need to “fix” your story. And then, of course, there’s the simple, “Beta A said 0 degrees, but Beta B said 180 degrees.” So you can get very contradictory feedback, which can be hard to reconcile.