A large number of people, at some point in their life, say, “I should write a book.” Maybe you should. In fact, if something is burning inside you, you should indeed write. It’s an excellent form of self-expression. I did it off and on for years and it helped me through a lot of challenges. To some, writing is cathartic.
So let’s say you write so much that it eventually turns into a book—like magically it just happens. (Yes, a lot of self-published authors just decide to write, and then just decide to publish. It explains a lot about some self-published books, huh?) Well, just like how you need to have an understanding of the mechanics of a language to write something that makes sense, self-publishing has its own pesky little set of things you should know. One of them is about beta readers. (Sounds a little scary, huh?)
Beta Readers are worth their weight in gold.
No matter how good of a writer you may be, every book needs beta readers. A beta reader is someone who objectively looks at your story and actively seeks problems. They do not read your story for personal pleasure, they read it to find flaws.
Basically, you want a beta reader to find flaws. Why? Because it is very rare that a story does not have any flaws right out of the starting gate. A flaw could be as obvious as thinking you included something that proves to the reader that the butler was the murder, to not having given enough information to show a connection between characters and thus convincing the reader of a special intimacy.
Beta readers read for:
Character – Are your characters believable? Do they constantly act within their personality, or do they ever do something that makes zero sense for who they are without good reason?
Story – How does the story hold up? Is it strong? Interesting? Consistent? A beta reader does not tell you only if they liked the story, they will tell you if it is missing anything, or if there are any weak spots, or if something was not clear and needs more exploration.
Flow – Does the story flow well or is the pace a disaster? Too fast? Too slow? Is it really quick followed by long, boring parts? Does it go off in tangents? Does a minor story line detract from the main one?
Plausibility in story – Sure, it may make sense to you, but you wrote it, and you know what you think you conveyed. Does the reader see the story as realistic? Does something need to be added or subtracted to have it make more sense?
Plausibility in character – Some of the things that need to be examined, like how well a character performs in their given profession, should be examined by someone in that profession or who has a background in it. In my Forbidden Flower books, Lily is a pastry chef with her own bakery. That was easy for me because I went to pastry school and have managed businesses; however, I have read books with characters that are supposedly pastry chefs, yet they talk about using yeast in sour dough bread. That is a huge mistake! I know nothing about psychology, so when I brought in a psychologist, I found a beta reader who had a background in that field. She also helped to insure that the patients behaved appropriately for their diagnoses. Yes, some of this you can find online, but there is no substitute for experience. To learn about a profession online is like interpreting someone else’s reality, and you may not properly translate something very standard.
Also, a beta will notice what you think you wrote. In Time’s Forbidden Flower a beta reader found that I accidentally omitted a key part of a scene. If she had not read the book, it would have gone to press without it. Needless to say, that would have been very bad.
Beta readers do not read for:
Beta readers are not editors of any type. While beta readers will often point out sections that need work or the occasional typo, they do not make changes nor are they necessarily masters of grammar. However, you need to respect your beta readers. Never give them anything you do not think isn’t ready for an editor. Clean as many errors as you can before handing them the story, then walk away until they are done reading. Do not make changes to a story while someone is beta reading it. I would be annoyed if I was beta reading and pointed something out to the writer, only to have the writer say, “Oh, I already changed that. It’s different now.” Respect your betas!
What changes do you make?
So a beta reader suggested you change part of the story. You should always consider this advice, but you don’t necessarily have to take it. If you have three beta readers, and you should always have at least three, and two say to make a specific change, you probably should. If only one does, think heavily before deciding. If you are unsure, ask your other betas what they thought. Beta readers make suggestions based on what makes sense to them, however others may not agree. In the end, you are the author, and if you self-publish, the final calls are always up to you.