Have you written a book and are wondering if there is anything left to do before sending it to an editor? If so, congratulations! You have hit a point many writers aspire to reach but few do. Take a moment to enjoy that, but once you are done, ask yourself a few questions. Have you added all of the details that will make the story feel real? Is it possible that you left plot holes or unanswered questions?
Just like how you need to understand the mechanics of a language to write a sentence, self-publishing has its own pesky little set of things you should know. One of them is the importance of beta readers.
Beta Readers Are Worth Their Weight in Gold
No matter how top-notch your writing skills are, every book needs beta readers. Beta readers objectively look at your story and actively seek problems. Beta readers do not read for personal pleasure; they read to find flaws. A flaw could be as obvious as forgetting to include something that proves the butler was the murder, to failing to convince the reader that two characters share a special intimacy.
Beta Readers Read for:
Character – Are your characters believable? Do they consistently act in ways that suit their personality, or do they ever act uncharacteristically without good reason?
Story – How does the story hold up? Is it strong? Interesting? Are there any weak spots or missing details?
Flow – Is the pace too fast? Too slow? Does the story slip off in tangents? Does a minor storyline detract from the main one?
Plausibility of story – Do readers find the story realistic? Does something need to be added or subtracted so it will make more sense?
What you forgot or think you wrote — Did you forget anything critical? (In Time’s Forbidden Flower, a beta reader found I accidentally omitted a key part of a scene. If not for her, all of the other readers would have been confused.)
Details for which they specialize in, such as profession – While you can find basic information online, there is no substitute for experience. In my Forbidden Flower books, Lily is a pastry chef with her own bakery. Writing her culinary background was easy for me because I went to pastry school, and I have managed a small-scale bakery. However, I have read books with characters who are supposedly skilled in the culinary arts, yet mention using yeast in sourdough bread. I know nothing of psychology, so when I wrote a character that is a psychologist, I found a beta reader with a background in that field. Along with ensuring the doctor knew what he was talking about, she confirmed that the patients behaved appropriately for their diagnoses.
Beta Readers Do Not Read for:
Beta readers are not editors. While they might point out the occasional typo or sections that need work, they do not make changes nor are they masters of grammar.
Before You Submit:
Unless you have a conversation that reflects you are both okay with proceeding, never give your beta reader anything that you do not feel is ready for an editor. Clean as many errors as you can before handing off your story and then walk away until your reader is ready to discuss the manuscript. Do not make changes to a story while it is in beta. No beta reader wants to hear an author say, “Oh, I already changed that. It’s different now.”
What to Request
Along with asking for general feedback, you should submit targeted questions. This allows you to address the things that are important to you. Also, ask that readers give feedback anytime they have a notable reaction. Many beta readers wait until they finish reading either the chapter or the entire project to comment. In waiting, valuable reactions are lost. If you have a specific area that is important to you, highlight it so the readers are sure to comment.
What Should Do You Make?
You should always considerany advice regarding your story. You never have to take it, but remember that you asked for it for a reason. If two out of three beta readers suggest making a specific change, you should probably listen. (Three is a golden number, as it allows you to gather a consensus. More than three opinions can be overwhelming.) If only one reader makes a specific suggestion, weigh it before deciding. If you are unsure, ask your other beta readers what they think. 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.
Have you used a beta reader? I would love to hear about your experiences and what type of feedback you find most helpful.