Kate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona.
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I may be one of the luckiest writers around, not just because I have five current readers, but also because they are all smart, talented, capable, and also voracious readers on their own.
What is a Beta Reader? What do they do?
A beta reader is a nice person who will read your manuscript and give you feedback. That’s pretty much the basic definition, but there are as many nuances to beta readers and what they do as there are metaphors and similes in amateur works of fiction.
Give them guidance about what you are looking for and don’t take their criticisms personally. Mine are specialists, and here are the areas in which they excel:
“A” – let’s not use their real names – is a punctuation and grammar specialist. She reads through my completed (or nearly so) manuscript and picks out punctuation and grammar booboos. And what looks worse than misspelled words, incorrect punctuation or awkward grammar?
“B” reads for continuity. She knows I have a 3-book series, and she reads to make sure all the stuff that happens is in the right order and that there are no glaring booboos like the main character is a blond named Alice in one scene and a brunette named Alicia in another. She also monitors the progress of the romances, character development and story pacing.
“C” reads for the story alone. Is it fun? Does it move right along? Does it make sense? Are the characters engaging? Are there boring parts?
“D” and “E” both read for polish – they are my final readers who, once I have corrected anything the others have suggested – make sure that what I have is what I really want to have: a reasonably well-written manuscript that is a fun read, makes sense, and keeps the reader engaged.
My beta readers all volunteer their time and expertise to make my books and short stories better – they are those additional pairs of eyes, additional world viewpoints, and those well-read and highly opinionated people who can save my work from sloppiness and author-blindness. I revere them.
How do you get beta readers? Ask. And be one.
One of my readers is a well-known crossword puzzle writer and is extremely picky about words. She is a style, grammar, and punctuation fanatic who is brutal in her critiques. I love her dearly. I was honored when she agreed to read for me. She is now a fan and is currently looking ahead to a manuscript I have not yet finished, giving me helpful hints as to where some of the story threads should go.
I asked another reader, someone who does not write but is an avid reader of my particular genres, to take a look and she not only agreed, but now asks if there are other works with which she can help.
A third is a friend who just wanted something to read, but came back with a lovingly detailed line edit.
Many times, your critique group partners or your writers’ group can provide you with feedback which will help you move forward. While I have not always found this to be a safe bet, it can be a good starting place. Keep in mind that your beta readers are there to help you, not disparage your efforts. If a reader is nasty or unhelpful, disregard their comments and don’t ask them again.
Volunteer to help your fellow writers. Let them know if you are reading for technical structure, punctuation, grammar or spelling and word usage. Or maybe you want to read for continuity and story progression. Or maybe you just want to read and see if there’s anything you can do to help. The key word here is help.
And lastly, don’t worry if your work isn’t finished or is need of a lot of help. Good beta readers can set you on the right path and help you find the inspiration to continue and improve. They can tell you where you are going off track or where you really need to read up (good grammar texts abound!)
P.S. Don’t forget to thank them, both in real time and in your finished work. Thank you, Maggie-beth, Mar, Kay, Dina, Tracy, John, Sunny, and all my past readers, too. You help us all to be better writers.