“You’re not done with a book until you pass it to another reader.” Donalyn Miller
We spend so much time on our own manuscripts that we can’t see them objectively — no matter how diligently we self-edit. We create anticipation or an expectation early in the book but forget to deliver on it. We describe events in a way that is clear to us. However, they are not necessarily clear to a reader who can’t see the pictures in our head. We leave out vital steps in an explanation and don’t realize it, because we know what we mean. The characters in our books are not convincing, because we know them so well. We simply don’t always realize we haven’t developed them as thoroughly as we thought when we committed them to paper.
Why Do We Need a Beta Reader (or ten)?
This is why we need a beta reader. A beta reader is someone who gives you feedback on your finished manuscript. This person lets you know how you can adjust your manuscript before you set it loose on the world.
The beta reader’s report cuts through this noise. A beta reader will read your entire manuscript and respond personally to it. They are uninfluenced by the opinions of others. The thing I particularly like about this is that reading is generally a solitary pursuit, and books ‘happen’ in the mind of the reader. So, it’s an authentic way to encounter your book.
A beta reader will tell you if your story seems plausible or if your work has numerous obvious proofreading errors. Sometimes your beta reader might even see content errors. This happened to me. One of my beta readers was reading A Coward’s Solace when she discovered that I had written that George Washington was riding a “white roan”. She said that there was no such horse. I therefore had to research further and learned there actually is such a thing as a “white roan, but that George Washington’s horse was not a white roan, just an ordinary white horse. A white roan is a horse that is born white and is always white whereas an ordinary white horse is born gray and turns white as he ages.
The best beta reports are not always the ones you pay for. In fact, most people get beta reads by an exchange of favors with other writers.
The best beta readers will give you a written report on their responses (which could be several pages long), and they often also will make notes in the text, to show their reaction to specific sections of the book. A beta reader can tell you if a sub-plot is too involved and it overwhelms the main story. You can trust a good beta reader to tell you more was expected from your secondary story line and that it didn’t do much for the story. If they wonder why it was even there, your sub-plot needs work.
Beta readers might have trouble explaining a problem with a secondary plot that’s too detailed or that overshadows the main plot. Yet if several readers tell you they like a secondary character more than your protagonist or that a second bad guy makes a better antagonist, you’ve probably invested your sub-plot with more compelling events or dialogue than your main plot.
Seeking a beta reader is a professional move, not an amateur one. Although they weren’t called that by publishers, publishers have used beta readers for years. The concept of getting another opinion about a manuscript is almost as old as a Gutenberg printing press.
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