Hunting For Beta Readers — by Larry Bauer
*Sorry guys, the auto-immune is still killing me. I SHOULD NOT have had that many carbs in LC, but I was running on fumes. Yeah, I don’t know why carbs set off auto-immune. I’m messed up. Anyway, I’m saving whatever strength I have to work on the other house. Prayers it gets done by the weekend. The end is actually in sight, except for someone to redo the counters. I can redo them but that would take another week, and to be frank I need two/three days of rest and then to write. I desperately need to write. Anyway, uncle Lar was nice enough to send me this, and hopefully won’t mind I put it up late. And he has some great insights.- SAH*
Hunting For Beta Readers — by Larry Bauer
What the heck is a beta reader and why would I want one?
Friends help you move, good friends help you move bodies, really good friends agree to read your latest work of precious prose then tell you the truth.
Years ago I helped a few authors with their ongoing projects through a little web based meeting place known as Baen’s Bar. Recently, having retired and with more time on my hands I’ve picked that hobby back up for several authors met through MGC and ATH. After doing so it occurred to me that I really had no firm idea what the term beta reader meant, what it involved, or what an author should legitimately expect back from one. Being a science and engineering type I decided to research the topic and write down my observations.
First a bit of terminology:
First reader/beta reader – somewhat similar in nature, a first reader is more likely a spouse, relative, or very close friend. They often get handed what have come to be called snippets, chapter or scene length sections of a longer work that the writer wants an opinion on. On occasion, particularly when a writer is just starting out, this request for input may be done on a web site with comments open to whomever wishes to jump in. A typical beta reader can be a relative, friend, or just someone who’s opinion the writer values. They are usually given a draft copy of a completed work.
Pro reader – a surprising number of writers, particularly indie writers, are part of a network of such, usually in similar or at least somewhat related genre who will swap each other’s works back and forth. They are generally looking for help with a bit of plotting or how to best describe a situation so as to keep the reader interested.
Subject matter expert readers – one of the worst sins a writer can commit is to make a real and obvious mistake about a subject that a large subset of potential readers may be knowledgeable in. This is true for numerous areas of expertise: medicine, aeronautics, space operations, firearms and other weaponry, really any technical area where details matter. If the writer is not himself an expert in these things but such details are required for the story it is only prudent to run the descriptions past someone who can point out glaring mistakes. In addition, a situation may occur where the writer really needs such a detail to bring the story together, but a quick web search fails to supply the perfect answer to fit. In this case it’s extremely helpful to send the scene to your pet expert with a kind and courteous request to please fill in that blank space between the brackets where the main character reaches into their bag of tricks and pulls out xxx to save the day.
Copy editor – this is the retired English teacher with a green eye shade and sharp red pen. They are looking for tense, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all those other nits that make it past that blooming idiot spelling and grammar checker built into MS Word and most other text editors. Special note, this should only be done as a final step before formatting the finished work for publication. Should you choose to go traditional publisher it’s generally understood that they will do this for you. This is a critical step in producing a finished and professional product.
So, there you have the marching army you as the writer need in order to get your baby ready to send off to the fates, or Amazon, or a publisher’s slush pile.
Heres what you don’t want:
– someone who cares about you and is afraid of hurting your feelings. Mothers seldom make good first readers. Spouses, depends on whether they can be bluntly honest.
– anyone with an agenda they feel strongly about, particularly in the subject matter your story deals with. They will try to get you to tell their story, not the one you started out with. Input and details are fine, but it’s your story. Let them write their own.
– anyone who is simply not a fan of the genre you’re working in unless you have a very good reason otherwise to want their opinion. I hate westerns but yours was interesting is a valid and potentially helpful bit of information, or at least gives you an avenue to pursue in a quest for why they found it interesting.
– Ethyl the retired English teacher, at least not until the very last thing. Until then correcting small grammar and punctuation errors is simply a nuisance and a distraction.
What you do want:
– a second set of eyes. A writer’s brain plays strange tricks. You can read past the same silly mistake a dozen times and your mind will self correct to where you just cannot see the error.
– a reader’s perspective. Were they pulled into the world of the book? Did they develop an interest in the characters? Were there places where the action lagged and they started to feel bored? Did the story speak to them?
– truly glaring errors. Was a character’s name Sam in chapter one and Simms in chapter ten? Was it a full moon one night and dark of the moon the next, unless that’s an integral part of some technology or magic in your story?
– as stated earlier, if you don’t have the expertise yourself you need a technical expert who can talk you through the fiddly bits. If you make stuff up you can fool most of the readers, but those who know better will throw your book against the wall, and then want you to pay for a new replacement Kindle. You’ll find that most subject matter experts are flattered to help educate. Many of them are on their third or fourth Kindle after all.
– those fellow Pro writers I mentioned. A surprising number of MGC members have an ongoing relationship with each other. They are mostly just starting out, or at least not yet at that rarified superstar writer status where they can no longer afford to spend time with their compatriots. Genre aside, most of the problems a writer runs into are endemic to the field, and this is how I solved that problem may just fit your situation or at least spark a solution of your own. Do not let them rewrite your book for you, but a few helpful nudges past a tough spot are a huge help. Just remember to pay it forward when someone seeks your help later on.
In closing, unless you are a hermit living in a cave you probably have friends and associates who are willing to help you out with these necessary steps in getting your story ready for the public. Treat them well, they’re doing you a great favor. Mention them either in the foreward or afterward of your completed book. It will make your day.
My bona fides:
Cranky old retired fart, reader of science fiction, mystery, and adventure stories for over 50 years. Firearms and edged weapons hobbyist for 45 years. Graduate level engineer with 24 years experience in manned science payload operations in near Earth orbit.
If anyone needs a beta reader or subject matter expert in any of my areas of knowledge feel free to get in touch. Won’t say yes without a bit of discussion, but I’m willing to talk.
Special thanks to Sarah Hoyt, Cedar Sanderson/Bagley, and Dorothy Grant for their valuable inputs to this article. That said, the opinions expressed are mine alone.
Larry Alan Bauer
aka Uncle Lar