MisCon 28: The Importance of Beta Readers

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: The Importance of Beta Readers
Panel members: Dave Bara, C.L. (Candi) Norman, Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Panel description: With the upsurge in self-publishing and the ease with which writers can now self-publish, the importance of beta readers has never been more apparent. Join self-published authors as they talk about why beta readers are so essential and how to find (and recognize) a good beta reader of your own.

I arrived at this panel late, so my notes are only for the latter half of this session.

DB: I depend on the reader to tell me what works overall, whether the story holds together and if it’s consistent. You ask for the feedback that you want.

CLN: Did the beta reader understand what I’m trying to put out? Some like to line edit and I thank them for that, but I’m really looking for whether the story confuses them or raises questions.

DB: A female editor once said that my female character was too shrill. Another male reader agreed with me that the character sounded fine. Feedback depends on gender and ethnicity.

JRW: You can ask someone who is an expert on the subject to beta read if you’re stretching yourself with a different gender, culture, etc. A beta reader can give expert feedback. You especially need an expert beta reader if there are guns and horses.

DB: It’s important to have a group of fellow writers who understand.

CLN: Or honest friends.

DB: I don’t want to constantly hear that they loved it.

JRW: It’s more expanding in beta than in critiquing. For critiquing rules, you don’t get to say what you’re aiming for. A beta should be someone you trust.

DB: It’s important that you trust the feedback.

CLN: If you’re showing your work, be willing to listen. Some people only want validation. If you’re a good writer, you’re willing to consider different viewpoints.

JRW: If you only want validation, then what use is beta reading? Use it if you need to improve and to figure out who you are as a writer.

CLN: Be aware of what you’re trying to say.

DB: Beta readers should be able to tell you what may work better. We all have heard terrible feedback. Quality of the feedback is important. But be prepared that your feelings may be hurt or that it is confusing. Consider the different viewpoint.

JRW: You’re trying to be read–that’s your ultimate goal. Beta reading is a tool. It depends on people.

DB: You can meet people at cons, everywhere.

CLN: My beta readers are co-workers (I work at a bookstore so I know they love books) and good friends. Tailor who you send it to.

JRW: I found beta readers from usenet. Sometimes you don’t need to beta read the whole thing. Or it can be other things like query letters.

DB: Queries, proposals, etc.

JRW: I also run things past my students depending on the subject matter. Be clear what your purpose is.

Q: How do you send your work to be beta read?

DB: Electronic. Critiquers can be cruel because they like to do so. So be careful.

JRW: Beta reading is more intimate than critiques. Critiquers can be competitive.

Q: As a beta reader, I read for a writer who has good ideas but is a bad writer.

DB: You can learn craft but not talent.

JRW: Sometimes a relationship can be toxic. Beta reading is valuable for detecting continuity.

CLN: Writer-readers what to rewrite what you’ve written. Reader-readers just want to comment on what confused them.

JRW: Teachers can look at it and start grading it with a rubric and just say, “Fix this.”

Q: Do you utilize beta readers you’ve never met?

JRW: Yes, on usenet.

DB: Yes, online.

JRW: I never give my work out to teachers because they would only score it.

DB: It’s vitally important to get your work out there for beta readers. It gives you experience so you know the process.

JRW: Find beta readers who like to read.

Q: What about reasonable time lines?

CLN: There are a lot of variables. Length of story. Fast versus slow readers. You should touch base with longer stories. The important thing is communicating with them.

JRW: If you have a submission deadline, tell them you need feedback by X time. You need feedback for marketing materials faster than an epic fantasy.

Q: Do you limit the number of beta readers per project?

CLN: About four or five because I know I’ll get back two or three responses. Too many would be bad.

DB: There will be contradictory feedback. Pick the comments that feel valid. Greater than three, less than ten. With too much feedback, it all washes together.

JRW: I have two or three. It depends. For expert feedback, I give it more time.

CLN: I have a doctor friend who won’t read the story, but I go to her for facts.

DB: Future science is easy. You can make it up. But be careful of near future science. For instance, Charlie Stross had to completely rewrite a near future story because science changes drastically. So write far enough in advance.

Q: Is there value in a beta reader who doesn’t like your genre?

JRW: Only if they’re an expert in the subject you’re writing about.

DB: I don’t think so. Yes, they can be valuable if there’s crossover, like historical non-fiction and alternative history, but not for specific genres.

CLN: It depends. If it’s general story stuff, then probably not because they won’t understand.

DB: They will be disinterested.

JRW: Make sure your beta readers read the same genre. They can tell if your idea is fresh and new and not the same as everything else in that genre.

CLN: Be careful how you format because it can be difficult to read. I stopped reading for someone because they wrote a rambling story in single space.

JRW: Standard formatting is your friend.

DB: Make friends. Then get them to read your stuff.