By Elizabeth Jacobson
Warning: You might stink.
No, not you the author. I’m talking to your draft.
“What?!” you shriek. Perhaps you’re clutching your pearls. “My draft?? My baby?!
Yes, your draft. Your third, fourth, nineteenth draft. Yes, your baby that you have worked on for approximately 1,528,996 hours.
To be fair, it’s not your draft’s fault, or your fault, but in this moment, it might stink all the same. And if you’ve never had a beta reader, you have gone “noseblind” to your draft, and you will never know that it stinks. You will never suspect a thing.
Here’s why it might stink:
It might stink because you are completely and utterly blind to the fact that the word “suddenly” appeared in your last paragraph three times within the span of two sentences. You are blind to this because you wrote it and you’ve read it forty times, and the “suddenlys” have become white noise.
It might stink because you are blind to how someone else will see your story. You know your characters and their motivations and the world you’ve created like the back of your hand. You cannot see whether or not your words translate this for the real world.
See? Totally not your fault. But your draft – and you – still need help.
If you don’t know, let me fill you in on what a beta reader is. A beta reader is not an editor. Nor are they a “rah-rah cheerleader” who will only tell you that your work is amazing and inspirational and life-changing and the next great novel. A beta reader is a book-lover or writer, someone who appreciates the written word and characterization and can speak logically about the strengths and flaws of your writing.
When I started my first draft of my now-complete manuscript, finding beta readers seemed like too much trouble. And besides, I said to myself, I know where a comma goes and I can use a thesaurus. No big. I’ll self-edit and send it off to an agent.
DO. NOT. DO. THIS.
I don’t care how great your story is. Us authors tend to be pretty myopic when it comes to the weird non-grammatically-correct-quirks and habitual errors and character problems of our own writing styles. You NEED other people to point them out to you, before you query an agent or self-publish and try to promote it yourself. Otherwise, your manuscript goes out into the wide world, quirks and errors and problems blazing proudly, and you’ve shot your chance (and possibly even reputation as a writer) big time.
Thank God I learned quickly while writing that my “no betas” plan would be about as effective as collecting water with a sieve.
So, I know it might seem like a lot of work to you (your mileage may vary; maybe you are super stoked at the idea of finding people to read and critique your work), but you need to find betas.
Notice that I have continually used plurals when discussing beta readers throughout the above paragraphs.
This is the second, but still very important thing I want to note today:
One beta is eh. Two betas is fine. Three betas or more is great.
There’s mathematics behind this. You have one person’s opinion, that’s great, but it’s only one person. More is better, to get a spread of thoughts on the same story.
There’s a catch there, though. If you get another beta, you have two people who are bound, at some point, to have different opinions about the same bit of your writing.
Now, if you have a third beta (or more, but don’t take on more than you can handle), suddenly you have a tiebreaker.
Trust me when I say that getting a good group of betas together is the absolute best thing you can do for your writing before you query or self-publish. Betas are your crack team, your own personal think tank. They are people who are invested in your writing and your story and you as an author. Their insights are invaluable.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the next next step of this process – how to choose the right beta readers!
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.