Why Selecting the Right Beta Readers is Important

By Elizabeth Jacobson

When I first started writing, it seemed like every person in the online-universe-of-writing was saying that your beta readers should not be friends or family members.

Now, off the bat, this seems strange. So you’re saying I need strangers to critique my writing?

And honestly, this is what it sounded like to me. And I was definitely not prepared to throw my manuscript to the wind and just let any old person from the internet look at it.

After a time, however, I did end up assesmbling a great beta team, and I’d like to share what I learned about the above wisdom in the process.

But first, to briefly review what we talked about last time: beta readers read your manuscript after you have edited your draft into a state you wouldn’t mind sharing. They can critique everything from characters to plot to sentence construction. You’ll find that each beta tends to have their own personal “style” as to what and how they critique. (I find that when I do it, I tend to focus most on character motivation and grammar/word choice.) Also, anyone can beta, as long as they want to. However, this does not mean that everyone should beta, or at least should beta for you. Which brings us back to the piece of internet wisdom I mentioned at the beginning.

After having now spent much more time in the writing process, as a general rule, I agree with the idea of being leery of having family and friends as beta readers. But, like most things in the world, this comes with a caveat.

The reason why most people say not to choose friends or family is because most writers’ experiences involving friends or family coming into contact with their writing world tend to either end up intensely negative or inordinately positive. Most writers find that friends and family either do not believe in them as a writer at all, regardless of their skill, or they are so supportive that they either overlook problems or shy away from any form of critique.

To sum up, as a general rule, there is less likely to be impartiality involved.

But, notice I have been saying “most writers”. Your mileage may vary. You know your friends and family and the internet sure doesn’t.

Your beta reading team, by the time they are done, should be able to accomplish three things for you. They are:

  1. point out sentences that need editing
  2. examine the story as a whole and pinpoint issues with plot/characters
  3. tell you if it’s any good

Before you consider friends or family as beta readers, you need to ask yourself if they can do these things and do them well. Will they be impartial? Do they have the skills to properly critique like this? This does not mean that they have to be writers, but they have to be people with good writing skills and an an understanding of character and story structure.

Now, I will be frank. I am blessed in that my friends and family are good at these things. However, I did not ask all of them to be beta readers, because, firstly, they have their own lives, and secondly, I wanted them to have a more polished taste of my writing, since for 99.9% of them, my manuscript would be the first piece of my writing they would ever read.

Even if it is easier for you to ask friends and family, you have to ask yourself these questions. Will they be good at it? Would they enjoy beta reading? What state do you want them to see your writing in?

Which will naturally lead us to the next question. Who do I ask to beta for me if not friends and family?

The answer is – you must seek out a specific type of friend. The Writer Friend!

Maybe you have some of these already. Maybe you met them in “real life” or maybe you met them online, in a forum for writers or by using the same writing hashtag on Instagram or Twitter. (Yes, I am saying that to find Writer Friends, you may have to venture into the Wild West of social media.)

Writer Friends, being fellow writers, will often have a leg up on other possible betas, because they live and breathe story structure and characters and word choice, just like you. They will likely also need a beta at some point or another, leading to a reciprocal relationship where you can both help each other out. If your “regular” friends and family are not a good choice to be your beta readers, these are the people you need to find.

Now, before you believe that I am trying to dissuade you from having your “regular” friends and family as betas, let me tell you who was on my beta team.

Two Writer Friends and one family member.

What works best for you is what works for you. Just remember not to blindly jump into having “regular” family and friends beta you because it is the simplest choice.

Before I go, I want to leave you with a great list from The Writing Cooperative. After reading this, you may be wondering about a few people you had been considering for betas – maybe they’re not writers, or they haven’t written in a long time. Now, it’s true, as I mentioned, that fellow writers will often be more able to answer your direct stylistic and narrative questions, but, with a bit of guidance, a non-writer can still give you great information. The Writing Cooperative has a great list of beta questions here that works great for non-writer betas. And, if your writer betas finish and still haven’t answered these questions, be sure to ask them!

Like I said in my last post, your beta readers are your crack team. They’re handpicked by you to give you the best critique and information possible. Take time to figure out who will be the best betas for you. You won’t regret it.

This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: a novel of the patriarchs. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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