July 27, 2013 O’Byrnes Pub, Edmonton Alberta
Part Six – On the value and importance of beta readers
Question: So, just what is a beta reader and how does one help in the process of writing a novel?
Answer: Well, they help in many ways. Basically, beta readers provide some of the functions of an editor, but in a more informal manner. They are of utmost importance in the new paradigm of publishing.
Question: So beta readers are a new thing?
Answer: Beta readers have always existed, though the name might be new. For example, we know that the Bronte sisters had one another for beta readers, as well as their brother. The private writing competition under which Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein was essentially a circle of beta readers. I think a professional editor or editors working for a big publishing house , helping a writer to polish a novel is mostly a 20th century invention. And even at that, many recent writers, especially mid-list and genre writers, are on record as saying the involvement of professional publishing house editors was often minor, when present at all.
Question: So beta readers really are nothing new. Tell us more of what they do.
Answer: It varies a lot. Their first and main purpose is just to respond to the writer’s work honestly in terms of how it affected him or her as a reader. Was the story interesting and engaging? Did the characters seem like people you would want to know, people you could care about? Was the setting interesting? Were there problems in terms of story, of continuity, logical structure, suspension of disbelief?
Question: So the beta reader is basically a story editor?
Answer: Yes, but not at a highly advanced technical level. A beta reader gives feedback that the average person can relate to. She or he’s a careful reader, but generally not a professional. A good beta reader keeps the book grounded in the world of regular book readers and buyers. They probably won’t help you win a literary prize, but with luck they will help you win a readership.
Question: What about punctuation, spelling, word choice, stuff like that?
Answer: I wouldn’t expect a beta reader to go too deeply into matters like that, though if they catch those errors, that’s great. But that’s not necessary, because that’s a line editor or proof-reader’s job. But a writer appreciates having awkward or confusing passages pointed out to her, things that might get in the way of enjoyment of the story.
Question: What if you don’t agree with the input of the beta reader?
Answer: Well, a writer has to take a beta reader’s contributions very seriously, or there’s no point to it. The beta reader is giving you the gift of their time and their considered opinions, so you are very much obliged to think hard about their suggestions. Ultimately, the writer must make the final call, but she also has to give great weight to the reactions of a fresh, unbiased mind, and one whose ego is not bound up in the work. That’s something invaluable that only a beta reader, of one sort or another, can provide.
Question: Can you give some examples of where a beta reader’s input has helped you out?
Answer: Naturally, all input is helpful, whether it is a general “I really liked the story” or a more detailed suggestion. But, to give some detailed examples, there were a couple of places in both Kati 1 and Kati 2 where my beta reader pointed out that I was letting one character relate interesting and exciting events (both were fight or action scenes) as an after the fact story to another character, rather than having those events occur in the moment, as a “you are there” incident. So I changed those scenes, re-writing them accordingly and improving the story. I think the books are stronger as a result of that.
Here’s another example. An upcoming book of mine, a children’s adventure story (Nathan’s Adventures in the Other-Other Land), is currently being reviewed by an age appropriate beta reader. I really appreciate that, as nobody can provide as valuable advice for a children’s story as a young person can. She’s already told me that there are a couple of places where she thinks that the wording can be improved - how can you top that feedback?