WG2E Guest Lexi Ryan on “Five Rules for Choosing and Using Beta Readers”

Happy Weekend, WG2E-Land!

Here are some fabulous tips on Choosing and Using Beta Readers from one superfab smart chick, Author Lexi Ryan.

Take it away, Lexi…

I first told D.D. that I wanted to write on the value of a good beta reader, but every time I sat down to write that post, I got stumped. Why? Because I felt like everything I was saying was old news to the savvy WG2E audience. In case you were really hoping for that post, let me sum it up for you:

Beta readers are great and make writing stronger. Use some.

More helpful, I think, is some instruction on choosing and using betas, and that’s what I’ve included below.

1) A good beta is willing to read your entire piece. Choose someone who has the time and inclination to read your work as a whole, not just a chapter at a time spread out over months.

Critique groups can be great, but I think the phrase “critique group” shouldn’t be confused with “beta reader” (although I would argue that critique partners can also be beta readers, but more on that later). As fantastic as a good critique group can be, if you have a group of four people, chances are you simply can’t read everyone’s entire novel for each meeting.

My definition of a beta reader is someone who reads the entire work as a whole. Because of tight deadlines and personal commitments, it might not work out exactly this way every time, but the general idea is that a beta reader should take a macro view of your work, rather than a micro view.

For example, when I sent the first sixty pages of ACCIDENTAL SEX GODDESS to one of my critique partners, she thought the pacing of the opening was great. However, once she read that opening in the context of the book as a whole, she could tell it was too slow—the real call to adventure was too far removed from the opening pages. That’s something she wouldn’t have been able to effectively see if she had only read the piece in small chunks.

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2) Use more than one beta reader when possible, the more variety the better.

There’s some disagreement in the writing community about whether or not writers make effective betas. In fact, many will tell you that to be a “true” beta reader, the person must be only a reader, not a writer. Pish!

Here’s what I’ve found: Writers are no more skilled than readers at picking out plot issues or character inconsistencies, but they do have a vocabulary with which to communicate what they’ve found. This is why a combination of readers and writers is ideal. If you haven’t had this experience already, you’ll find that as you grow an audience, readers will contact you and offer to beta read just so they can get their hands on your stuff as soon as possible. It’s great!

As for using multiple betas, this allows you to see if a reader was an outlier in her dislike of your heroine’s purple hair or if there’s a consensus that it doesn’t fit her personality.

3) Avoid people who rewrite your sentences or try to change your writing style.

If you write humor and one reader is consistently trying to get you to tone it down…

If you write sexy and one reader is consistently trying to get you to fade to black…

If you write dark and gritty and one reader consistently tries to get you to lighten up…

There are many reasons a beta reader might not be a good fit, but the biggest reason is that they don’t dig your writing style. And that’s fine. Not everyone is going to love what you write. But betas should help you hone your voice and style, not change it.

4) Return the favor or consider opening your checkbook.

If you have asked fellow writers to beta read for you, be prepared to return the favor. If they don’t ask, make sure you offer. They probably know how busy you are, and it’s your responsibility to put the offer on the table.

Don’t have time to beta read for other authors? There are content editors you can pay for the service.

In addition to writing, I hold a full-time position as a college professor and I have two small children. Beyond my two closest writing friends, I rarely have the time to beta read for people. Therefore, I do a little of both. My two closest writing friends beta read for me, and I pay someone I trust to take another look.

Regardless of what you choose, the relationship should be a rewarding one and you should learn a lot.

5) Keep an open mind.

Sometimes we get stuck in our ideas and we shut down any critique. If someone has offered to read your work and give you feedback, you owe it to them (and yourself) to keep an open mind. At the end of the day, it’s up to you what you’ll change, but if you’re not going to seriously consider your beta reader’s suggestions, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

In my novella Just the Way You Are, the heroine’s father called her the “c-word.” Yeah, the really bad one. I wanted readers to see how selfish and ugly he was. I wanted them to see how screwed up my heroine’s life had been. It was my editor who said I should nix it.

I’ll be honest. My first instinct was to ignore his suggestion. What did he know about my characters? But I stepped away from it for a couple days and when I returned I read his explanation. The word, he explained, took the complexity out of his character—it turned him into a caricature and let me off the hook for making him into the three-dimensional antagonist I needed.

Although I set this up as the five “rules” for using beta readers, the truth is, there are no rules. You have to figure out a system that works for you and your readers and that makes your stories the best they can be. Everything else is just gravy. :-)

~~~Lexi

About Lexi:

Author of both contemporary and paranormal romance, Lexi Ryan writes smart, spunky stories that sizzle. She lives in Indiana, where she divides her time between her family, her writing, and her job as an English professor. Her latest release is ACCIDENTAL SEX GODDESS, a sexy friends-to-lovers romance made light years better thanks to the feedback from the world’s best betas.

Connect with Lexi here:

Website: http://lexiryan.com

Blog: lexiryan.blogspot.com

Facebook: facebook.com/lexiryan

Twitter: @writerlexiryan

E-mail: writerlexiryan@gmail.com

Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/qymaH

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Comments

  1. Glynis Smy says:

    I am lucky with my beta readers. They are honest. I am even luckier as Talli Roland is one of them! :D

    I read for four writers, and try to be honest, and as quick as I can be without skimming. I find transferring them to my Kindle helps get a feel for the flow, and errors really pop out at me.

    Interesting post, thanks.

    • Lexi Ryan says:

      Glynis,

      Thank you for stopping by today and for sharing that tip! I do much better reading on my Kindle too. When it’s on the computer or on paper, it’s too much like the many papers I grade, but on the Kindle, I read it like any other book. This is a great tip!

      Thanks!

  2. Lexi Ryan says:

    Good morning, everyone!

    D.D., thanks for inviting me today!

    Above me, Glynis shares a FANTASTIC tip on being a beta (transferring the work to Kindle). That is the other side of this equation, so please feel free to share your beta reading tips in the comments if you choose. :)

  3. My beta readers have been people I’ve met through the internet. They are not strangers to me, but we’ve never met in person. In the first article I ever read about beta readers, the author stressed that the beta reader should be a stranger, someone you do not know and who doesn’t know you. Obviously, you’d need an intermediary for that. But that’s where you get the best feedback. The author also stressed that the beta reader should not be another writer, but someone who just loves to read books. After all, that’s who you’re writing for, readers, not writers.

    • Lexi Ryan says:

      Hi, Richard! I’m so glad you found a system that works well for you. While I don’t think it’s necessary to find people you don’t know if the ones you do are capable of being honest, I can certainly see the benefit of that method. The method that works best for your books is the right one, IMHO.
      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Alison Pensy says:

    Thanks Lexi, this post couldn’t have been more timely. I feel like it was almost written for me :-) I have a group of 6 trusted betas. 5 women of different ages, some who read my genre and some who don’t. I also have a young man, but for various reasons he won’t be able to beta read my next book which should be ready for my betas in about a month. So, I was wondering who I would replace him with when one of my facebook fans, out of the blue, PM’d me and almost begged me to be a beta reader.

    My whole thing is a trust issue. I don’t know this guy, other than he is on my fb page and is an obvious fan of my work. My other betas are known to me and have been my betas for years, but in the back of my mind I always think about how Stephenie Meyer was betrayed by someone when that person posted her unfinished manuscript on the internet, potentially costing her millions in lost revenue, not to mention the whole emotional turmoil she must have suffered over the incident.

    Now, I’m not that famous by any stretch of the imagination, but my books do earn me quite a bit of money and they are fairly popular. So I’m in a real quandry about trusting someone I don’t know with my rough draft, while really needing someone new to read it. Do you have any suggestions? Or should I just not do it?

    Any input (from anyone here) gratefully received :-)
    Thanks

    • When in doubt…don’t. That way you won’t worry as much. There are dishonest people out there.

    • SK Holmesley says:

      You could do some research on him: look at his fb page, google him, find out more about him. If he seems okay but you turn him down, you might tell him that you already had chosen another reader, but thank him for the offer, and tell him you’re keeping his offer on file for a later time. But I would certainly research him. Of course, I am both a control freak and paranoid and those two attributes feed off each other. But still, you have a right to be concerned, while at the same time you don’t want to embarrass a real fan who is sincerely trying to help. If you mentioned on fb that you were missing a beta reader, that’s an invitation, so you should let him down gently. If he just volunteered out of the blue, google him.

      • Alison Pensy says:

        Thanks SK, good advice. Yes he did ask out of the blue. I hadn’t mentioned anything on fb other than the book was almost ready to be sent to my beta readers (I keep my readers up-to-date on its progress). It was then that he PM’d me and asked if he could be one. I am a bit of a believer in ‘laws of attraction’ and the fact that he should ask me just as I was thinking about who else I could consider to fill the spot, gave me goosebumps :-)

    • Lexi Ryan says:

      Alison,

      I’m sorry it took me so long to return to the computer today. We were out of town and I didn’t have as much time with internet access as I hoped. :)

      It looks like you already got a lot of great advice, and mine is this: If your gut tells you not to do it, don’t. If your gut is clueless, I’d still want an intermediary–someone you trust that can vouch for him. In the end, if the process is going to cause you worry and you have other readers, I’d simply pass. Do you have a fan you feel comfortable with that you could ask? Maybe offer to send him/her a free copy on publication?

      Good luck and thank you for raising such good questions!

  5. Angela Brown says:

    Great advice for picking and choosing a great beta reader. I can’t express enough how right you are about the difference in advice you can get when someone is able to sit down and read the whole manuscript as a whole versus one chunk at a time. Little things can get missed the other way, though critiquing in the spread-out-over-time format can be helpful.

  6. I have been a critique partner for several writers (now published authors), and I have been a beta reader, too. I have enjoyed both roles, but you are right: these responsibilities are huge time sucks. I have had a hard time balancing my own writing with these commitments. I now space these projects out at least six months, so I can get back to working on my own stuff. I have found writers to be great beta readers – but, yes, it’s a good idea to include “regular readers” too. People who haven’t necessarily read all those craft books. *smiles*

    I found you via Gene Lempp’s Writer’s Resources. Since this is where I am right now, I found this very helpful. Nice to meet you.

    • Lexi Ryan says:

      Renee,

      I’m so glad you found a balance that works for you! It’s hard because we often have many writer friends we’d love to help, but there’s only so much time in the day.

      I’m so glad you found us. Thanks for offering your input!

  7. Love my beta readers. I especially liked your point 5. In my first novel, I featured a character with Down Syndrome, who I wanted portrayed as loved and integral part of the story. One beta felt that I was depicting him animal-like because I described the way he waved as “raising his hand like a flipper.” At first, I was appalled that she interpreted it that way, but I let the comment sit for a while. When I came back to her remark, I realized that it could seem that way to some people. It was kind of like that ink blot where you see the witch or the beautiful girl. Therfore, I rewrote the passage.

  8. Great topic!

    Do you have any suggestions on how to find beta readers when you’re brand new to this?

    For my first book, I asked two members of my local Sisters in Crime chapter to be beta readers. One barely gave me any feedback, while the other one did a great job. I would have liked to have had at least two other beta readers before publishing, but wasn’t sure how to find them. I didn’t think friends and family were a good option and, like Alison, I’d be leery of picking up beta readers off the Internet.

    • SK Holmesley says:

      My daughter-in-law creates a questionnaire that she gives to her beta readers, all of whom are friends and family. They read the book, give their initial feedback, and then she sends the questionnaire. The questionnaire helps her readers focus on topics like “did you like or hate this character”, overall continuity of the story — does the ending make sense, based on the content and was it reasonable based on the beginning. I think that the questionnaire helps her beta readers feel more secure in commenting, since it makes the final process of information gathering more business like and less personal.

      • Alison Pensy says:

        That’s what I do with my betas. It really helps to guide them with their feedback and they give me great answers because they are thinking of the questions while reading the book. When I first started out, I was getting responses like “I really enjoyed it” or “it was great” which really doesn’t help too much. Now my questionnaire is very specific and my betas have become very thorough with their feedback. Helping me make my writing even better.

        • SK Holmesley says:

          My daughter-in-law has tried the questionnaire both before and after the beta readers have read the beta draft. She finally decided on after, because she felt that she was missing the reader’s initial uncensored gut reaction. I actually prefer it before, because I do tailor my attention to those threads that she obviously thinks are the most important and save myself the grief of inadvertently misreading my quest. :-) On the other hand, doing it the way she’s doing it now, she has graciously rewritten portions for her readers when we’ve all been enamored of a character she didn’t think was as important initially, but who caught our attention. Since she writes epic fantasy anyway, we all feel like someone who is a standout character to us, can get a few more scenes. Sometimes because she is, of course, focused on her main characters, we also ask for fill-in, when a sub character is obviously pivotal to a plot point, but we can’t figure out how that character got there. So, I think pre- or post- questionnaire each has advantages, but it makes me giggle when I get a draft and like a sub-character, and whine because of that character’s lack of on stage time, have her snap at me, and then get to the final draft and find that character with a more substantial role. Then I know her other beta readers liked the character too. :-) Power to the readers! :-)

      • Wow, what a great idea. I never thought about doing such a thing. I’ve included a list of things to look for, but a questionnaire makes even more sense.

    • Lexi Ryan says:

      Elise,

      I haven’t tried using questionnaire for friends and family, but I think it’s fantastic idea. Just keep the personalities of the people you could choose in mind. Some people want to diminish our accomplishments, and they’re not a good choice. Conversely, others just want to praise, and that’s not much help either. Someone who can see and articulate good and bad qualities of a movie, for example, who is analytical as well a lover of reading.

      Good luck and thanks to everyone for the great advice!

  9. Here is my question: how do you turn down someone who is offering to be a beta reader? I’ve had friends and family members who are great cheerleaders of my work 0ffer to be beta readers, but they’re not people who would necessarily be helpful. (It would be like giving your mom your kindergarten artwork for her to gush over, even though it’s not very good.) I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but sometimes I really need feedback that will improve the story, not just a pat on the head.

    • Alison Pensy says:

      I hear you :-) . 2 of my betas are very good friends that also read the genre I write. I stipulated in no uncertain terms that they have to be honest. That they would not hurt my feelings because I would rather hear from them if there were problems with the story, than I would get snarky reviews from the public for everyone to see. After I told them that and also giving them the questionnaire to fill out they have been awesome, giving me great feedback and telling me where there are problems etc.

    • SK Holmesley says:

      Before I comment on your question, I’m going to say that my mom (now deceased) was both my editor and my initial beta reader for years. I was extremely lucky in that she never gushed over anything I did, but was one of the strictest grammarians whom I have ever known, and an extremely critical reader. I always considered myself lucky that I had her and wish I still did. I’m just saying this because I see people all the time say don’t use relatives, but I think it’s silly to go to stranger if you have a family member whom everyone else comes to and who has the requisite skills.

      On turning away beta readers, just tell them that all your beta slots are filled, and that because the amount of time required to interface with each beta reader pulls you away from writing you aren’t in a position to take on anymore at this time. Thank them and graciously say you’ll remember though that they’ve offered and might take them up on it if you’re ever in pinch. Then never, ever mention in front of them that you need to find a beta reader when one of your current readers is unavailable — and don’t put it on your Facebook page either. :-)

    • Lexi Ryan says:

      Diana,

      I think it’s wonderful when people offer to beta read, whether I plan to use them or not. When the offer comes, I thank them and tell them I’ll keep them in mind. (After all, even if I don’t need them now, that may change some day.) We all know that even as indie authors, we have to stay on schedule, so sometimes there’s not enough time for additional betas, and that can give you a convenient “out.” This may be easier for me because I tend to hold my WIPs close to my chest until I think they’re ready to go (and often, by then, it’s time to get them to the copy editor!). Most who know me understand that my writing process (which is nuts) and my perfectionist personality work together to make it very difficult to share until you pry the book from my cold dead hands (at which point, my ghost is still howling, “it could be better!”).

      I agree with SK about not announcing the need for more betas. It can put you in an awkward situation.

      I didn’t mention genre, but I really enjoy having a beta reader who isn’t a big romance fan. The story really has to hold its own that way. That said, that choice might not work for everyone.

      Thanks for the great question and I hope we were all able to help a bit!