In Praise of Beta Readers

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writing: I’m sure he had beta readers, too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love reading the Acknowledgements page in the back of a novel. It gives me a sense of the amount of work that went into making the rest of the book feel so effortless. While I’m sure there exist some rare geniuses that can churn out brilliant writing unaided, for the vast majority of writers, it takes a community to bring out the potential in a story.

Beta readers are at the heart of it.

I love beta readers. I love them even more than I love slush readers. Beta readers, the brave souls, volunteer to read your writing when it’s still too embarrassing to show in public. They donate their time and effort to weeding out character inconsistencies and plot holes, grammar errors and formatting problems, usually asking for nothing more than a thank-you and perhaps a beta read in return.

They can be relatives, friends, acquaintances, or even just random people you’ve met on the internet. My loose confederation of beta readers includes all of the above, and each one of them brings unique gifts and perspectives to bear on my writing.

I admire beta readers because giving good criticism is hard, maybe even harder than receiving it. I used to be a bit sensitive to criticism when I first started writing, many years ago. It was compounded by the fact that my first novel was, like most first novels, objectively awful. There was a lot to criticize. And yet, the handful of brave souls who read the whole thing were exceptionally kind to me. Kinder than the novel deserved. And yet I was still afraid of criticism because I was afraid it would compound my worst fears: that I was a hack, and that I shouldn’t be a writer.

Justice League - The Search for Hawkgirl
Beta readers are my own personal heroes.

It all changed when I started beta reading for other people. I realized that for every comment I made, there were ten that I kept in reserve. It is no kindness to nitpick a novel to death, especially when it’s in an early draft and likely to change. Beta reading requires both  courage and humility: courage to point out problems that the author may have overlooked and needs to be aware of, and humility in understanding that it’s not your novel, and you don’t get to decide how it should be written.

Writing is hard work, but you need criticism to improve.

So I started taking constructive criticism in a spirit of joy. When done well, criticism is a rare gift, an opportunity to learn what could make your writing more powerful and beautiful.

But you have to embrace it. You have to let your guard down and tell yourself, “No matter what they tell me, it’s probably something I need to hear.”

I raise my glass to you, friends! (Photo credit: Sergey Melkonov)

So here’s to my beta readers! Without you, I’d still be using way too many italics, writing Mary Sues, merrily using all the adverbs, and forgetting to include small details like “setting” and “description”. Everything I write would be 20% longer while covering the same amount of plot. Most importantly, without you, I wouldn’t grow as a writer.

To Jason and my Dad, Jan and Wendy, Cyndyl and Caitlin, Joy, Lauren, Becky, Zig, and the many others who have helped over the years: thank you. Thank you for the gift of your time, honesty, encouragement, and wisdom. When I succeed, my small victories are yours as well. When you succeed, I celebrate your achievements. And if the day comes when I write my own Acknowledgements page, I’ll be proud to list your names in my own novel, right where they belong.

Writers, do you have beta readers in your life? What sorts of things have they brought to your attention that you’d never have noticed on your own?

4 thoughts on “In Praise of Beta Readers

  1. I was always afraid to let anyone read my writing because I thought it would interfere with my creative process. I was told, “Never let anyone read your work in progress.” Now I am so open, I have posted my first three chapters on goodreads for the public although I don’t know if anyone actually reads the novels posted there. I hope to direct a publisher there to have a gander. I have to say my favourite beta reader is Jason. They are all helpful in their own way–it is so nice to get pats on the back, and know that you have made someone laugh. But Jason is hardest on me–and sometimes I am afraid to read his feedback. But he is so thorough and so smart! I I feel that his criticism has spurred me to revisions that wrangle every last synapse in my brain, but after slogging through the rewrite, I can see how I would never have transformed that chapter without his input. My advice to writers? Develop a thick hide–the criticism is for your benefit. So here’s to betas!

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