The Benefits of Beta Readers

After I read Dark Places  by Gillian Flynn, I  thought it was a good idea to see how a professionally published author approaches acknowledgements. I was impressed with Flynn’s ability to individualize the gratitude she extended, and this is a practice I try to emulate. I was also surprised that she thanked so many people. It’s easy to see a work of art, and fall into the trap that it was the product of one person, but nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to the many influences and experiences that go into that piece of art, there’s a host of individuals that assist in other ways. In the Flynn’s case, these people helped her with research, read her drafts multiple times, and offered her encouragement when she needed it most.

Having seen how much Flynn puts into her acknowledgements, I decided it was time I made a more conservative effort to find people to read my manuscripts. I reached out to people on twitter, Facebook, friends, and even co-workers. I did my best to stay within my target audience, but found that some of the most interesting advice came from those who are outside of that range. These outliers noticed discrepancies others overlooked, and called out unrealistic actions that fans of the genre accepted. Their input was and continues to be an invaluable part of helping my stories be more realistic and believable.

When I tell people that I’m a writer, the second question they ask is: “What do you write?” After I explain my genre of choice, if they appear interested, I also add my motivation for writing. At this point in the conversation, most are giving me the consolatory head nod, as if to say,  yeah, you and everybody else, buddy. There is the occasion when someone remarks how they’d love to read my work. I take note of this and when a draft is ready, I send it to the list of emails I’ve compiled. Out of the dozen of people I contact, about 1-out-of-3 will let me know they’ve read the manuscript by the deadline I’ve communicated (I do, after all, have self-imposed deadlines to keep). With this elite group of people I set up feedback sessions.

Feedback sessions are perhaps the greatest benefit beta readers provide, because it’s where they do the work for me. They don’t actually write the story, no that hard work, which also happens to be the best part of being an author, is all up to me. Instead, what my readers do  is tell me what’s working and what is not working. To ensure each session is successful, I bring a list of questions that address specific concerns I have about the manuscript: What did you think of this character, did you find it funny when this happened, how was the level of gore, was the character’s motivation believable? Most of the feedback I receive revolves around general like and dislike of characters and story. Asking the same direct questions to all of my readers allows me to obtain the information I want and need.

The last benefit I’ll highlight in this post is the encouragement given by my readers. There’s a meme that reads, If there’s a writer in your life, give them a hug. Trust me they need it. My wife shared this on my Facebook feed, so she knows my pangs. A writers life can be full of ups and downs, as attitude is often dictated by output and time allotted to the craft. So encouragement, in all forms, is an elixir that can keep our writing alive in the dreariest of moments, or surge us onward like a tidal wave of creativity. A readers excitement, even at this stage of my drafting process is infectious. When people love a product of my imagination, it’s a powerful tool of affirmation that is only surpassed when a stranger gives his or her hard earned cash to purchase that product. Of all the gadgets, knick-knacks, and e-books available for purchase online, they chose mine and yours. In a similar fashion, readers, though friends and family, don’t need to be kind, but they are. They took time to read our story, and then took more time to give feedback. They care about your product, and they care about your success, otherwise why would they contribute to enhancing your output? As as side note, every group of beta readers should include a couple of Krampus-like characters to round it out and balance the feedback; sugar coated feedback goes down easy, but it doesn’t help anyone. It’s honest, critical feedback that improves our work. TWEET THIS 

In closing, if you don’t already use Beta Readers to their full potential, I hope this blogpost encourages you to do so.  Writing a story has never been the act of a soloist, but a product of a team consisting of readers, editors, fans, experts, and a writer.

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