Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)
Confession: I love my beta readers.
It’s safe to say that the history of writing has not always made use of the modern beta reader. If you happened to watch the movie Genius, which highlights the relationship between editor Max Perkins and writer Thomas Wolfe, you saw a glimpse of the more traditional form. A writer writes. An editor edits. As they craft the story together, it almost seems like there isn’t room for any other voices. There’s such chemistry and magic there, why risk breaking the spell?
I want to talk about seeking out beta readers—and also seeking out a specific category within that readership known as sensitivity readers. First, a few reasons why I think you might seek out extra readership, and then a few tips for making more use of the information you’re given.
So why seek out beta readers?
1. Personal/Lived Expertise
George Martin’s old quote about living a thousand lives through literature is certainly romantic, but in reality, we’re living out a particular, definable existence. I’m a straight, white male from the American middle class. And that’s really just the broadest strokes of my lived identity. At a glance, we can see that I have no direct experience with what it is like to be gay, a person of color, female, or a part of the upper class in Argentina. So what do I do? The answer isn’t that we should just write characters who exist solely in categories we’re familiar with. How do we branch out from that? Sensitivity readers are a great start! The Writing in the Margins website describes a sensitivity reader as someone who “reads through a manuscript for issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page… reviews a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language.” For example, I wrote a story recently that featured Latinx characters. In an effort to write that background in a more authentic way, I reached out to people I knew and asked them to read with that specific critique in mind. It’s a great first step, though not a guarantee, to writing characters outside of your experience in a way that’s respectful.
2. Technical Expertise
I’m not a scientist. I got a C in high school Chemistry. That’s an issue when your debut novel is… a science-fiction book. As you might expect, several beta readers I recruited were proficient scientists. I asked them to take their expertise into account and challenge my book’s operating principles.
3. Target Market
I can’t imagine someone writing a book for teenagers and never having a teenager read it, but I’m sure that happens all the time. Find a way to engage with the crowd you’re specifically writing the book for, otherwise when it finally reaches them, you might realize it’s not connecting at far too late a stage in the process.
4. Spectrum of Readership
I try really hard to get the intense-never-stops-reading-ever crowd and the last-book-I-read-was-in-5th-grade crowd. I’m especially interested in the reactions of both groups. Are there nuggets in the text that only the most attentive readers will catch? Is there enough in my book to keep the interest of someone who would rather watch Netflix? I want to gauge how rewarding the book is from both ends.
5. The Pre-Editor
This often comes in the form of my writing group, but it really translates to intellectual, proficient readers who can analyze multiple levels of a story. These are the beta readers who will tell you a chapter is broken. They’ll point out this character disappeared in the last third of the novel, and this sentence doesn’t make sense, and did you know you have “Chapter 13” in here twice? These readers are great for mending aspects of your story that might turn off an agent or editor.
6. Specific Challenge
You know that one friend who’s always figuring out the end of the movie before you get there? Or the person who’s got an eye for romantic writing? It doesn’t hurt to pull them into your process. Can they figure out what the plot twist will be? Did they see that relationship coming? Sometimes I’ll even do excerpt reading, pulling specific passages I want a specific reader to help me with.
That’s a lot. Trust me, I know. I had somewhere in the range of 35-40 beta readers involved at various stages with my debut novel, Nyxia. I asked those readers to be involved for all of the purposes listed above. But let’s say you do find the right readers. What then?
Here are just a few quick tips for how you can use the advice you’re given:
- Look for harmonies. If one reader points out an issue, consider the change. If two readers point it out? That passage or sentence deserves real examination.
- Trust your sensitivity readers. Your “gut feeling” of how something should be written doesn’t compare to someone’s representation, identity, and lived experience.
- Stay organized. One great tool I’ve recently found is BetaBooks. The site will be more widely available soon.
- It’s okay to reject bad opinions.
- If a beta reader goes beyond critique and genuinely makes you feel horrible about your writing, drop them.
- If a beta reader is respectfully pointing out heartbreaking truths you’re in denial about with your story: be sad, but keep them forever. Editors won’t miss that stuff either.
- Try to ask specific questions. These are the questions I tend to ask:
- What points felt slow for you?
- What were your favorite parts of the book?
- Did you ever get confused? About what?
- Would you recommend this book to someone else? Why or why not?
- Don’t leave stones unturned. If you can, ask questions, dig deeper, write a better story.
I hope this helps. I love my beta readers. Maybe you will, too!
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Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.
Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.
But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.