Novice Writer: A new writer with little or no published work.
Beta Reader: A casual reader and responder to the works of the novice writer.
Novice writers are those who write with some consistency and have possibly been writing for years. They love writing and hope to one day be recognized for this passion, and maybe their true gift will emerge. The novice writer likely holds unbridled potential.
Yet, for one of a hundred different reasons, the novice writer has not crossed over into substantial publication.
I am here to encourage the novice writer to take one small step toward that limelight – just one safe step toward their calling with the use of a beta reader.
A beta reader will read your stuff and tell you what they think – and I mean what they really think.
Here is the thing. A beta reader is not actually your close friend, your family member, or your lover. Your beta reader is someone who is just a few degrees removed from your more personal circle, so they have nothing to lose by being perfectly honest about your writing.
A strong beta reader must be fairly well-read. This is someone who not only reads a great variety of literature, but has read enough to appreciate where you stand in relation to a lot of other books, stories, articles, and styles. I am not suggesting they are experts. Instead, they represent the masses, the average, run-of-the-mill reader. They do not need to be educated or experienced in your specific subject, nor hold a degree in literature. In fact, it might be better if they weren’t. They just need to read a lot and, therefore, be able to give you reasonable feedback.
Ideally, a beta reader could set aside their personal preferences for genre and style and really allow your writing to be what it is, then determine how they feel when they read it, where they want you to say more, where they want you to say less, and be able to express why. They can tell you which specific lines hold power, and which ones need attention. They read enough to appreciate good rhetoric, or poetic descriptions, a reliable narrator, or the nuanced choices of your characters. They will know when a plot has taken a foolish turn or a setting might be further researched. Some people trust themselves, and your beta reader will best serve you if they do.
I have a nice history with my first beta readers. I chose people I liked but didn’t really know. Also, I chose people who seemed really smart, a bit mature, and had clearly read a lot. My first beta readers were two women I had met in a writing class, plus one guy I met at a neighbor’s dinner party. All three of them were stellar conversationalists. None of them knew me well at all, and I could easily have avoided them after they read my stuff. I asked them to be my beta readers, and all three showed immense willingness.
Be clear with your beta reader about your needs. A beta reader is not your editor. I once had a friend presume to start fixing my sentences; the relationship quickly returned to its prior status – no longer was he my beta reader. They should not in any way fix things for you. They must be able to stay focused on the elements of the work beyond mechanics. They can certainly take notes on mechanics and offer them up – but the beta reader’s job is to give their natural response to the overall piece – not lead you down a road as the clean-up crew. Your role, upon reconvening, is not to overly defend yourself, but to quietly listen, repeat back and confirm what you heard.
Finally, be sure to thank your beta readers. They are, after all, doing you a huge favor. I had all my beta readers over for dinner once our individual transactions were complete. We didn’t even talk about the book then. We spent the evening getting to know each other better, with the focus on them for a change.