Eventually we finish an improved, edited version of the first draft of our novels. We’ve run every chapter past our critique groups. We’ve read and applied editing tips. We’ve sweated over and changed our openings a dozen (or more) times. We’ve spell checked, grammar checked and read it over and over until we know it by heart. But is it really done? Now what?
Beta readers, that’s what.
I don’t know why we call them beta readers. Beta is the name of the second letter in the Greek alphabet. It’s the second of a group or series and the second brightest star in the night sky. So beta is second. Wouldn’t it be alpha readers? Alpha, the name of the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the beginning of everything, seems like it would be more apropos. I suppose, though, that we, the writers, could be considered the first readers.
Now we need second readers, but the first to read what we hope is the finished manuscript. Or close to finished. You would think family and friends would be lining up. Not so much. And really, are those the folks we want to read this first finished draft? An instructor in a writing class I took early on told us that when you have a very early draft, it’s good to give it to someone who is not going to be too critical and will probably tell you how wonderful you are. That’s when we want those loved ones to read it. It encourages up to soldier on with the project. eventually, though, we’re going to need people who can give us constructive criticism so that our manuscripts can get better. Mom or Sister may love our words, but they are not agents or publishers.
The beta reader thing is tricky.
The beta read is not an editor. He may find and mark mistakes and this is good but mainly you want your reader to answer questions. Did the beginning grab you? Did it bog down anywhere? Did the characters, the dialogue seem real? Was any of it confusing?
One downside of beta readers is that they can take their own sweet time getting around to reading our manuscripts. This waiting, on our part, can be agonizing. Did our first pages bore? Is the manuscript so bad that they’re afraid to tell us? We swallow our pride and call, only to find out that they haven’t even picked it up yet.
My friend Jack is the perfect beta reader. He sits down immediately and reads through the entire thing. Jack is smart, well read, and a writer himself. This is the reader we want. His critique is valuable. These people are harder to find than you might imagine. But keep looking because getting that informed overview of you story is not just helpful but necessary.
Stephen King says, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” But I wonder if the scariest moment isn’t the one just before you hand over your manuscript to someone to read. And judge.