I recently posted on the difference between using a beta reader and hiring a professional editor to perform a manuscript critique (“Beta Readers vs. Manuscript Critiques”). There’s a time and a place for each, but today I want to focus more closely on beta readers and how you can get the most out of them.
In my experience, there are three different types of beta readers. While each type has a major weakness, they also each have a specific purpose. Use your beta readers properly, and you’ll be able to avoid those weaknesses. These three beta readers are the Friendly Support, the Word Nerd, and the Fellow Writer.
The Friendly Support
Weakness: The eagerness of the Friendly Support will make them likely to give you all positive feedback. They won’t necessarily give you reliable, constructive comments on needed areas of improvement.
Purpose: Beta readers in this category are great if you’re simply looking for reactions to your book. If you want to avoid their weakness, don’t ask them what they think overall, and don’t give them the first draft. Give them your manuscript once you feel it’s stronger. The best thing you can ask them to do is to let you know which parts of the story bored or confused them and which parts they really enjoyed. That way, you’ll get a little taste of what a reader might think of your book. Don’t be afraid to give your Friendly Support questions to answer—they’ll love the idea that they are actually helping you out (though maybe not as much as they insist they love your book).
The Word Nerd
Weakness: In their eagerness to make suggestions, the Word Nerd may get carried away. They might not recognize the line between helping you out and reshaping your story into their own, and they don’t necessarily have the sensitivity of another writer or family member.
Purpose: Beta readers in this category are great if you want someone to really tear apart your manuscript and catch the little details. If you want to avoid their weakness, ask them to start their report with a list of things they found as strengths—otherwise, you might get nothing but criticism. To get suggestions without fear of a rewritten story, give them a list of specific things to look for as they read. They’ll be able to focus their analytic skills in a practical way. It might be wise to also save this type of help for at least your second draft; it would be a waste of time for the Word Nerd to focus on the little details of a story you’ll be changing later. Once you have a more stable version of the story, though, let them comment away! Just make sure you have tough skin when you get their feedback.
The Fellow Writer
Weakness: The Fellow Writer has a tendency to read as a writer, not as a reader, so their suggestions may be based on their own idea of great writing, not on an objective view of your manuscript as its own story.
Purpose: Beta readers in this category are great if you want someone who understands the writing process and can give an insider’s commentary on ways you can improve your story and style. To avoid their weakness, give them a brief synopsis of the story and ask them if it’s doing its best in specific elements. Pick a writer who is also a reader—the more they understand books, the more they’ll try to make yours a good book (rather than their book). This is the type of beta reader that you would most likely turn to with an early draft, since they understand the process of change that manuscripts go through and can give more developmental help. Fair is fair—ask your Fellow Writer if you can also help them out with their project. They’ll be happier about working with you if you’re exchanging constructive feedback as critique partners.
Which do you use?
All three of these beta readers have something unique and helpful to offer you in your writing process. Did you pick up on the common theme of how to work with each? Whichever type of beta reader you work with, it’s important to recognize the strengths and weaknesses they bring to a reading of your manuscript. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and give the reader specific questions or prompts to help them give the most helpful feedback possible as they read your story.
Do you typically work with the Friendly Support, the Word Nerd, or the Fellow Writer? Would you add any others to the list? I would love to hear about your methods for getting lots of constructive help from your beta readers—leave me a comment below!