Monday, January 20, 2014
Editor's Notes #5: The Importance of Beta Readers
Statler and Waldorf: two of the most popular Muppets ever, because they say the things we wish we could say.
W: That was wonderful!
W: I loved it!
S: That was great!
W: Well, it was pretty good.
S: Well, it wasn't bad.
W: There were parts that weren't pretty good, though.
S: It could've been a lot better.
W: I didn't really like it.
S: It was pretty terrible.
W: It was bad.
S: It was awful.
S & W: Terrible! Eh, boo!
As much as we might laugh at those two, I believe many authors are worried that having a beta reader might yield the same results. After all, beta readers are supposed to be brutally honest while they tell us everything that's wrong with our books, right? And we just know the focus is going to be on the "brutal" part. It's much easier on our hearts and more convenient overall to have our friends and family read our manuscripts. Nobody wants a stranger to tell them they stink.
Thankfully, good beta readers won't tell you that you stink. Allow me to adjust that a bit: good beta readers might tell you that you stink, but they'll do it in such a way that you want to take their suggestions and improve, rather than tell them not to let the door hit them on the way out.
Beta readers work much in the same way as substantive/content editors. A skilled beta reader will pay close attention to your plot and whether it held his attention. Is your voice consistent? How's the pacing? Did he force himself to keep reading?
I'm reminded of the people who are chosen for a movie's advance screening: they watch a completed movie and give feedback on its good points and bad points, what might have slowed down the action, whether the characters were likable, and whether the movie-watcher was willing to stay put with a full bladder because the story was too fascinating to leave the theater even for a moment.
Betas offer that same kind of feedback. And much like a movie screening, if enough people hit on the same problems/negatives, the author is forced to recognize that there may be an adjustment needed here and there. A good author will take the feedback, mull it over, and sift the objective truths from the opinions. A good beta will try to keep opinions out of the equation to the best of her ability.
The advantage of betas who don't charge a fee is obvious: it's free. One less thing on which to spend your money. The trick there is to find someone (or a handful of someones) you trust with your manuscript. I've heard authors complain that they've tried betas who didn't "get" their genre, or worse, who never gave an evaluation at all, basically using the "I'll beta for you" game to get free reads. I'm hoping this is not a frequent—or even regular—occurrence.
The advantage of betas who evaluate for a fee: you will get an evaluation, and in some cases you'll get input similar to that of a content editor for a fraction of the cost. They know what to focus on without having to be guided through, although they're open to any specific things the author wants them to look for. I occasionally beta for people, though it's a challenge sometimes to take off the editor hat and ignore specifics in favor of the overall package. The disadvantage of a paid beta is that you don't get the eval for free, but to my eye, that seems to be the only disadvantage.
Authors, don't be afraid to use betas, whether paid services or free of charge. It's their job to keep things professional and to be as objective as possible, whereas using only family or friends as your betas may get you many attaboys but not nearly enough of the type of critique you may need. Doing the tough thing now might save you from having to face the tough critics later.
S: That was the worst thing I've ever heard!
W: It was terrible!
W: Well, it wasn't that bad.
S: Oh, yeah?
W: Well, there were parts of it I liked.
S: Well, I liked a lot of it.
W: Yeah, it was GOOD, actually.
S: It was great!
W: It was wonderful!
S: Yeah, bravo!
[Statler and Waldorf skits taken from actual Muppet Show transcripts.]